5 Questions with Ricky Hennessey, PhD 2015, Data Design Lead at Fjord

Ricky Hennessey grew up outside of Portland, Oregon and received a B.S. in biomedical engineering from Cal Polytechnic University. He credits his time at UT Austin with better equipping him to handle ambiguous tasks, which is important in his job as a Data Design Lead at Fjord, a design agency owned by Accenture.

What’s it like to work at Fjord? What type of clients do you work with and what do you do?

Our focus is designing products and services. I work with clients across a variety of industries: government, aerospace, manufacturing, and retail. I lead the data and design team, which combines data science and design thinking into one discipline. We work on things that have a user experience element to them. Any product that has a user at the end, we’re thinking about them as we do our work. As a data scientist, I work on a technical problems. Because the data these companies collect is such a huge part of their business and strategy, it's unavoidable to also be involved in those aspects. It’s an interesting way for technical people to get involved in decision making processes that they normally wouldn’t be a part of.

What’s a trend you’re seeing in machine learning or how we apply data to our lives?

Companies have figured out how to collect massive amounts of data affordably. Now, we’re moving into this phase where most of our clients have data and they don’t know what to do with it. We’re at a point where we’re figuring out how to use that data. And a big part of that is machine learning.

One observation I have is that, I think people assume these companies are more advanced than they are. Most companies are just getting started in moving down this path of replacing manual processes to make them more efficient or faster or less expensive.

How has your Ph.D. helped you?

While I didn’t need a Ph.D. to do the work I do, it is valuable. First of all, having that in your title adds cachet and respect. More importantly, the opportunities to be in grad school and solve really hard problems without much guidance is a useful skill that I don’t know if I would have otherwise.

I enjoyed the experience. I didn’t go into debt. I was paid while I was there. I was lucky to have really good advisors too.

What were some of the most memorable experiences you had at UT?

I worked across Mia Markey’s and James Tunnell’s labs. I did computational modeling related to optics and skin cancer. My main project was building a computational model to show how photons move through human tissue, and then that was applied to noninvasive cancer skin detection.

I ended up graduating quickly—three and a half years from beginning to end. One of the reasons why is that early on in my first year I had idea this idea I wanted to try: creating a new way to model how light moves through tissue. I got the idea from a class I had taken and stayed up long nights in a row working to test the idea out. It ended up working really well. The rest of my time at UT Austin was moving down that track and continuing to explore that idea. I published a highly cited paper early on, and that enabled me to graduate earlier.

What’s something graduate students should do during their time at UT Austin?

One thing I loved doing in graduate school was speaking at conferences. It was a good way to pad my CV and travel. Those conferences gave me public speaking experience and helped me learn to communicate my research to different audiences.

Communicating technical information to non-technical people is an invaluable skill in my job. Especially at Fjord. I’m one of the few technical people. If I can’t explain what I’m doing to people I’m working with, it makes it harder for people to work with me.

It’s something you see a lot in academia: people making research sound more complicated than it needs to be. That’s doing a disservice to their research, because it’s not going to have as wide of an audience if it isn’t understandable.