Problem-solving skills pave the way to a technology career
Greg Gengo was good at math. He liked computers. But it was his penchant for solving problems that led to his job in institutional research.
TOP 3 LESSONS
- Take control of your own path. When Greg first entered the Navy, he voluntarily went in as "undesignated," which meant he didn't have input into his role. If given the chance to do it all over again, he would have made a different choice, because it wasn't until later that Greg got to choose a job that suited his interests.
- Be open to opportunities. In college, a professor approached Greg with an opportunity to enter a STEM program. Greg had to drop one of his majors (political science), but the move qualified him for a grant and put him on a path focused more on technology.
- Share what you know. Greg shares his expertise in institutional research at conferences all over the world, including Japan.
United States Navy
Technical operations, international sales support
A major airline
BS in computer science and mathematics
Texas Woman's University
Data Warehouse Architect, Office of Institutional Research and Data Management
Texas Woman's University
MS in mathematics
Texas Woman's University
AT A GLANCE
What is institutional research?
Institutional research, which is Greg's focus at Texas Woman's University, involves collecting, analyzing and warehousing data on the university's students, faculty, courses and curriculum to improve campus decision making and planning.
Texas Woman's University, where Greg works as a data architect, has about 15,000 students.
Greg has done nine presentations at conferences as close to home as Texas and as distant as Tokyo. His most recent presentation was Architecting Big Data for Bayesian Gateway Course Analysis.
Qualities of an institutional researcher
While there aren't many academic degrees that qualify you to do institutional research, the job typically requires skills in statistics, research methods, data visualization and reporting.
I feel like we've used SAS to revolutionize our department.
Q: When did you first realize you had a knack for math or computer science? Did you take advanced courses in high school?
A: Those skills didn't really manifest when I was younger. I did take the highest math and science courses that were available, and I did well in them, but I think that's mostly because I enjoyed problem solving.
Q: What is it about solving problems that's so interesting to you?
A: I like quantitative problems – I like reading about them and figuring them out. When it comes to more qualitative things, like writing, it's harder for me until I can find a way to make them quantitative. So my senior year of high school, in English, I was on the verge of having to do summer school. It wasn't that English was hard, but writing was so subjective and I always had a hard time finding my voice. I never had those issues with math or science.
Q: You went into the military shortly after high school. Why did you make that choice? Is there anything you gained from it that helped your future career?
A: I went into the Navy because I didn't think I was ready for college yet. I had the same issue a lot of kids have where I thought school was boring, and I didn't know what else I wanted to do. When I enlisted, I had to take a test and scored high enough that I could have gone into anything in the Navy, so I was told to go in undesignated so I could do different things and find something I liked. In reality, though, I didn't get to pick – they told me what to do. I got deployed to Bahrain and was there for several months. After that, I was finally allowed to pick something, so I chose something in the medical field and became a hospital corpsman. I do think that I grew up a lot in that time when I was undesignated because I was immature when I started. I learned to be more responsible.
Read more of Greg's story
Q: You discovered early on that you were good at solving problems. How did this surface in the early part of your career?
A: After I left the military I got a job at an airline in Texas, and one of my jobs was to calibrate precision tools. I had to track chemicals – so if, for example, someone checked out paint, we had to weigh it when it went out and weigh it when it came back to see how much was used. One weekend, a team came in and updated all our machines from Windows NT to Windows Server 2010 and it broke the program we'd been using. Even though it wasn't my job, I ended up going into work, finding the old servers they'd taken offline, and patching them back into the network so we could continue doing our jobs and not be in violation with the EPA. After that happened, there was a little blurb in their internal publication that said I'd saved the company tens of thousands of dollars in potential fines.
Q: After working for the airline, you went back to school and earned a bachelor's degree in computer science. How did that transition happen?
A: I was at that job for 11 years, but they eventually offered a buyout package and I took it. I started taking a couple courses at Texas Woman's University, where I ended up going full time. At first, I was going to double major in political science and computer science, but I got approached by someone who was heading up a national science foundation STEM scholarship initiative. I learned that if I dropped the political science major and became all STEM, I could qualify for a grant, so I did that – and I later added a math major.
Q: Did you get to solve any interesting computer problems while you were in college?
A: I participated in these events called Repair Rallies, where people brought in their computers and we'd diagnose their problems or run antivirus programs – whatever they needed. Most of the problems were software-related, although there was one case where someone had dropped a dumbbell on their keyboard. We had to take the keyboard apart and bend it back together.
Q: Eventually you earned a master's degree in mathematics, right?
A: Yes, I started my graduate coursework in spring of 2013 and was done with courses in fall 2015, but I just got my master's degree this semester. It's because I had to write my thesis – and now we're back to the whole writing thing. I don't mind writing, but it's more difficult for me. I got it done, though, and just recently defended my thesis.
Q: You were fortunate enough to get a job where you also got your degrees: Texas Woman's University. What do you do there, and how does SAS factor in?
A: I'm a data warehouse architect. I'm the only person in that role who's developing the data model, programming it – the whole thing. I also field ad hoc requests, so that's why I have to be as efficient as possible. I'm a big believer in modular programming, which means that if you're always doing a certain task, you should write it as repeatable code – in SAS it's a macro – and then whenever you need it you just call in the macro. That way, any time you have to update that process you update in one place. I maintain our macro library, so every time something changes I'm the one who does it.
We're the only group on campus that uses SAS outside an academic classroom environment. We have about 15,000 students, and we want to incorporate analytics like bigger schools, but of course our funding is different; our team is spread a little more thin. But I would definitely say that I use Base SAS several times a week.
I'm a pretty big advocate for SAS. In fact, I have contacts at a university in Japan and at the SAS office in Sydney just because I've been such a big advocate for SAS. As a result of those connections, I've been asked to present at conferences.