The following are excerpts from the OR/MS Today interview with Matt Brady, Volley Solutions Founder & CEO, featured in the July 2002 issue "What's Your Story". We cover topics from starting a business during a global pandemic to setting a paper airplane to record (maybe).
Thank you for joining me, Matt. Could you introduce yourself to the INFORMS membership?
Sure, I’m Matt Brady. I am the Founder & CEO of Volley Solutions, and I also serve as an Instructor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
How long have you been an INFORMS member?
A short six months. I just joined after taking the full appointment at Leeds, and found out about the organization, joined and then applied to speak. I did my first speaking gig yesterday, and it has just been an awesome event. It all came together very quickly.
How did you learn of INFORMS?
Through the written material and the online content, I've just really been seeking out enrichment for myself through the university and as an entrepreneur and for my students, and to get involved in the conversation online. I found that the material was so rich, that I couldn't not get involved in some more meaningful capacity.
That's great. Most people are told about it from someone at the university, so that's awesome that you've just found us.
I did. It was very organic and honestly, I'm encouraged by that because of all of the hard work behind the scenes.
Yeah putting that content out really does make a difference. Great, thank you. So let's start with just how you became interested in the field of analytics in general, and what your main expertise is?
I have been a technologist, interested in data and systems, for my entire life. I went to code camp in elementary school and was very interested in technology projects in high school and in my undergrad and graduate degrees. I've always really honed in on it and for me, it's always about impacting people's lives. I joke that I've never finished a video game and have no real interest in technology for technology's sake. I am always looking for real tools and techniques to impact the world in some smaller big way.
Okay, so do you mind me asking what your degrees are in?
At Purdue, I started in Industrial Engineering. I was really drawn to the applied Operations Research and doing the things that can really improve organizations in a dramatic fashion, and found that I was even more interested than in the technology side of things. So I transitioned over to the School of Technology, which is now called the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, and with that, I immediately fell in love with every class. I couldn't get enough of all of the database design and systems planning and project management and organizational leadership. So for me, I have studied what I have done for 25 years, every day. I learned how to do information technology and I have done that ever since. At Northwestern for my MBA, once again, I sought out classes that were very much aligned with the confluence of technology and business, and the best of both worlds. I have sought out really deep sciences, like game theory and decision science, and I've also really tried to understand the organizational impacts and change management of those.
Can you tell us about your startup, Volley Solutions, and the path that led to its founding?
Sure yes, I will give you that genesis story. It actually began at Purdue as an undergrad. The Dean of Students office had commissioned a project to serve the disabled student population. They needed a way to coordinate all of those schedules, which are school-based semester schedules… pretty complex… and the service providers that go along with those disabled students… note-takers, stenographers, tutors, scribes, and dozens of different very specific certified roles. I built a decision engine that was optimized for matching of a “two-sided market”. Said in normal terms, the students and the service providers would all provide their inputs… some quantitative, much of it qualitative, and the decision engine would work through different combinations and would propose the optimal, and it would be “perfect”. My the boss wouldn’t have the dozens of spreadsheets all over her floor, with little markers and highlighters. And then, of course, a schedule would change… and everything would fall apart. So we would re-run these on a daily basis for the first two to three weeks, and it became a system that both the Dean of Students office used in many departments in that Purdue used. And that then became some technology transfer that I negotiated, decades ago, then put it on the shelf. I wrote the business plan for Volley in grad school, and then finally… through some entrepreneurship successes… I have been able to found Volley Solutions as of two years ago this week. I am out to build a team that provides a platform that brings decision science to a lot of people in a lot of organizations that don't really know what decision science is, nor should they really need to.
That’s exciting. You mentioned two years so that means that you started at mid-pandemic or at the height of the pandemic. So did that affect the startup in any way or any other aspects of your career?
I would say that it didn't affect the business that I founded. I would tell you that it probably initiated some of the sense that we aren't promised tomorrow, you know, nothing is completely certain. Both for me, and for my wife, who happened to start a commercial real estate business right at the same time, I think we both just felt this sense that if we're going to make a change and go for it, this is the time to do it. Looking back, that's really been my journey… is to bet on myself. I had always told myself that at some point in my career, I wouldn't just fulfill a role and try to grow a team and achieve the goals that were given to us, but that I would take the opportunity to try something that I really believed in and was passionate about. From Purdue in the late 90s, through Northwestern in the early and mid-2000s, and now recently I have been able to really go for it. It's been so rewarding. So the pandemic has been… maybe the context has been challenging, obviously, for many people… but it's also been a launching point to say okay, if not now, when?!
So instead of picking up a new hobby, you're learning to bake bread you and your wife just both decided to start businesses?
