AMZN-g Educator

Thomas Gilbert brings a mastery of machine learning to Amazon managers

While its popular perception is as the “everything store” or a de facto Mall of the World, Amazon also is developing technological innovations that promise to fundamentally change the way we work and live. Chief among them: artificial intelligence and machine learning.

These require a deep roster of technical experts. But they also require project and product managers who are savvy to the opportunities and ramifications, who understand the tech well enough but have the broader ability to map its place in the future.

The latter have an invaluable resource in Thomas Gilbert, an associate professor of finance and business economics at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Gilbert is currently moonlighting as an Amazon Scholar, developing relevant case studies, designing courses in machine learning management and lending his indelible teaching to the company’s internal “Machine Learning University.”

Research in action

The Amazon Scholars program employs leading academics to apply their research methods toward solving the company’s large-scale technical challenges, while allowing them to continue to teach and conduct research at their universities.

These scholars bring expertise in artificial intelligence, avionics, computer vision, data science, economics, optimization, machine learning, natural language processing, quantum computing and robotics.

Amazon Scholars logoCurrently, 11 UW faculty members—experts in computer science, statistics, medicine, economics and business—are serving as Amazon Scholars. And the relationship should grow even stronger with the creation of the Science Hub, a partnership of Amazon and the UW that launched in February.

The Foster School’s first Amazon Scholar was Michael Wagner, an associate professor of operations management and Neal and Jan Dempsey Endowed Faculty Fellow, who spent the past two years applying his deep expertise in optimization to develop and deploy a “just-right” model for scheduling contract delivery drivers in the Amazon Flex fleet.

What drew Amazon’s attention to Gilbert was his inimitable teaching.

Emerging subject

Gilbert has become one of Foster’s most celebrated educators. He was named one of Poets & Quants “40 Under 40 Best MBA Professors” in 2016 and is a frequent media expert and regular panelist at the Foster School’s annual State of the Economy Forum (next meeting coming up April 28). Foremost among his numerous classroom accolades are a pair of PACCAR Awards for Teaching Excellence (2010 and 2017), the school’s top honor.

Gilbert achieved these distinctions through his indelible teaching in courses on investing, asset pricing and managerial finance.

Amazon is a place where things move quickly and ideas can become reality in a matter of weeks. It’s been highly rewarding to be part of a dynamic team whose sole purpose is to help other Amazonians become better at their job..."

Thomas Gilbert

Always striving to bring currency into the classroom, he recently developed an MBA elective on data analytics and machine learning in the arena of finance and business economics.

“Finance has been lagging other fields in its use of machine learning to solve business problems,” Gilbert says. “As a result, we decided that it was time for the Department of Finance and Business Economics to offer a class that covers forecasting, classification, textual analysis and causal inference, among other topics.”

Gilbert balances model intuition, data, coding and guest speakers in a way that makes MBA students ask for more. This winter, Evening MBAs voted him Professor of the Quarter to reward his creativity. And his popular machine learning webinar extends his teaching beyond the Foster classroom.

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Joining the A-team

Amazon had developed its Machine Learning University as an internal training program aimed primarily at software development engineers. “However,” Gilbert says, “they did not offer non-technical classes to train the managers of these engineers and the product managers (and their managers) who own the machine learning projects from the business side.”

Amazon approached Gilbert on the recommendation of fellow Amazon Scholar Eric Zivot, an adjunct professor of finance on loan from the UW Department of Economics.

It has been a good match.

“Amazon needed someone who could translate and speak technical content in a non-technical way,” Gilbert says.

He came up with the idea of writing case studies on how machine learning is used at Amazon and created a class called “Machine Learning for Leaders,” that uses these cases to help non-technical managers understand enough machine learning that they can ask the right questions of their science team to ensure a successful deployment of the machine learning solution to their business problem.

“Amazon is a place where things move quickly and ideas can become reality in a matter of weeks,” Gilbert adds. “It’s been highly rewarding to be part of a dynamic team whose sole purpose is to help other Amazonians become better at their job when the seemingly scary words ‘machine learning’ are floating around.”

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.