ZaKavia Reed is a financial analyst for Asphalt Materials, which operates sixteen asphalt manufacturing plants in the Midwest. She recently enrolled in Butler University’s online Master of Science in Data Analytics (MSDA) program to expand her data skills beyond the financial realm and prepare for a career as a data analyst. At Butler, she is learning to work with new types of data while also enhancing her existing skills. Financial analytics, she’s quick to point out, falls under the umbrella of data analytics.
As an undergraduate finance major, Reed gained some programming experience–specifically, programming for data analysis. However, she was uncertain about how she’d fare in a graduate data analytics program that emphasized technical skills such as Python, R, and SQL. Despite her fears, Reed has excelled in the program’s more technical courses with the support of Butler faculty.
We spoke with Reed about her decision to earn a graduate data analytics degree at Butler, her experiences working closely with faculty and fellow students, and how Asphalt Materials has supported her ambitions.
What interests you about a data analysis career?
I like all data and don’t want to be limited to just financials. Honestly, I don’t like all the day-to-day financial analysis work. It gets repetitive, and data analytics has a lot more to offer–probably because it’s so broad and draws on so many other areas you can experiment with.
My company has a data analytics team that handles projects for many other companies. I’m doing a project with them right now, working with some of these other companies and their different types of data. I love the experience of solving all kinds of problems and helping others with their data needs. The work never gets repetitive because it’s never the same type of data. You’re always helping someone improve something and make decisions.
What led you to choose Butler’s MSDA program?
I was looking into several programs, and Butler was one of the more affordable. But on top of that, they had a virtual classroom. A lot of the other programs were more do-it-yourself. They didn’t have instructor-led courses, and that steered me away from them. I didn’t want to have to teach myself something as rigorous and intense as data analytics.
Did you have any experience with online learning before this program?
During my undergraduate studies, we did some distance learning. At the time, I felt that wasn’t the way I wanted to learn. But when I talked to the academic advisor at Butler, I realized they were adamant about their professors giving you the help you needed and being there for you every step of the way. That really cemented my decision to apply.
What was it like entering the program as someone without much coding experience?
I psyched myself out just a little bit. I thought it would be extremely hard, and I was not going to get the logic. I struggled when I first started in the MSDA program, but I succeeded in the end, and I’m applying those programming skills at work now. If you’re nervous about the programming, it’s not as bad as you think. You need to be open-minded and willing to learn the logic. I hated Python the first time I learned it, but now I actually enjoy it.
Tell me about your experience with online courses at Butler.
I love it. I didn’t think that I would, honestly. But it has been awesome. The first two coding classes in Python and R were a struggle initially. I just wasn’t grasping the logic behind it. But the professor was really helpful. He was willing to meet with me so many times during the week, schedule help for us as a group, host additional teaching sessions, and post additional videos. It’s been really great.
There was a time I was struggling with an assignment, and it was due the next day. My code wasn’t running, and I didn’t know why I was getting this error. I scheduled time with my professor, and he helped walk me through the logic. It turns out I was on the right track, but there was just something I was missing. He helped me grasp the topic in that assignment and many others.
What was it like working with your student support coach?
She was very supportive at the beginning of the program and still is. She shares a lot of workshops for things like time management and stress management. She also lets you know your next classes for the upcoming semester. At the beginning of the program, she hosts sessions where you meet and greet your upcoming professors and fellow students. I thought that was very helpful, and I made some friends in one of those sessions. I met one person from Ohio–I live in Indiana–and even though she doesn’t live close, we still chat about the assignments we’re doing. We’ve met and hung out in person.
What are your MSDA classmates like?
There’s so much professional diversity in our cohort. I don’t think there’s anyone with a similar background to mine. My friend from Ohio is a teacher who’s studying data analytics, and we have people who work in government, police officers, bankers, and corporate executives.
How many hours a week do you spend on coursework?
It depends on the course. In the initial programming classes on Python and R, I was probably spending 20 hours a week. It was like a part-time job trying to get the coursework done. Now I probably spend six to seven hours a week doing homework, so it’s not as bad. It also depends on how intense the week is and how many assignments your professor gives.
Do you have time management tips for others working while in graduate school?
I’m big on making a schedule. To do that, I set my priorities. I know that I have to go to work at a certain time. And then how do I want to manage my day outside that? I typically get some homework in during the week. After work on Friday, I try to hang out with friends, and then I do some coursework on Saturday mornings and afternoons. I dedicate the rest of my Sunday to church, finishing coursework, and playing volleyball to have some personal time.
You must have boundaries. For anybody who wants to join the program, make sure you have those set timeframes and boundaries so that you don’t lose yourself in all of the busyness.
What’s it like working full-time while earning your degree?
It can be overwhelming sometimes. It all depends on how intense the classes are and how intense the work is. I can’t say, “I can’t work right now.” Work comes first, so it’s really about setting priorities. It can be overwhelming, but it’s all about how you manage your time. I think I do a pretty good job of managing mine.
Has your employer offered support during your time in the program?
My organization does tuition reimbursement, so that is a big way that they support me. They let me come in early so I can leave earlier for class. My role here is also expanding. I get to use the things that I’m learning in class every day. I went to my boss and said, “Hey, I’m learning this stuff in school. I think it’ll be useful here.” He let me apply my knowledge and work on projects for the company using my data analysis skills. I’m building models and automating some processes, and the company is very supportive of that.
Are there any specific work projects where you’ve applied your new skills?
As an asphalt company, we have a lot of government customers, so we bid on contracts to get work. There’s not a lot of information on our market, so I did a bid analysis for our competitors. I created my recommendations for what we can do better to improve the bidding process. I used R and all the statistical tools from the program for that and then handed it off to our sales team.
I also built a piece of software to help our logistics team. We have multiple plants making the same product and wanted to know which plant to ship from based on the cost of making the product there and getting it to the customer. That involves a lot of factors, such as how much the trucking company charges to deliver. In the past, someone would pull all these different reports from our systems to calculate the cost. I used Python and SQL and linked that to our live database to completely automate the process and find the best route for shipping products.
What are your plans after graduation?
I love the company I work for, so I want to stay where I am. After graduation, I’d like to expand my role here and move into a data analyst position–essentially transitioning away from my everyday financial duties into a more general role, where I’m looking at things as a whole. What I’m learning at Butler is helping me expand my toolset. I’m so used to working with Excel, and I didn’t really have the knowledge to use R, SQL, or Python. I’m learning those skills through this program, and I’ve started using those in my everyday work life.
What advice would you give other finance professionals considering a Master of Science in Data Analytics?
Take the risk and do it. You have the knowledge already because you know how business works and how to optimize companies’ profits–that’s a big part of data analytics. If you understand financial data, you’ll understand data on a larger scale. So, take the risk. It’s worth it. You’ll love the great community here.