Episode 46: Raja Kali
Raja Kali is the Chair and Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Arkansas. Dr. Kali is skilled in Economics, and has played a key role in developing the Walton College's new Masters of Science in Economic Analytics program.
About the Master of Science in Economic Analytics Program
This new program is an intensive 10-month program that will guide students through economic modeling and theory to computational practice and cutting-edge tools, providing a thorough training in descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics. Learn More
00:06 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to be Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education in your life today.
00:26 Matt Waller: I have with me today Professor Raja Kali, Chair of the Department of Economics here in the Walton College, and he's also a Professor in Economics. He got his PhD in Economics from the University of Maryland, and he joined the Walton College a little over 10 years ago, and he has held a number of different positions, he's been Faculty Director for the MBA programs, and he holds the Conoco Phillips Chair in International Economics and Business. So thank you so much for joining me today, Raja, I really appreciate it.
01:07 Raja Kali: Thank you for having me.
01:08 Matt Waller: Raja, I'm really excited about this new Master's Program in Economic Analytics, but your department has really grown in size and in strength and in quality over the past few years, and you all have developed some real strengths and development economics, as well as behavioral and experimental economics, but the Masters of Science in Economic Analytics really seems like a great opportunity for your department because of the fact that so many companies now really want... They don't want just data scientists, they want people who are... Have data skills, but have the logic to be able to explain what's going on and to understand when they're seeing false correlations and things like that. Why is economics good at that sort of a thing?
02:04 Raja Kali: So I think training in economics is uniquely to well-suited to these kinds of problems that you mentioned. One of the things we've heard from many of our corporate partners is that the way we're seeing an explosion of data in virtually almost every industry and almost every field, data is no longer constraint to answering questions, but what is the constraint is the ability to analyze, visualize, see patterns in the data and interpret data, and to also be able to tell stories that can drive decision-making in the corporate world as well as in public policy and business, and essentially the Master of Science in Economic Analytics Program combines the best of both worlds, I think. It's not enough just to be able to wrangle the data or see patterns in the data, but it's also really important to be able to interpret what you see and use that knowledge for prediction and analysis. And what economists are particularly good at is understanding the how and why of how things work in the world. Why are markets operating a certain way? Why is competition tilted one way or another? What are are the problems in, say, the lack of information between two sides of the market?
03:36 Raja Kali: And the Master of Science in Economic Analytics, we think is a unique program because it's going to combine rigorous economic modeling with training in the latest computational methods, including programs such as R and Python, as well as the latest techniques, in a sense lassoing big data and machine learning. What really differentiates the Master of Science in Economic Analytics and economists in general, is the ability to be comfortable managing, harnessing, very large data sets, but particularly interpreting the economic and business factors which are driving the patterns in the data, asking the right questions, figuring out when the questions aren't being asked in the right way. And what we've heard is that this is really what companies need.
04:34 Raja Kali: A company like Amazon has really ramped up their hiring of graduate-level economists. It started as an experimented at Amazon. They hired an economist from Berkeley, Patrick Bajari, as their first chief economist, and he said, "I'm going to create an economics team." So it started out as an experiment. And then what they discovered is that these economic data scientists are so useful, and they deliver so much value, that they decided to diffuse these kinds of people throughout the organization. They started, once they kind of realized the value added of the people with these kinds of training, they've really ramped up their hiring of graduate-level economists. The last couple of years they've been hiring 50 graduate-level economists a year. And now we understand they're going to be plan... They're planning to hire 100 to 150 graduate economists a year.
05:36 Matt Waller: And that's just one company.
05:37 Raja Kali: This is just one company.
05:38 Matt Waller: And there's very few out there.
05:40 Raja Kali: That's right, that's right. And so there is, I think, a very clear niche for people with this kind of training, and that's what we're trying to do.
05:51 Matt Waller: So this is a... Roughly a one-year program.
05:56 Raja Kali: Yes. It is one fact. It starts in the end of August, and it ends mid-May essentially, 10 months.
06:02 Matt Waller: And it's a face-to-face, it's not online.
06:05 Raja Kali: Yes, at the moment, it is face-to-face. We envisage perhaps in a number of years, we might offer a hybrid version, but at the moment it is a full-time program.
06:15 Matt Waller: And I can see why that would be important. These... Some of these concepts are so equivocal that human interaction in person, in real time, you can communicate so much more data than you can through a video or through a... An email message or something.
06:33 Raja Kali: That's correct. And what distinguishes our program is also that it's to some extent a rigorous intense program, and we think it will deliver very strong training to people who go through it. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average salary for graduate-level economist is about 104,000, and so it will be worthwhile for people who go through the program.
07:00 Matt Waller: What if the student doesn't have a degree in economics?
07:04 Raja Kali: So basically what we are looking for are people with good technical skills, a good technical background, comfort with mathematical and statistical approaches to solving problems. You do not necessarily have to have an economics background. We think this would be a really good program for people from engineering, from math, from physics, as well as other disciplines, and even for people who work in the corporate sector who have good technical skills and think they would like to upgrade their skills, learn some of the latest big data econometric techniques like I described to you earlier, as well as how to visualize the data.
