University of Northwestern – St. Paul welcomed four new full-time faculty in 2020—three of whom are Northwestern alumni. Below is an excerpt of our interview with Jon Nykanen, assistant professor in the Department of Computing, Data, and Mathematical Sciences.
Jon Nykanen brings a wealth of data analytics experience to the Department of Computing, Data, and Mathematical Sciences. In addition to teaching, Nykanen serves as founder, president, and principal consultant of ProRes Group, Inc., an IBM partner that provides business analytics and performance management solutions to companies, including financial budgeting, forecasting, reporting, and data modeling.
What is your position at UNW?
I am an assistant professor in the Department of Computing, Data & Mathematical Sciences. I joined the faculty in the fall of 2020.
What were you doing prior to UNW?
I’ve been doing business analytics consulting for 20 years. I was at a company that sold software that was then acquired by IBM. I left that company in 2000 and started my own business as an IBM partner that implements IBM software solutions for the business analytics world. Consulting works well with teaching because I can bring real-world stories to the classroom.
You attended Northwestern long before a data analytics program was in place.
I attended UNW my freshman and sophomore years as a pre-engineering major. Northwestern didn’t have a four-year engineering program at that time, so I transferred to the University of Minnesota my junior year.
My wife was also a pre-engineering major at Northwestern. We met in Calculus class. We took all of our math and science classes together and transferred to the U of M together. Both of us are college professors now.
Close to twenty members of my extended family attended Northwestern, so I have a huge history here. One of my nieces was in my math class last semester!
How did you transition from engineering to data analytics?
I always loved computers. When I entered college, I thought electrical engineering was close to computers. In my first job after graduation, I worked on data projects and got to experience working with data statistics, data modeling, and linking data.
I left that company and went to a software startup company, working with finance departments to replace spreadsheets with more robust tools and data modeling. I earned my MBA at that time and got into the business side of data—how to use data in business and working with finance and financial modeling. I learned that my real passion is in data modeling.
What courses do you teach at UNW?
This past fall I taught Principles of Data Analytics, Statistics for Data Analysis, Math for Liberal Arts, and Trends in Data Analytics in the MBA program. This spring I’m teaching Data visualization, Financial and Economic Forecasting, and Intro to Data Analysis. I also help with some math courses, including Statistics, which is heavily related to data analytics.
What part of the curriculum interests you most?
I love programming and data modeling. It could be as simple as building spreadsheets or writing Python code.
I also enjoy working with data and helping people make better decisions with data. I’m excited to work with Northwestern students to develop those skills—to look at the data know how to back up decisions they make. That’s what companies are looking for.
There’s a huge shift taking place; companies have a lot of data that is not getting used. In fact, less than one percent of the worlds’ data is used for something! The next generation of business leaders need to know how to mine and use data to inform key business decisions.
What led you to begin teaching?
I began to think about getting a doctorate about 10 years ago. I’ve always enjoyed learning; as a software consultant I’m always learning about new software. I started on my doctorate about eight years ago and finished this past August.
Teaching is also a great way to learn something new. It’s a way to keep learning.
Did you aspire to teach in Christian higher education?
No. I started at Northwestern in engineering; it never occurred to me that I would come back and teach. I was thinking math and computers: Where are the jobs? What pays well? Electrical engineering pays well….
Why did you choose to teach at Northwestern?
I worked at Crown College for three years, developing a data analytics minor in the Business department. Joining the faculty at University of Northwestern was an opportunity to work in a data analytics program that is strongly supported by the science, math, computer, and business programs. Data analytics crosses and pulls from all of these areas.
What is your favorite part about teaching in a Christian university?
When you teach at a Christian university, you have the ability to fully train students. We teach academics, but we also teach what those topics really mean: how to implement knowledge and skills in the world, and to do so from a Christian world view. In my program, we teach the students how to do data analytics the right way—both skillfully and ethically.
We talked about the election in one of my classes last fall, and specifically about what polls were saying. Polling results are based on data, and yet in 2016 the polls were wrong by a significant margin. What happened? It’s fun to explore real-world data-related issues like that with students.
Data can be made to say a lot of things—so what if none of the data analysts in the world were Christian? There are so many opportunities in data analytics, and we want Christians in these roles throughout the world. I enjoy being a part of making that happen.
What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?
I tell students that they’re not going to learn or remember everything they’ve studied in college, so while they’re here, they should learn how to learn. When they get a job, they likely won’t know all they need to know, and the tools and software will change. So, while here, they should learn how to draw good conclusions from data. And they should learn how to use data to make good decisions.
Also, a lot of freshman struggle with the stress of picking the right major. I would say that data analytics is a great field for many of them. IT is a huge, growing field, and there are so many opportunities and ways to use analytics. It’s a great minor to add to science, for gathering and interpreting data from experiments; to marketing, to mine and leverage customer information; for computer science, because it gives you the ability to analyze large data sets; for business, math, sports statistics, medical analytics—anything of an analytical mindset. There are so many reasons why data analytics is a great fit as a major or a minor.
What would you say to graduating seniors?
As you near graduation and are looking for jobs, use the connections you have built on campus and in industry to help. Involvement in campus organizations and clubs are a great way to build your professional network. Participating in clubs like our data analytics club and analytics competitions or other industry events gets your name in front of potential employers and future coworkers. Getting a job is more than having a great degree; it’s also who you know.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I would love to have a hobby, but my life is mostly about teaching and consulting right now—two full-time jobs. I do enjoy hanging with my family. My wife and I have three kids, so a lot of my free time is spent with my kids and being at their activities: concerts, games, practices. I also love to run.
What is something people may not know about you?
I ran cross country when I was at Northwestern. I was on the team the first year that Steve Thiessen, UNW’s head Cross Country coach, began coaching.
What is your favorite place on campus?
It’s fun to walk through the hallways again and to remember things, like seeing my grades posted on the walls. I have fun memories from my days as a student: running cross country on campus and going for walks down by the lake with my wife. I proposed to her by the lake. We were married in Nazareth Chapel and had our reception in what was then called the Blue Room.
Being back on campus, I like getting coffee at the Heritage café. I really enjoy coffee.
What should people know about University of Northwestern?
I know a lot of people who graduated from Northwestern and have done very well. Northwestern provides the skills graduates need to be successful in their careers. And professors here work with and mentor students each step of the way. Having the skills needed to go into the world is important. My time at Northwestern prepared me to go out into the world and excel in my career while staying connected to my Christian worldview. I’m a huge supporter of Christian education.