Carnegie Mellon University


July 31, 2019

Business Analytics Student Team Explores PNC Clickstream Data

The Tepper School of Business PNC Center for Financial Services Innovation was established in partnership with PNC Bank in 2013 to foster research surrounding financial technology innovations, such as blockchain technologies or artificial intelligence applications. One field of interest for fintech research is big data analytics, which reveals key information about consumer behaviors and preferences.

For students in the Business Analytics MBA Track, the center offers a significant opportunity to work with real data and fuel strategic decisions for PNC Bank. “Often, business courses give students neatly organized practice data to work with, which can be valuable to learn analytic techniques,” said Willem-Jan van Hoeve, Carnegie Bosch Associate Professor of Operations Research and faculty coordinator of the track. “But in this track, and especially in their capstone project, students must not only work with data that hasn’t been sanitized; they must also learn how to identify how that data can be used.” 

MBA students Timothy Brown, Joseph Poerio, and Zhenxiang Zhao were part of a student team working with PNC Bank as part of their required capstone project for the track. Hongjie Wang, Senior Vice President of Analytic Innovation at PNC, who is involved with research collaborations at the PNC Center, shared that the project involved modeling consumer behavioral data. “Such insights and knowledge will help PNC to keep improving our processes and technology to continue our success in providing value-added service and experience to customers,” he shared. 

In addition to Wang, the students collaborated with PNC representatives Michael Thompson, Business Analytics Manager, and Vanessa Vidal, Quantitative Analytics & Model Development Analyst, on the project. “It was truly a pleasure to work with the students,” Vidal said.

Why Tepper 

The project focused on clickstream data, which are records of consumer behavior on websites. PNC tracks which pages on its site that users visit and how they use PNC’s digital services. The students used an analytical process known as “clustering” to identify patterns of behavior that the bank can use to inform decisions about digital marketing and web design. “Given the exploratory nature of the project, the students needed to identify possible ways to look at the data to generate valuable insights,” said Yan Huang, Assistant Professor of Business Technologies, BP Junior Faculty Chair AY 2019-2020. “This is an important skill for any data analyst, data scientist or business manager.”

Huang was a faculty adviser on the PNC project. She believed that PNC’s trove of clickstream data would be an ideal test case for a Business Analytics track capstone, and worked with Wang to bring the project to the students. 

Wang and his colleagues reported that the PNC Center has sponsored several capstone projects with Tepper School students, both to support PNC Bank and its operations as well as to enrich the students’ educational and professional experiences.

“Tepper students are strong in quantitative skills,” Huang said. “The Business Analytics track students are well-equipped with the knowledge and skills needed for this project.”

Beyond their technical skills, Zhao stressed how important it was that the students were able to communicate their analysis in a meaningful way. “I have continued to develop my ability to humanize data,” he said. “Humanizing the project not only helped guide our methodology on the front end, but also aided with the interpretation of the results on the back end. It gave us line of sight to the ‘why’ behind this endeavor.”

Quantitative Applications

Zhao had come to the Tepper School following a career focused on customer insights. “I’ve always had a fascination with using data to better understand consumer behavior,” he said. He was eager to continue this through the Business Analytics track, and ranked the PNC Center project as his top choice for the capstone.

The Business Analytics track curriculum focuses on quantitative skills, deepening students’ understanding of big data and data management, machine learning, and mining and analytical techniques. “Throughout this project, the students can apply the statistical and data mining tools they learn in class to a real-world setting,” Huang said. 

Brown had hoped for this kind of practical experience in coming to the Tepper School. “I came into the MBA with an analytics background, and I wanted to use the program to learn how businesses apply the techniques I was using in other contexts,” he said. “The opportunity to do a consulting project and genuinely practice using analytics in a practical setting with a company was something I couldn’t turn down.”

Huang also highlighted the opportunity the project offered for students to apply their knowledge of digital marketing campaigns, targeted marketing, and customer journey. Capstone projects are intended to bring together many diverse skills and experiences developed over the course of the MBA program.

Successful Teamwork

The PNC team was highly impressed with the students’ work. “Although the data is rather complex and massive, the student’s work resulted in gaining additional and deeper understanding of the data,” they stated. “Such insights and knowledge will help PNC to keep improving our processes and technology to continue our success in providing value-adding service and experience to customers.”

Brown, Zhao, and Poerio all remarked that the strength of their teamwork was an important part of the project. “This project helped me prepare for my career after Tepper by working on a real-world problem on a cross-functional team,” Poerio said. 

Zhao clarified each team member’s role: He managed the project while Brown handled most of the mathematical analysis and Poerio was the programmer. “This project has shown me that true leadership isn’t just about completing tasks on schedule; it’s about uniting very different people together to work towards a single vision,” Zhao said. 

“In 12 weeks our team was presented a significant and real business challenge, and as a team we were able to adapt to a new problem that we didn’t fully understand at first,” Brown said. “I really got a sense for what value I can provide to an organization both by myself and with others, and how much I’m capable of learning when I have support and a team behind me.”