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University of Montana students Brandon Staggs and David Brewer spent a week in Las Vegas, where they, err, did a lot of homework.

True story.

They didn't party or swim.

"We didn't even have a hot tub," said Brewer, who grew up in Missoula.

They heard from analysts who help casinos make money, but they didn't appear to learn much that would help at the blackjack table.

"If you ask them what game they like to play when they gamble, they say, 'I'm risk averse,'" Staggs said.

Staggs and Brewer graduate in May as part of the first Master's of Science in Business Analytics cohort at UM, and they're also part of the first UM team to attend the INFORMS Business Analytics conference in Vegas.

Earlier this month at the conference, they interviewed with companies such as Amazon, GM Financial, Deloitte, and MGM Grand. (No offers or second interviews from the trip yet, but a lot of job leads.) And they also saw that students coming out of UM's business analytics program have a unique perspective to offer.

Choosing a school involves tradeoffs, and Staggs, whose undergraduate degree is in psychology, is pleased that he selected a program that provides more than technical training.

"I thought, how ironic, these kids from these other schools are so technically advanced," Staggs said.

Yet he said some didn't even know how to format a resume so it gets noticed.

The business analytics community is full of professionals skilled in quantitative approaches: the mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists, Brewer said.

"But the analytics community is realizing that they also need these other types of people," Brewer said. "We can communicate. We can help run the teams, (tell) the storytelling piece, rather than just present the data."

In fact, a representative from Deloitte noticed the distinction and remarked on it, Staggs said.

"So many people here are very technically proficient, but he said, 'You do a very good job of taking something very advanced and simplifying it, boiling it down,'" Staggs said.

***

Brewer grew up in Missoula and has a background in real estate, and Staggs is from Nashville and did his undergrad degree at UM.

The students worked together on several projects, and they found the conference because Professor Jakki Mohr gave them an assignment on professional development. The pair immediately wanted to know how they could branch out.

"How can we network? How can we see what else is out there?" Staggs said.

They found the conference in Vegas, and while they did so too late to make their own presentations, they did so in time to participate.

They heard a Netflix representative talk about how it's using data, listened to a workshop based on "Moneyball," a movie that showed how data revolutionized the way baseball players are selected, and even about how data analysis isn't really new at all.

"It turns out that a lot of the stuff that we're learning, the things you call analytics these days, which is still a fairly ambiguous term, industries like the airlines have been doing for a long time," Staggs said.

The School of Business Administration supported their attendance at the conference, and the students successfully campaigned for funds from Payne West Insurance, ATG Consulting, and Corporate Technology Group.

"We raised the balance to rent our house and cover the Ubers," Brewer said.

Plus, they paved the way for next year's class to not only attend, but to possibly present at a conference Brewer described as drawing the most members of the data science community of any convention.

***

The students and soon-to-be professionals don't write a thesis as part of their degrees, but they do work on real-world problems.

Staggs and Brewer are in the midst of competing for as much as $400,000 for a project that aims to best predict the 911 calls in Portland, Oregon, this spring. What types of calls will come in? What are the hot spots?

The pair worked with mathematicians and computer scientists and completed it in a month.

"It was a really fun project," Brewer said.

"More than anything, we saw the value of doing group projects," Staggs said.

They've also worked on analyzing voter data. Other students have evaluated "geographic hot spots" of airplane bird strikes, costly for the airline industry; the relationship between air quality and health; and the spending habits of millennials.

In an email, Mohr said a couple of the 13 students in the first cohort already have jobs, and others have interviews.

She said the students are proficient data analysts, using tools such as Python and R, pulling data from Twitter to analyze social sentiments, working with "large data sets to find meaningful insights," and mastering communication strategies "including compelling storytelling and visualizations."

"I've watched them develop their own professional networks, recognizing that they are now among the growing group of people trained to harness the power of big data," Mohr said in an email about showcasing the cohort's achievements.

***

Staggs and Brewer have a few more weeks and plenty more studying to go before they're done, but they're enthusiastic about their work. If possible, Brewer wants to stay in Missoula, his hometown, where he's already worked in data analysis for a health company.

Staggs may seek a position in a bigger city, maybe in New York, where his brother is based.

They're both eager to put their skills to work in the real world.

"I think that's the most rewarding thing of having gone through this program for a year," Staggs said. "You have an opportunity to see things that a lot of other people just don't see unless you publish it."

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