Published: Aug. 2, 2022
Professor honored with teaching award for enthusiasm, engagement and his Advanced Analytics course.
About a decade ago, when Dan Zhang was first approached to create a business analytics course, conventional wisdom dictated that it should be built around Excel modeling.
But Zhang ultimately went in a different direction, instead focusing on teaching the R programming language.
“Programming was not something that was taught in a business school 10 years ago,” said Zhang, a professor and interim chair of the Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Operations Division at Leeds. “Today, of course, that’s a requirement of any program in this area.”
At commencement, Zhang was honored by the Leeds MBA Class of 2022 with a teaching award for the Advanced Data Analytics course—a testament not just to his teaching ability, but the work he’s done to keep the course current. R has gone from edgy to a staple in the data science world; over time, Leeds has added Python, SQL and other data technologies to master’s programs like its degree in business analytics.
“I’m very fortunate that so many of my students enjoy the course, and say it’s valuable for their growth and career,” Zhang said of his Advanced Data Analytics class. “That’s so rewarding to me as a teacher.”
Christina Uhlir (MSBA’21) said Zhang was among “the most-loved professors of anyone in the program.”
“He would make sure everything he taught was directly applicable to real-life situations,” said Uhlir, an analyst with Arrow Electronics who also earned a degree in neuroscience from CU Boulder in 2013. “Most of the cases he presented, because he worked as a consultant so long, were just right there.”
She also called him a great mentor who was “good at fomenting interest in alternative careers. He helped a couple of my peers get started in more niche industries that can be harder to break into.”
In the course, Zhang teaches practical programming skills that have immediate applicability at work. He includes both case studies and his own technical consulting work to ensure that “whatever technology I introduce, there is a real-world emphasis that supports the business case for these skills. That focus on business value is what sets the course apart.”
While technical courses like this one often are at the core of specialized master’s programs, they don’t always show up in an MBA curriculum. At Leeds, though, lessons in analytics and data’s ability to drive better decision making are a central part of an education. The newest academic building at the University of Colorado Boulder—the Rustandy Building—physically joins the business and engineering disciplines, a powerful symbol of the joint research and academic programs Leeds and the College of Engineering & Applied Science.
“It’s important that we remove the sense of intimidation students can feel about technology,” Zhang said. “We have students in the business analytics master’s program with degrees in history, or music, or Russian—zero background in coding—and I would tell them that’s the value of these programs. They’re for people who want to change their careers, and we’ll work with you, starting slow and teaching you in a way that’s accessible, regardless of your technical acumen.”
His own curiosity about technology, unsurprisingly, drives his work.
“I’m very passionate about programming,” he said. “I code a lot in my research, consulting and teaching, but I want students to keep perspective of what we’re really doing. Being able to work with technical tools is great, but it’s more valuable to know how and when to apply them to real problems.”
That’s a theme of Zhang’s research interests, which he simply described as “always evolving”; data-driven decision making is a key focus, and insights in this and related areas have appeared in top research journals, including Management Science and Operations Research. His insights in areas like dynamic programming and revenue management and pricing help him keep the analytics course fresh amid so much change.
“There’s always something new that comes up every year,” he said. “Frankly, if you do not do updates, you can’t keep up to date with industry. It’s a necessity.”
For Uhlir, who completed her master’s during the pandemic, there was more to appreciate about the course than just how up to date it was.
“Making those connections, when it’s virtual, can be hard, but he made it not hard,” Uhlir said. “Every class, he would show up, turn on his camera and just ask how we were doing. He had the same enthusiasm for us that he did about his subject matter, and that just blew me away.”