Scientific Research has transformed our society through countless innovations. How can research play a similar role in organisations to help make strategic and business decisions backed by thorough analysis and scientific rigour.
Arnab Choudhury, our next pathbreaker, conducts research on some intriguing topics of predictive and causal analysis in Strategy and Innovation in businesses.
Arnab talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being greatly influenced by the power of data to uncover patterns that led him to apply Machine Learning algorithms to research new approaches to management, strategy and business models.
For students, numbers and algorithms have transformed everything. If you love working with numbers you have the power to disrupt any sector based on scientific reasoning backed by data.
Arnab, tell us about your background?
I was born in a small city of Assam called Silchar and brought-up in Calcutta, West Bengal, the “city of joy” as it is being famously called. The formative years of my life were spent in Calcutta and the cultural influences of this joyous city shaped my mind in a great and inquisitive manner. During my college days, I indulged mostly in learning Mathematics and simultaneously literature, and was an active member of student politics, for which I believe Calcutta is famous for. But as they say “folly of youth goes away soon”, I soon started developing a distaste for political activism, and started focusing completely on Mathematics, a subject that I flirted with till my post-grad days.
What did you do for graduation and post-graduation?
Right after my 10th exam, I was quite adamant in pursuing my interest in Mathematics as a career. I joined the University Of Calcutta for an honours degree in Mathematics, which was kind of unusual when most of my peers chose Engineering or Medicine as professional careers. During my graduate days I found that theoretical Mathematics was too abstract and not very attractive to me, rather the applications of it lured me a lot. I had Economics as well which became the second love of my life. After graduating in Mathematics, I joined the Institute of Mathematics and Applications in Bhubaneswar and did a masters in Computational Finance, a potent combination of Mathematics, Finance and Computational algorithms, also known as Financial Engineering. Here is where I got greatly interested in “Machine Learning” and its potential to be a force of reckoning in technology. This offbeat career that I chose after graduation, made many of my close friends skeptical, but it turned out to be a different story altogether since then.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
In 2018, during my Summer Academic Internship in the Indian Institute of Technology – Kharagpur, I came across the book called “Elements of statistical Learning: Data Mining, Inference and Prediction” by Trevor Hastie. I was greatly influenced by the way numbers and algorithms could be used in a sequence to solve critical problems and accordingly predict (a way I call as “Telling future story”) what seemed impossible for human capabilities. My supervisor Professor Abhijeet Chandra infused the interest in me to apply ML techniques in my project and this became the turning point in my transition from Mathematics to Machine Learning and its Applications, which also turned out to be my specialisation in my future research endeavours. Finally I chose business and management as an area where I could continue my research on Machine Learning, as a way to contribute to innovations in business strategy and models.
At the completion of first year of my post-grad, and before the starting of the second year/third trimester, I had time of around 75days to pursue academic or corporate internship, as both holds for my subject of specialization. Most of my peers chose corporate internships at reputed companies, and I applied for internships in academic research. I applied to some IITs that offers mathematical finance as a discipline, and to almost all the IIMs. Now most of the internships in these premier institutes in summer happen through a common platform, where all applicants apply to the dedicated portal and on basis of merit, interns are shortlisted. But in this process, the chances of getting internship scope on particular area of interest is problematic. On the other hand, the other process is to contact the Professors in particular area directly, so that if mutual research interest match, they can hire interns directly through the school. For me the second process worked, and I got internship offers from professors of IIT-Delhi, IIM-Ahmedabad, XLRI-Jamshedpur and IIT-Kharagpur. As IIT-Kharagpur was nearer to Calcutta, and one of the elite places of learning in India, so I happily chose Kharagpur. My supervisor Professor Abhijeet Chandra of VGSoM, IIT-Kharagpur is a scholar and great guide, and my decision of pursuing internship from Kharagpur provided worthy greatly.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path?
After graduating in mathematics with honours, the biggest turning point, as I mentioned earlier, was the Summer Internship in IIT-Kharagpur, where I was first introduced to the ocean of opportunities in algorithmic research which led me to a clear career plan further. After completing my masters, I was actively looking for a research career in applications of mathematics, specifically in Machine Learning. Initially, I was completely focused on Finance as a domain to apply my skills in mathematical modeling, and thereby got an opportunity from an Investment Bank to work on risk modelling. That would have essentially put a full stop in other research pursuits and entry into the corporate world. Apart from that I didn’t have any other alternative career options.
But here is where the magic happened. I applied for a researcher position in the Indian School of Business- Hyderabad. ISB is one of few institutions in India, where world-class original research is conducted. Professor Anand Nandkumar, a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in the US, and currently the Associate Professor in Strategy and Innovation in ISB, interviewed me and told me about his plans to bring the revolutionary wave of Artificial Intelligence in the Strategy area of business management. This was a golden opportunity for me to engage in research in an area of my interest and apply my skills as required by my professor. The Research Associate position in ISB, allows you to test your abilities and interest in research. After working with world renowned faculty and scholars, you finally set sail for a PhD in your area. I completed a promising project on the Leadership-Performance relationship in the Indian Premier League records, and in the process of writing a second working paper on Strategic Innovation. I am also the nominated Researcher for the ISB-Microsoft AI-labs initiative, which should see daylight soon.
How did you get your first break?
