Guest post by Grant McClure. McClure is from Arlington, Virginia, and graduated from Davidson College in 2017 with a major in math and a minor in computer science. He now works for Red Ventures, a data analytics and technology company outside of Charlotte, NC.
An unusual basketball career
Although my time spent on a basketball court in high school did not lead to a college scholarship, my work throughout college in sports analytics did lead to a career. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I had a handful of potential fields from which to choose a major, with math being one of them. Then, I made the best decision of my college experience at Davidson. I emailed Tim Chartier, a math and computer science professor who specializes in data analytics, often in sports. Chartier encouraged me to join a group he led called Cats Stats. Three seniors the year before had started the group to provide analytical insights to the Davidson Men’s Basketball team. My work in sports – specifically sports analytics – enabled me to apply mathematics and, I’d later realize, prepare for my future job.
When I joined the Davidson sports analytics group, I had the chance to make an immediate impact. In that second year, Cats Stats worked only with men’s basketball analytics and consisted of five underclassmen. The following year we had 13 students, and this past year we had almost 40; the group has expanded to include analytics for women’s basketball, women’s soccer, and football. We field analytics questions from national media, like ESPN and The New York Times, and aid professional teams in NASCAR, NFL, and the NBA.
The ability to combine what I was learning in the classroom with something I was incredibly passionate about was a lethal combination. Applied math and computer science classes started to interest me all of a sudden, and I was actually excited to apply what I learned in the classroom to a multitude of projects involving sports analytics. I went on to major in math and minor in computer science, and worked on projects solving problems with the NBA, developing tools for the Davidson team, and predicting the chaos of March Madness. Cats Stats, more than any class I had taken at Davidson, prepared me for my career.
From classroom to office
During the fall of my junior year, I applied for an internship at Red Ventures, a data analytics and technology company just outside Charlotte. Throughout the rigorous interview process, it wasn’t my GPA that stood out. I stood out among the applicants, in part, because I was able to discuss multiple projects I had taken ownership of and was extremely passionate about. While the start of an internship can often be intimidating, I immediately gained confidence upon seeing what was asked of me. I had all the technical skills that were necessary, skills I had developed in my work with Cats Stats. My background in Excel gave me the confidence to perform all the analysis that was asked of me. My coding background allowed me to pick up SQL quickly (the standard language for relational database management systems). Finally, my experience in statistical analysis helped me provide new insights to my team.
Cats Stats prepared me for the interview process, and undoubtedly gave me the hard skills I needed to succeed right away. But the final way in which Cats Stats aided me came unexpectedly. When delivering scouting reports to the coaches, we would also write long winded reports about everything we thought might have been important. The coaches clarified that they could not absorb all of the information that way. Instead, we developed clear, concise reports, combining data visualizations and stats that they could easily understand and utilize in a short amount of time. I quickly grasped how essential it was to succinctly communicate my insights at Red Ventures. Similar to the coaching staff, there were certain observations that were not useful for the General Manager on my team. Perhaps some other members of the team could benefit from hearing them, but I needed to get to the point as quickly as possible. There’s no time to beat around the bush, and if you can’t explain why your insights can help the intended audience, there is no point to share those insights at all.
Growing passion projects
Red Ventures is a special place to work, and I enjoyed it so much I accepted a full-time offer soon after I finished the internship. Yet the story does not end there. As I mentioned before, Cats Stats had grown quite a bit over the last three years (800%, to be exact). The growth was exciting but also presented many challenges. How, in a volunteer organization, do you find worthwhile projects for every member? How do you hold all members accountable and motivated? How do you transition year to year when there is so much turnover year to year with seniors graduating, students studying abroad, and so many new students who are interested? We employed a few lessons I learned from Red Ventures in order to combat these challenges.
First, we added a considerable amount of structure to the program. Red Ventures helps many of their partners transform digitally, utilizing their in-house technology and data analytics to handle digital marketing and sales for their partnered companies. Each analyst has a role, between Paid Search, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Customer Experience, Operations, and Data Science. Then each analyst is placed on a team that focuses on one of Red Venture’s partners, and each team has all the roles previously described as well as a General Manager for each team. We decided to borrow from RV’s playbook, and do the exact same thing for Cats Stats. We created verticals such as Heat Maps, Scouting, Fan Engagement, and Research and Development for each sport we were working on. This creates an atmosphere where each “General Manager” can hold every member of the team accountable, and each member of the team has a niche to work on. One person might handle individual scouting reports. Another might provide lineup efficiencies. A third could handle data visualizations. Everyone plays a role and can take ownership of their project.
Secondly, after using a database at Red Ventures, we had the idea to use SQL to create a database for Cats Stats. There are two main benefits from having a database. First, when seniors leave, the data they used and the work they completed won’t leave with them. Perhaps more importantly, having proficiency in SQL is an extremely marketable skill that many Cats Stats members could develop.
The last skill I applied comes in the form of leadership, learned primarily through observation. With Cats Stats, I faced the challenge of motivating each member of my team, a difficult challenge due to the nature of a volunteer organization and the busy schedules of Davidson students. At Red Ventures, I witnessed my manager lead meetings with the partner, the team of analysts, and the sales agents on our team. Red Ventures invests quite a bit in leadership development and my manager was a great example of the results of that endeavor. It is quite a fine line to balance motivating the members of your team and keeping everyone up to speed without micromanaging them, and my manager at Red Ventures excelled at this leadership skill. He was a role model for me as I faced the same task back at Cats Stats. While I still have a long way to go, I benefited immensely from observing him throughout the summer.
My learning in the college classroom gave me valuable technical skills and theoretical understanding. My work in Cats Stats made that learning real. Participating in sports analytics without a doubt was the most meaningful opportunity I experienced. The analytics group opened up doors I would never have thought possible and helped me grow as a student and a person. All the while, I prepared for my work at Red Ventures as an intern and now as an employee. My internship at Red Ventures also allowed me to return the favor and prepare Cats Stats for its incredible growth. My basketball abilities were never going to take me to the NBA. Combining math with my passion for the game, however, led me to an exciting career in analytics.