07:53 Matt Waller: Could you tell me a little bit about the capstone course in Economic Analytics?
07:58 Raja Kali: Right. The goal of the capstone course, it's a project-based course, and the idea behind that course is to really bring everything that people will have learned in the program, economic modeling, causal inference techniques, their programming skills, data visualization skills, all of that together and try to analyze real world problems using real world data sets, and try to deliver meaningful analysis. So that course will also have a final project presentation that groups of students will have to make, and we will have folks from industry come to evaluate the project presentations, and these presentations will in a sense, be the capstone requirement to complete the degree also.
09:00 Matt Waller: I wish they would have had something like this when I was younger. [chuckle] Now I know that you're also going to include Python and R, and I hear... I don't know how to use either one of them, but I hear about it all the time. People who scrape the web for data seem to use Python a lot. R seems to be like a phenomenal statistical tool to use. Would you mind commenting on that?
09:30 Raja Kali: Yes, so both of these are really becoming widely used tools, not just in academia, but also in industry. And this is kind of really interesting, because I think the problems that industry faces with the huge amounts of data that we are creating in the world, as you know everything we do is potentially now transformed into data, and so the problems of industry and academia, or the interests from academia in trying to, in a sense, tease out or understand the sort of underlying business forces driving the data and so on, are converging, I think. And in this regard, I think the growth in the use of tools like R and Python is really, I think, very interesting because these are tools that academics, economists, as well as computer scientists, people in math and physics are using, but industry is also finding that these are also the tools that they need because of the explosion of data. It's kind of like a data torrent for them. And I think the constraint from the industry point of view, is to find people who can help, who can sort of analyze these things.
10:58 Raja Kali: So both of these are... R is of course a statistical software that is widely used in academia, but it's in a sense open source software, so anyone can use it, and it's one of those software tools where people who figure out new ways to solve problems or new problems that they could apply R to upload code to the R program repository, and it becomes part of the sort of common knowledge that is available there. And industry has similar problems with the data, and so they can just take routines or sub-routines or sub-packages from R and use them. Python is also a very versatile software that is useful for not just for scraping data from the web, but also for integrating all kinds of different software packages together. So Python is particularly helpful for that. If you're really good at Python, you never need to leave Python, because you can just call software packages from other sources like R and so on, and use them inside of the Python environment.
12:14 Matt Waller: I know that students who are successful in the program are eligible for the Enterprise Systems Business Analytics Concentration Graduate Certificate in addition to the Masters of Science degree. Would you mind telling me a little bit about that?
12:32 Raja Kali: Yes. There are two intentional aspects of the program, one of which is the integration of several courses from information systems. So, students in the program will take three courses from information systems, and these three courses plus one of the econometrics courses, the Introduction to Econometrics course, will fulfill the requirements for the Graduate Certificate in Enterprise Systems. So, students who complete our program will not only get the MS in Economic Analytics, but they will also get this certificate in Data Analytics from the Information Systems Department.
13:14 Matt Waller: And I noticed, of course, your department is a university partner with the certified business economists. Is that... Or, certified business economist?
13:29 Raja Kali: It's actually a partnership with the National Association of Business Economists, which is the largest organization of economists who work in industry and the corporate sector, the chief economists of several Fortune 500 companies like Intel, Amazon, JP Morgan, as well as many other companies in retail, as well as economists in government, like the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and so on, are members of the NABE, the National Association of Business Economists. They offer a certified business economist certification or qualification, and by us becoming partners with the NABE, our students will be able to take the certified business economist exam on campus. And basically, the partnership, what it means is that the NABE has looked at our curriculum and they are basically attesting that the curriculum will prepare people to successfully take the CB exam. And so, in a sense, students successfully acquiring the certified business economist qualification will be attesting to their qualifications, but also, in a sense, committing to stay current on the latest economic advances and economic methods.
15:06 Raja Kali: Because once you become a certified business economist, I think every three or five years you have to show that you are engaging in sufficient professional development that you can still continue to be certified. So, we think that will be a valuable signal to the job market.
15:27 Matt Waller: But this is really amazing. Essentially, within a 10-month time frame, you could get a Masters of Science and Economic Analytics, a graduate certificate in Business Analytics within enterprise systems, and you could potentially get, if you pass the exam, a certified business economist certification.
15:49 Raja Kali: That is exactly right.
15:51 Matt Waller: We've got a number of new programs like this coming on board, but you were the fastest to get it done, and it sounds like your department's really excited about it.
16:02 Raja Kali: Yes. We've been talking about something like this in the department for some years, and I think it's something to do with just the right timing. And it was very easy for our department to agree that this is something we should do. We have the capability to do it, and we think this is the time when there is value to such a qualification.
16:31 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching "beepicpodcast", one word. That's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.