Having grown up loving puzzles, Bob Bell has always been a problem solver. Bob notes that by solving a particularly tricky puzzle, he placed high in a mathematics competition during his senior year of high school. Since then, he’s never looked back, and, in fact, went on to become one of the Netflix Prize winning team members.
Today, Bob is a professional statistician and lead member of the technical staff at AT&T Research, where he primarily performs data analysis to solve very large puzzles: to understand how people use and connect with AT&T’s services, where they might be running into frustration and how to improve AT&T’s technical services to enhance its customer’s experience.
In addition to his work, Bob hopes to make statistics more attractive to students and works with AT&T’s summer internship program to enhance students’ experiences in the STEM fields. He believes that exposing students to AT&T’s innovative work will help them continue their studies and will demonstrate the exciting opportunities that await them in their careers. We sat down with Bob to discuss his hope for STEM students and how he solves puzzles.
Tell us about your work at AT&T Labs?
I work on a variety of projects analyzing data in order to improve customer experience, it’s important to understand how people are using our services and where they might be running into difficulties. We work very hard to improve these services for our customers.
What do you find is the best method for coming up with new ideas?
The best way for me to come up with new ideas is simply to get involved in new projects – to get my hands dirty in a data set rather than trying to build an idea from scratch. Once you start to realize the problems involved, the ideas start to flow.
What is a major goal for you professionally or personally?
One goal of mine is to make statistics more attractive and seem more accessible to students. We need to have more American students entering the STEM fields and I would really like to encourage that. One thing that AT&T has done over the years is to try to bring in students who are working in these areas. We have a very active summer internship program that gives students a feel for what goes on in a research lab. I think that really helps them continue in their studies and gives them an idea of the great opportunities they will have when they get their degrees.
One very positive outgrowth of winning the Netflix Prize is that I’ve gotten the opportunity to give talks about it at a lot of different places – ranging from some of the best research universities to high schools. Wherever I talk about it, it brings in students immediately. They can see how statistics, computer science and math skills can be used in ways that they can relate to.
What makes you excited about coming to work?
There’s always something new to do. There are always new challenges. I get to work with some of the best computer scientists and most innovative thinkers anywhere. Working with really good people is always great because it keeps your mind sharper and your day much more interesting.
What would you describe as one of your “eureka” moments?
To me, what’s really a “eureka” moment is often not the point where you solve a problem, but when you actually figure out what the problem is. Often you are working on something. There is a detail that is holding you up, and you don’t really think about it until you recognize it. More than the solution, I think diagnosing the problem is often the point when you make the biggest progress.
The facts and information presented in large sets of data can often times seem very messy. Part of my job is to develop models and algorithms that help make sense of the data. From there we can put together a story that’s understandable and actionable.