The optimal career path

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Jodie Wallis (BMath ’93) is always in pursuit of the most efficient way to get something done. “Sometimes my partner will tell me to stop optimizing him when I point out small ways to save time and effort,” she laughed.

The Montreal native was a natural fit for Operations Research at the Faculty of Mathematics. While she didn’t begin her degree with a defined career direction, she excelled in courses with a strong practical component. “I liked how Operations Research brought together different disciplines and applied directly to business problems,” she affirmed. “That process of taking a problem, considering multiple layers of solutions, and ending up with something that’s elegant and workable in the real world was appealing to me.”

Wallis credits her six co-op terms for helping her discover her passion for consulting and imparting the problem-solving and communications skills she needed to launch her career. “I look back now having been in the workforce for almost 30 years, and I’m amazed at what I was able to do at 18 years old,” she reflected. “Waterloo’s co-op program is unmatched.”

She completed two of her co-op terms at Accenture, a leading global consulting firm with offices in Toronto that hired her for a full-time position immediately after graduation. She would go on to spend more than 27 years at Accenture, rising to the level of Managing Director for Applied Intelligence before accepting a new position as Global Chief Analytics Officer for Manulife in 2020.

“I’m grateful for the high standards at Waterloo, because clients hire consultants for work that’s especially difficult, novel, or multi-dimensional,” Wallis reflected. As she served clients across industries at Accenture, she relied heavily on her background in data analytics and optimization to develop actionable solutions for complex problems.

In recent years, she and her team focused heavily on using AI and applied intelligence to maximize the value of the data that large organizations have already collected. She remembers working on one optimization project for a client who produces frozen vegetable products in mass quantities. By using AI models and hundreds of data points about size, mass, density, shape, and a host of other factors, her team could determine the ideal amount of peel to yield the greatest amount of product and the absolute minimum amount of waste. “It turned out that a tiniest fraction of peel made a major difference in yield,” she discovered. “The algorithmic piece of AI is trendy and sexy, but the true business value is taking those outcomes and embedding them back into a business.”

Solving a problem is only half the battle in consulting, says Wallis. “I had to learn to articulate problems and solutions in a way that different audiences found accessible and persuasive,” she shared. “These communications skills are primarily learned in the workplace, starting with my co-op terms.”

Wallis’s daughter, Samantha, is currently enrolled at the Faculty of Mathematics. “It’s interesting to compare our experience,” said Wallis. “So much has changed since I graduated, especially the technology we used. On the other hand, the value of the education has stayed the same. You can go anywhere and do anything with a math degree from Waterloo.”