Getting to Know the Unknown

This past semester has been a wild ride, but it has been an amazing learning experience. What this practicum course has given me is experience with a real-world opportunity. Our client’s challenge was to recommend an algorithm to optimize their cable-cutting process. As a team, we felt pretty confident in our task, but then we started talking with the client. We began to dive deeper into their problem by going to visit a distribution center to decide what actually was going on. Based on that experience, we had to rescope our project, as we discovered the different constraints that placed on this cable-cutting process.

None of us really knew anything about algorithms. It was something that we couldn’t have known from our classes, and so what this experience has taught me was how to deal with the unknown. In the real world, you will never know all the details to your problem. It’s up to you as the consultant or analyst to do your own digging to understand it. What me and my team had to do was actually go to one of the sources of the problem itself and speak with key stakeholders to determine what was actually needed. Because as we learned, our key contact may only be the messenger of the problem. The best way to determine what the problem is, is to go to the source itself.

We also had to do a lot of research. As I mentioned earlier, we knew nothing about algorithms. It’s an entirely different area of expertise, and for me, it took countless different websites and academic papers to understand what I was actually reading. Once we found the algorithm we were going to recommend, I tried my best to understand it in a way where I could break down in simple terms what this algorithm was doing. Although we had mentors to help steer us in the right direction, it was ultimately up to us to gather the research and findings.

Another unknown was finding a program that utilized the cutting stock algorithm. At first, I found one in Matlab, but after some testing, I realized that this version was not what we needed. After a few hours of researching different programs in Github and online browsing, I finally found one. After that, there was a period of learning of how to understand how the program works. I was able to pick up on the program pretty quick, and I was able to explain how it worked to our client in our final presentation.

One other lesson I have learned is how important it is to check you and your team’s work. Multiple times throughout our analysis, me and my team discovered mistakes in each other’s work. We had to double check our work multiple times, as we soon found out how finnicky Excel could be with their pivot tables. We learned how to adapt to the technical difficulties we had, and I believe it has made us much wiser if we ever have to work with Excel again.

To wrap up these experiences I had this semester, I can definitely say I am confident in my ability to deal with the unknown. I now know what steps I can take when I’m presented with a problem. Coming into this project, I didn’t know whether I would like the work I did, since this was ultimately an operations project. However, it was a fun learning experience, and I’ve learned how to work off my team better. I learned a lot from them, and when I didn’t understand something, I would ask questions. This project definitely helped me out of my comfort zone, and it was a valuable experience.