Alumni Spotlight – McKay Curtis

McKay Curtis earned his doctorate in Statistics from North Carolina State University in 2008, where he worked with Drs. Ghoshal and Ghosh as his thesis advisors. Before that, he earned his bachelor’s degree in Economics from Brigham Young University in 2002. Dr. Curtis currently works for The Walt Disney Company as Principal on the Decision Science team. He is married with four kids, all of whom enjoy having a dad who works for Mickey Mouse. We asked him a few questions about his graduate and work experiences.

Q: What is the purpose of the Decision Science team?
A: The Decision Science team serves as an internal consulting firm for the entire Walt Disney Company, so we get analytical projects from many different organizations within Disney—Parks and Resorts, Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Theatrical, ESPN, ABC, Disney Cruise Line, etc.

Q: How long has The Walt Disney Company been employing statistical consultants?
A: I think the Decision Science team has been around for about 15 years.

Q: Do you often encounter atypical modeling problems, or is most of your work handled with linear regression and ANOVA?
A: I almost always encounter problems that require me to learn something that I didn’t get a chance to learn in school. Most recently, I’ve been studying different mathematical frameworks for making causal inferences from observational data, since most of the data we get at Disney is not from experiments. I’ve also found that I’ve needed to learn more methods from fields like Operations Research and Economics/Econometrics. I actually still spend a significant amount of money on textbooks every year.

Q: What happens when you develop new statistical techniques while working on company projects? Is there any freedom to publish, or is everything owned by The Walt Disney Company?
A: Everything is owned by The Walt Disney Company, and we are encouraged to apply for patents before publishing. A few people in my group have published articles in academic journal relating to their work at Disney, but it’s not all that common. I think the current director the Decision Science team would like to see more opportunities for members of his team to publish in academic journals, but I think it will probably be a challenge to change.

Q: What do you enjoy most about working for Mickey Mouse?
A: I like that I am in a job where I am able to continue acquiring new technical skills. I don’t know if other consulting environments are like that, but that is the case in my group. I think my family likes having access to the perks of having Dad work for Disney (free access to the parks and discounts on lots of other Disney experiences).

Q: Back in February, you gave a seminar in SAS Hall. How was that experience? Did it remind you of your graduate student days?
A: The experience was a little humbling and intimidating, since lots of very accomplished statisticians have given department seminars at NC State, so it’s hard to measure up! It was also a bit weird because SAS hall wasn’t yet finished when I graduated, so I had never been in the building before (my old stomping grounds were in Patterson Hall).

Q: Why did you choose to study statistics in graduate school?
A: I liked being able to think about the world in a “rigorous” manner, so statistics appealed to me in that it’s a way to convert observations in nature (data) to interesting insights using rigorous mathematics.

Q: Did you do much consulting while working on your doctorate?
A: Not really. I had a graduate industrial traineeship at SAS, while I was a graduate student, so I never spent much time consulting.

Q: What advice would you offer students thinking about statistical consulting as a profession?
A: Here’s one piece of advice that is probably applicable to anyone going into industry (whether consulting or some other field). Your manager can make a huge impact on your quality of life. If you have a good manager, it’s much easier to enjoy your job than if you have a bad manager. So when interviewing for a job, make sure you get a chance to talk to other individuals who report to the person you will be working for, and ask those individuals their thoughts on working for that manager. (Note: My current manager is great!)