My first break was joining as a Research Associate in ISB in the area of Strategy and Innovation. My college of post-graduation, being a focused academic and research institute, getting into corporate jobs through campus placement was not an option. But my academic profile and research interests were pivotal in landing me a job as a researcher in ISB, where research work is flourishing, with lots of opportunities to get into a PhD degree in reputed schools of the World across US and European countries.
After the penultimate trimester of my post-graduation, I applied to many research based Institutes for research positions, just to test waters on where do I stand for a world class PhD. I got offers from some think tanks and social-science research labs, but not in my area interest. I came across the openings available in ISB through LinkedIn, a premier business research school, where some departments needed researchers for some professors. The RAs in ISB are valued most, since most of them go to best schools in the world like Wharton, Harvard Business School, Carnegie Mellon, MIT and many such places for a doctoral degree after completing their stint in ISB. So yes, I applied and got into ISB after some rounds of gruelling interviews.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Initially I was trained completely in Mathematics and Finance. Strategy and Innovation were very new to me. As they say, “There is no free lunch in business”. This implies that there is no best strategy for a business model. With time and changing global economic conditions, strategies need to keep changing for businesses to thrive. For that one needs Innovation. There are n number of innovations and possibilities for a great model to flourish.
In the midst of my present stint as a researcher in ISB, I got an offer from a reputed Big 4 investment bank for a Strategic Planning role. That was monetarily quite lucrative and the career progression opportunities were quite good. But sticking to research with considerably less perks, motivated by a long term learning pursuit, was a decision that was a challenge. Nevertheless I took career advice from some experienced people and stuck to my present position for more satisfaction in the long run.
Where do you work now?
I am working as Research Associate in ISB, researching on some intriguing topics of predictive and causal analysis in Strategy and Innovation. Business Management has undergone a sea of changes during the last decade, with changing technology and economics across the world. In order to cope with challenging transitions, immense research is required to bring about critical innovations in the existing models.
Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are two promising pillars that have the potential to bring disruptive changes in Management & Strategy. However research in management has not leveraged these useful and technologically sophisticated tools. I do research on topics such as business model innovation, decision sciences, firm level innovation, on the idea that human capabilities, when rightly channelized with the aid of AI, can always prove to be a superior hybrid than any other alternative to human knowledge today.
In my current work, one needs to have sound knowledge of Mathematical Foundations, Algorithmic Designs, Computational Skills and Social Science theories. This is a rare combination that one acquires through diverse training. So ideally, training in mathematics in graduation, with some applied subjects in post-graduation and finally some basic computational skills should be the ideal way to acquire the above skills.
As a researcher in ISB, one gets to explore many things. The RAs are also encouraged to take up credit FPM (PhD in Management that Indian B-Schools give) courses while researching their core areas. This helps in a lot for US PhD applications. A day in the life of a researcher is really exciting, with interactions with a lot of intellectual professors, co-researchers and collaborators world-wide. A great deal of consulting opportunities also exist if someone wants to explore.
How does your work benefit society?
As the saying goes: “If you want to develop society then find more researchers”, because research always benefits society. For example, bringing about technological innovation in business models can save enormous amounts of resources that were hitherto spent due to lack of efficiency. Those resources are usually spent in two ways: firstly by investing in the R&D of the business which in-turn contributes towards saving resources. Secondly, the business contributes towards CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) which helps bring down unemployment and ensures economic progress of the under-privileged. Although in a secondary way, research in innovation brings sea changes in uplifting society, developing business and subsidiary development chains.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I did a project on strategizing the Star Player-Performance enhancement relationship in the Indian Premier League records. Based on the theory of homophilly, we had the hunch that a Star Player as leader/captain will trivially enhance the performance of a star/non-star player. But with econometrics and ML analysis, it was evident that the null hypothesis was true; that a star leader’s performance has, in fact, no significant enhancement effect on other colleagues. So the performance enhancement power of a leader does not actually affect the co-workers when it comes to a popular sport, where leadership is one of the key components. This project is really close to me so far as this brings to light some contradicting theories to the forefront.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
In our society, till today, people have profession-fetishes when it comes to choosing a career for their children. It is really important for children at a young age to find out what they love to do. Pursuing a career in something that one loves sounds really good. But there comes a certain stage in our academics, when that attraction fades away, probably due to monotony. From my personal experience I feel that this is the point where students of today’s generation have to take a wise decision to transition to something else. Adapting to changing situations demands a great deal of dynamic and flexible approach towards selecting goals. It is always good to explore new forms of knowledge, which in turn opens up a new horizon of opportunities to jump into. In the present context of the pandemic of Covid-19, the situation worldwide is making us adapt to new working situations in a pragmatic way that was unthinkable earlier. My advice to students at their formative stage would be to be dynamic, flexible and adaptable to changing scenarios and pursue the most suitable career possible.
Right now, I am planning to focus on my research. I want to develop the requisite skills of empirical analysis, framing of a research question, and delving deep into analysis, as well as aim for fruitful results and then enroll for a PhD in Strategic Innovation from one of the top universities in the World. My final goal is to complete my PhD successfully and get into teaching, research and consulting for society’s good.
Finally, loads of thanks for giving me the opportunity to pen down my story. I will be ever grateful and thankful if students who are in the formative stage of their career, find this story useful and choose an off-beat career that goes a long way in contributing towards research and inclusive progress of the society and the economy.
Research Associate – Indian School of Business,