Ascendant Analytics

Simha Mummalaneni, an expert guide to data-driven marketing, wins the 2023 PACCAR Award for Excellence in Teaching

Tackling the most technical of topics may not be an obvious path to teaching awards.

Yet a rarefied expertise at guiding students through the esoteric complexities of customer and digital marketing analytics is precisely what earned Simha Mummalaneni, an assistant professor of marketing at the UW Foster School of Business, the 2023 PACCAR Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The Foster School’s highest teaching honor was established in 1998 by PACCAR Inc, the Fortune 200 global technology company based in Bellevue, Washington. The PACCAR Award’s annual recipient is selected by Foster MBAs.

Students in Mummalaneni’s Customer Analytics and Digital Marketing Analytics classes were duly impressed by his ability and determination to lead them toward genuine understanding of challenging concepts and techniques, and to equip them with a practical set of skills. In nominating him for the award, they described him, repeatedly, as “engaging,” “passionate,” “approachable,” “relevant” and “caring.”

“Simha is a great professor who dives deep into what the data means and how you can utilize it to inform best decisions,” noted one Foster MBA. “He is patient and pushes you outside your comfort zone—in a good way—in order to learn. Wrong answers are never met with criticism, only more questions to help you get to why.”

Distinguished fellow

Mummalaneni joined the Foster School Department of Marketing and International Business in 2016, after earning his BA in economics and political science at the University of Chicago and his PhD in marketing from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

The former data scientist at Twitter became a distinguished faculty fellow of Foster’s Customer Analytics Center.

In this capacity, he has brought a fascinating portfolio of research investigations to Foster, including work on platform markets, retailing, advertising, digital marketing, regulations and public policy. Most recently, he has studied the effects of cigarette advertising and bans, gender diversity in cable news, affirmative action in procurement markets, B2B supplier diversification, and biases in government procurement markets.

Just as renowned as a superb educator, Mummalaneni received the Dean’s Excellence Award for Graduate Teaching (2020) and the Full-time MBA Professor of the Year Award (2022) prior to this year’s PACCAR Award.

Comprehending context

His method of effective data analysis requires both mastery of the tools and techniques of the trade and a deep comprehension of context. Getting there is not easy.

“There’s a tough learning curve at first, and it can absolutely be a frustrating experience for students who are new to do this,” he says. “I try to be honest at the beginning of the quarter: this is an elective course with a pretty narrow focus. It requires a lot of work, and the course content might be challenging at times.”

He introduces problems before the tools to solve them, creating a motivating sense of anticipation. “I’ve found that students are quite happy to learn new technical tools once they understand why it can help them solve important problems that businesses care about,” he says.

Mummalaneni begins with in-class demos, analyzing data together so his students can see the actual coding and statistical inference methods he is using while he works the problem in real time. This helps them get comfortable with the tools and better understand how they can be used effectively.

For example, he runs a case featuring promotional emails that many companies send to customers. Such communication involves myriad practical decisions to be made about content, frequency, segmentation, personalization and persistence.

“The answers to these questions aren’t obvious, but they are all questions that can be answered through careful data analysis,” Mummalaneni says. “And there’s often a lot of money at stake if companies can do that kind of analysis well.”

Making a difference with data

The notion resonates with Foster students who, increasingly, want to make a difference with data. And they applaud his efforts.

“Simha managed to make one of the most technically dense classes interesting and engaging,” wrote one of his MBA students. “I wish he could teach more!”

“This was one of the most relevant classes to what I envision my actual job will be after graduating,” noted another. “Simha is not only a good teacher who can break down complex topics into manageable learnings, but he also is clearly an expert in his field who brings a lot of real-world experience to an academic setting. He challenges us to grow and be uncomfortable yet try new things.”

That statement echoes the words of Zara Mahmood (MBA 2020), who was asked for her favorite Foster course when she was selected one of Poets & Quants “MBAs to Watch” in 2020.

“Simha Mummalaneni for Customer Analytics was the challenge I had been waiting for in my MBA program,” Mahmood told P&Q. “Getting to understand marketing through a quantitative lens of statistical modeling and coding techniques was both grueling and gratifying. I walked away with an arsenal of analytic decision-making skills to help inform decisions on customer targeting, acquisition and retention.”

Mahmood, now a marketing manager at Mattel, appreciated how Mummalaneni inspired her to “embrace the growth mindset to its fullest.”

Sentiments like these are what make a PACCAR Award winner. But receiving the Foster School’s most prestigious accolade is indicative of something even more important to Mummalaneni.

“I’m always glad to hear that students are finding my class valuable,” he says, “both now and in the long run.”

PACCAR and its founding Pigott family are longtime supporters of the Foster School. In addition to the PACCAR Award and three endowed faculty positions, support from the Pigott family and company was instrumental in building PACCAR Hall, the Foster School’s 135,000-square-foot classroom facility that was completed in 2010.

Videography by Paul Gibson.

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 of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.