The transportation industry serves as the backbone of a modern society through an efficient supply chain, global connectivity and timeliness !

Nitin Srinath, our next pathbreaker, Senior Data Scientist – Operations Research at United Airlines (Chicago), works on mathematical models that improve service reliability for passengers/customers, using data and optimization algorithms.

Nitin talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about realising the complexity of supply chain planning and opting for a career in operations research over a core engineering career.

For students, always keep your mind open to opportunities, and explore as much as possible not just to identify what you like but also what you are not comfortable with !

Nitin, Your background?

I grew up in Bangalore, India. As a kid, I played a lot of cricket (both for the school and the club professionally). I also played table tennis a little bit. I was interested in quizzes and sometimes debates. At school, math courses interested me the most. But I also loved geography, history and physics.

I was and still am a huge puzzle and lego person – I build and assemble large legos/ jigsaws whenever I find the time.

My parents are both engineers with post graduate degrees in computer science and biomedical engineering.

I was initially interested in architecture. Then, when I got to know that freehand drawing is a large part of the course, I decided it was not for me. I was also very interested in automobiles so I pursued mechanical engineering during my undergrad.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

As I mentioned, I studied mechanical engineering at NIT Surathkal near Mangalore, India. During the second and third years of my course, I realized that that is not what I wanted to do. I found other subjects that I liked more, like operations management, supply chain planning and operations research. So, I pursued industrial engineering at Clemson University, SC, USA. I loved the things I studied so much that I decided to pursue a PhD in operations research at Clemson. After graduating from Clemson, I am now working as a senior data scientist at United Airlines in their network strategy team at their global HQ in Chicago.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Firstly, I was very unhappy with my course at NIT Surathkal, and I constantly searched for things that interested me. I stumbled upon some online courses in operations management and ops research. That’s when I realized that I really like these topics.

After joining Clemson, I truly fell in love with the courses. The professors were amazing and taught with passion. They also cared for us to help us learn well. The research was challenging yet exciting. I also loved the campus and the location. The environment plus the courses made me want to learn a lot more and spend more time there.

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

During my undergrad, I worked in multiple internships at different manufacturing firms and some startups as well. I worked in their quality assurance teams as well as design teams. At the startups, I worked on sales pitches and marketing campaigns too. They were all very fun experiences and I learned stuff too. The only thing was that I was never very good at the core technical stuff of mechanical engineering. The courses at the university were uninspiring to say the least. As I said previously, I explored and learned what I liked.

At Clemson, I worked on different research projects, all pertaining to optimization and supply chain planning. I first worked on an autonomous vehicle route planning problem. Then for my PhD, I worked on a supply chain optimization problem at a nearby manufacturing facility. Initially, I worked in collaboration with teams in the industry. It was a great experience to see our work in action – very fulfilling. 

Then, I interned at United Airlines in their operations research team, and I am back at United for a full time job as a senior data scientist. 

I work on challenging schedule design problems, route planning problems, etc, for one of the largest airlines in the world.

How did you get your first break?

I just applied online to the internship offered by United. I applied to many other companies in the airline, railroad and supply chain space. I was called for an interview, and then another and another and got the job.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

My biggest challenge in grad school has been with respect to writing research articles and papers. I have not really become better at it. I don’t like to do it either. I push myself to do it every now and then. I simply do it to finish it. 

At my work, I have not faced any challenge that I have not been excited about. I work with incredible people who are very helpful. I also meet new people working on different things and perspectives. It is a lot of fun.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve? 

I work at United Airlines. I address challenges related to network planning, schedule design, manpower planning etc.

Data science can be many things – data analytics, machine learning, deep learning, computer vision, NLP etc. Those are different types of mathematical models that are related to prediction of outcomes – for example, predicting stock prices, or predicting airfare, or demand for flights.

I work on another class of mathematical models – optimization problems that involve mathematical modeling – these are prescriptive in nature – as in they tell the user what is the best way to do a particular task – for example, what is the optimal size of the aircraft that can be operated on a Monday morning in December between Chicago and San Francisco? These are the types of questions we try to answer using the methods we learn in our PhD in operations research. There are lots of collaborative projects between data science and operations research – for example we can use a machine learning model to predict demand, and then use an optimization model to optimally schedule flights for the predicted demand. Our teams at United are divided into machine learning and operations research teams – although both teams are called data scientists.

What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills? 

Technical skills are operations research, optimization, etc.

Without my PhD, I would not be able to work here. The skills I acquired in my PhD and the knowledge I gained are what help me do what I do.

What’s a typical day like?

Some mathematical modeling, some analysis, some presentations of results.

What is it you love about this job? 

I love the problems I work on. The people are nice and helpful. I also like that I am working on exactly the things I learned and I get to see them help improve a large enterprise as well as the customers we serve.

How does your work benefit society? 

Airlines are an essential service in the world. I work on improving reliability for customers – helping them have better on-time departures, on-time arrivals, fewer baggage delays, etc, with the help of data and mathematical modeling.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

During my PhD, I could see that the work I did was helping the company save over $500k a year at just one facility. It also made their work so much easier and more efficient. I love working on real-world problems that have a real-impact, rather than theoretical and abstract problems, however cool they might sound.

At my work at United, every small improvement we can make saves customers hours of delays or saves United millions of dollars that can go towards making air travel more reliable, more efficient and fun.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

During school, you usually don’t have the best idea regarding what you really want to do. You might be wrong even if you think you know what you want. Always keep your mind open to opportunities, and explore as much as possible. Eventually, you will find what you like. Even if you don’t really like what you do, find happiness in other things like friendships, and family. Sometimes, passion is overrated. Also, I believe work-life balance is important to have. Or, when studying, taking a break at times.

Future Plans?

I plan to continue working here at United and hopefully, in the next few years, get into technical management – leading a group of scientists in solving the challenging problems of tomorrow!