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A career communicating vital data

by Jennifer Johnson,

Minh Phan

Breaking into the field of data science (and staying there) doesn’t mean you have to learn a dozen coding languages or build the most complex models. The most important skill? Communication. 

Minh Phan MBA ’17, a behavioral health data scientist for King County, Washington, has held jobs across several industries — marketing, health care, nonprofits, government — and the skill that transferred to each role was her ability to relay technical knowledge to a non-technical audience, she said. 

“Not everyone can understand a database or complex data,” she said. “That’s why you need to be a bridge to it.” 

Phan’s path to data science began with a business and economics major in Vietnam, where she’d planned on pursuing a consulting and research career. She was a high achiever, entering as many international business competitions as she could, and one first place win — a smart recasting of soy milk as a healthy alternative for young and trendy women — earned a job offer her junior year from global consulting company Kantar Worldpanel. 

Working full time as a consultant, she analyzed and visualized behavioral data, managed databases for consumer product categories and identified consumer trends. But over time, she became less interested in the profit aspect of the business, and more “interested in how to utilize and manipulate data to find strategic solutions to more complex problems in life,” she said. 

The close-knit culture of the Willamette MBA and its early career option appealed to her. During the program, she gained insight from Stuart Read, a now-retired former professor of strategic management who had extensive experience in the tech industry, and Larry Etner, former leader of the MBA’s signature Practical Application for Careers and Enterprise (PACE) program. Real world application is a distinguishing feature of PACE, and it introduced her to the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, where she designed a salary study and database system for several centers and helped improve employees’ total compensation benchmarks. 

The MBA also gave Phan opportunities for success when she was least aware of it. After her first year, she landed an internship with the State of Oregon Enterprise Technology Services department. Later, she found out that an employee there — who also happened to be an MBA teaching assistant she did not know personally — recognized her name on the application and told the hiring manager she had a good reputation in class. 

“Sometimes you might think being active in class has nothing to do with your career,” she said. “But it actually does matter — you never know what will happen.” 

Following graduation, Phan became a data analyst for the state and helped shepherd its transition to a new IT system. Her MBA, resourcefulness and experience communicating with diverse stakeholders fit the role, and she learned enough about big data and programming languages from experts on her team to be hired in 2019 at the Olympia-based Washington State Health Care Authority, which oversees Medicaid for more than two million residents. 

As a data analyst, Phan provided the agency with information that helped allocate federal funding for the most common illnesses among Medicaid-funded populations. But she also supported its move to integrated managed care, a transformative shift by Washington state to merge two separate healthcare systems — physical health and behavioral health — into one. For one key project during the five-year transition, Phan supported the work of nine regions across Washington state to find solutions to and gauge the effectiveness of their individual health care systems. The project also connected her to King County health care officials and led to her current job there.  

In her role, Phan fields questions from health care professionals and the public about its crisis response line, a crucial connection for people with mental health and substance use disorders. She also led many projects in leveraging health and behavioral health encounters and claims data to support the successful execution of different healthcare initiatives. One of her current projects involves monitoring network adequacy and crisis system performance and establishing goals to evaluate hospital and other acute care service utilization.

She's happy with her career, and she encourages data science graduates to consider as many options as possible.

“A lot of young graduates are often motivated only by working for big private companies with fancy names, but I find the public sector very rewarding, too,” she said. “There’s less pressure and more opportunities to explore or learn, and you have a better time connecting with the community.”

About Computing & Data Science

The School of Computing and Data Science prepares students for their future careers. Willamette offers undergraduate, graduate, accelerated and certificate programs at both Salem and Portland campuses where students are taught by faculty who are leaders in their fields. The residential undergraduate program is full time, while the graduate program is designed for working professionals and recent college graduates looking for a head start on their career.

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