“You have to have risk tolerance. Having the courage to fail and continue, that is essential.”

It is this philosophy that has allowed Mark Stephenson to reach the upper echelons of success in the world of data science and analytics. The founder and CEO of Red Oak Strategic, an AWS Advanced Consulting and Managed Services Partner, Stephenson’s company combines the power of data and analytics to offer strategic consulting to a variety of top Fortune 50 companies, startups and other organizations.

A former Wolverine himself, Stephenson returned to his alma mater on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 to present at a seminar hosted by QMSS at the University of Michigan.

The Road Less Traveled

During his education at Michigan, Stephenson studied Communications and Political Science. “Twenty years ago, if you had told me I’d be lecturing about data science to a group of students at the University of Michigan, I would have told you ‘no chance’... Things changed fast.” Stephenson expressed, “I took a job without really expecting to get into data analytics, and the next thing I knew I was learning how to code.” 

Indeed, his background stands as a testament to the often nonlinear professional path that occurs between a student’s degree and their career. For this reason, he emphasizes adaptability as one of the most important skills upon entering into the workforce — especially in the data analytics sector. Technology grows exponentially, with the computational power and speed of computers estimated to double every one and a half to two years. Accordingly, Stephenson recommends students to take advantage of online classes and resources to help familiarize themselves with the rapidly changing technological domain. He also recommends becoming acquainted with cloud tools in order to gain a competitive edge in the industry. “Learning R and Python will be useful,” he says, “but what will really set you apart is AWS, Google Cloud, Azure, and other cloud platforms.”

The Necessity of Networking

Aside from these technical skills, however, perhaps the most salient point of the seminar was Stephenson’s emphasis on the power of networking. Rather than applying to jobs in an exclusively online format, he emphasizes the value in starting with a network of people in the industry and then continuing from there. “I would have never ended up in my current position if it hadn’t been for networking,” Stephenson remarked. 

When asked for specific networking tips, Stephenson recommends starting by reaching out to alumni currently working in industries that you are interested in. “It’s important to avoid becoming discouraged if you don’t immediately receive responses,” he advises. “If you reach out to one hundred people, and only ten respond, that’s still success.”

In the context of a professional climate that is increasingly using AI softwares for hiring purposes, having these human points of contact can prove especially advantageous. Not only can this help to personalize and facilitate the hiring process, but forming these professional connections often proves essential. Currently, an estimated 85% of jobs on the market are filled through networking. Accordingly, online spaces such as LinkedIn, Handshake, and other recruiting platforms can act as vital conduits in post-graduate job searches.

Mark Stephenson, founder and CEO of Red Oak Strategic & University of Michigan alum

Skills Alone Are Not Enough

Ultimately, the 21st century is quickly becoming defined by these processes of interconnectivity. The professional environment has become increasingly intertwined with these webs of connections, and networking proves to be a vital catalyst in facilitating job searches. 

“It all comes down to adaptability, and a willingness to pitch yourself,” Stephenson emphasizes, “simply possessing those skills alone will distinguish you from ninety-nine percent of the competition.” It is only by embracing these processes and techniques that students and professionals alike can position themselves for success in a progressively competitive and ever-changing job market.