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  • Satellite Evolution

Viasat and UCSD partner to shape the new field of data science

Current Viasat employees lead a data science and engineering panel for UCSD HDSI students. The panel was a part of a student mixer Viasat held for the students in May.

As artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics become more efficient and more useful for businesses, data science is becoming an increasingly crucial field to study.

That’s why Viasat has partnered with UC San Diego’s recently established Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute (HDSI). The company recognizes the growing need for data scientists, analysts and engineers and wants to help foster the education of those venturing into the new field.

Kristi Jaska, Viasat Vice President of Engineering, said corporate engineering determined that analytics is one important area across the entire company.

“It’s a myth that Silicon Valley is the only place to do data science. That’s why we want to elevate the San Diego region as a data science hub and compete for the best talent, while we continue to build on our reputation of being an employer of choice for data science and engineering. —Ben Wilson

“We are a data-driven company,” Jaska said, “The need for data science is so pervasive across our business areas, even outside of engineering. We’re doing well, but we want to stay on the cutting edge. And we want to see what’s going on at universities to attract more talent in that area.”

Jaska noted that Viasat is not just using data to improve its products and services, but has evolved to include data analytics in its efforts to improve its business development. The company is increasing its marketing and market research capabilities, she said, which is especially important during its global expansion.

Understanding consumer behavior, like a residential internet customer’s intention to inquire about service, is important for implementing new tools like chatbots or other virtual agents, Jaska said. And as the company is flooded with data from user interface/user experience (UI/UX) work, data scientists are needed to analyze the pieces and provide fact-based results that will help inform company decisions.

Ahead of the curve

Data analytics at Viasat is ahead of the curve, said Eliot Weitz, Viasat’s Chief Data Officer. The company had data scientists before programs and majors for them existed in academia. The current data science team’s average industry experience is several years, he said, which is rare to find.

“We invested in it over eight years ago and have had great returns, and are now constantly seeing how data and automation has been profitable for the company,” Weitz said.

Eric Liu, product owner of Viasat’s Global Mobile Broadband services’ data analytics team, agrees that Viasat’s investment in data science has made the company stand out. He said Viasat is already doing a better job of adjusting its network by understanding the way customers use it.

Analyzing what internet users need from the network allows Viasat to “differentiate our offerings from the competition,” Liu said. The company can discern what sort of value-added services customers would find the most appealing. For example, when Viasat sells its internet packages to an airline, it can offer a plan that’s optimal for what a person wants from in-flight Wi-Fi, based on the data analysis the company has conducted.

A plus for data-science students

The partnership is designed to be mutually beneficial. Students will graduate with industry knowledge and experience, and the company can employ students already familiar with Viasat and its data scientists.

“Working with a complex technology company like Viasat will bring great access to data science on the front lines,” said Distinguished Professor and HDSI’s founding director, Rajesh Gupta.

Another benefit for the students, Gupta added, is the potential inspiration Viasat’s co-founders Steve Hart and Mark Miller could provide, since they are both leaders of a major company and UCSD alumni.

Ben Wilson, Viasat director of data science, said he found the partnership especially valuable because he believes the founders of the institute had the right principles when building the curriculum. Students are prepared to apply their knowledge to the real world once they graduate.

“They want to make sure that industry can influence what students learn, so they can get the most out of their four years at school,” he said. “One of the things we really like is that they’re organizing the program so that a normal four-year student should be done with all their required tech courses by their junior year. That leaves their senior year open to just technical electives so they can focus on their capstone project.”

An industry resource
Part of Viasat’s role as a Founding Industry Partner is to serve as an industry resource for the students. The data science team plans to provide the university with input on its curriculum, and is helping students with their capstone projects, which are focused on topics like anomaly detection, geospatial analysis and prediction and forecasting.

So far, Viasat has participated in various HDSI-related networking events. Viasat’s data scientists have run resume/hiring workshops to prepare UCSD students for their technical interviews; they have given presentations on data analytics at Viasat during meet-and-greet mixers, and Wilson has participated in an HDSI industry panel discussing Viasat’s role as a founding partner.

In the end, Wilson hopes the partnership helps make San Diego a data science hub, which is a long-term benefit for Viasat’s data science department.

“It’s a myth that Silicon Valley is the only place to do data science,” Wilson said. “That’s why we want to elevate the San Diego region as a data science hub and compete for the best talent, while we continue to build on our reputation of being an employer of choice for data science and engineering.”

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