We spent a lot of time… we have three teenagers… and we had a lot of good time with them. We did a bunch of activities that we wouldn't typically have the chance to do, from legos to puzzles to just good time over coffee. So it's been a time that we've tried to make the most of, I think, like yes people.
How do you define analytics? What is your definition?
I have thought about this a little bit over this week, and certainly being involved with the Analytics program at CU Boulder. I have come up with this phrase that seems to resonate, at least with me. And that is, “finding actionable insights that help”. That happens to spell out “faith”. So it is finding something in the data, that you can do something with, that matters. I find that in technology especially, there are a lot of things that you can do… and there are fewer things, or a subset, that actually will help an organization or impact someone. So trying to look for where data can inform action that will yield an impact. So that's what I've come up. I do believe that data has meaning and value. And I think the work that I've seen here at INFORMS has significant meaning and value. It's been really inspiring to be around this group of people.
So you've been in it for a while. You've been in what we call industry and you’re also an academic. Do you have advice for analytics and data science students right now, trying to decide on the career path to take?
That's an interesting question. I would tell you that I think they should form a career path that suits their passions and their purpose. For me, I have mostly a corporate and startup background. But I've always been interested in the continuous learning process. My mom was an educator for her entire career. So I have always had a sense that there is a way to balance the two. I never expected to be doing both at once, as an entrepreneur and an educator. But my sense, really, is that the corporate world is going to bear more of the burden of the cost of education. I think, on the contrary, academia is going to necessarily be more involved in calibrating the student's skillsets and capabilities to industry. So I think that there will be paths, like the one that I happen to be on right now, that are a “both and”.
So as a new member, other than the Analytics conference, are there any other benefits that you found useful so far or any that you're looking forward to utilizing?
Both of the magazines... digital, and I was able to grab some print copies... have been really nice resources. Again, it's just a great way to dive. The Resoundingly Human podcast is brilliant. I really enjoy the depth that they're able to go into. So I have really appreciated those. Looking forward, I think the events are very meaningful, very impactful. I will be in Indianapolis, where some of my family lives, so that will be for INFORMS Annual. Then, I will look to welcome everyone to Denver in 2023. It is nice that there's a calendar that's published… people can get excited about those. I think both the one-on-one, as well as the big group, are really meaningful.
What's been your favorite part of the analytics conference in Houston?
The meals… let's just be honest… the eating. But honestly, the conversation. The chance to speak to people from real research and development, whether it's in academia or corporate; to speak with startups; to speak with organizations that are growing by building data science programs and valuing analytics at the executive level. The award ceremony was unbelievable… super inspirational, everyone on the stage. I think that it's a nice combination of interests for a variety of people to find something in someone that they can really resonate with.
I thought you might say that giving your talk was your favorite part.
My talk was fun. I learned a lot by preparing to deliver it, because this is an esteemed group, and I am passionate about the topics that I covered as an entrepreneur and educator. But really, that is my giving back. I've listened to so many talks that I've gotten so much from that it’s been a real joy.
For anyone who might have missed your talk, can you give a brief summary?
Sure. Yesterday, I presented on how I have taken decision science to heart, both in the startup in corporate worlds… bringing systems from across my career from Purdue and Northwestern, that I mentioned; from Procter & Gamble; to Leo Burnett; to TransUnion… bringing these different techniques, for either planning internal priorities or allowing in some cases consumers to make more efficient decisions through what is called “Efficient Consumer Response”, a really interesting science that Procter & Gamble pioneered. So I've had this unique exposure to these same themes throughout my entire career. Then bringing that into academia, maybe not as an academic, but I've wanted to speak with the students and equip the students in these same techniques that would allow them to make the best decision possible… then to collaborate on how to improve their decision making over time. So the Volley platform for decision optimization, as well as these mindsets around understanding the data that you're using to make good decisions… that you're not allowing bias and tradition and limited collaboration to really impede the quality of the decisions, is very important to me. Then to allow people to debrief and do post-mortems and pre-mortems to look forward to improving… because every organization, wherever they're at in the decision quality continuum, can improve. I think there are necessary processes and tools that can be put into place to assist that growth process.
I really enjoyed your your talk and seeing Volley the platform, and how you showed exactly how it works, and how simple it seems… while I’m sure behind the scenes, it’s not. We appreciate that.
Tell us a little bit more about yourself. What were you like in high school?
I've always enjoyed trying to blend a variety of things. So I've really enjoyed math and science. That's why I went into engineering at Purdue, and found technology, and then wanted to find that crossroads of the business and technology convergence. Aside from that though, I've always been really curious. I've always wanted to start businesses or help grow organizations in some way, whether it's for-profit or non-profit. My wife and I helped start a nonprofit in Fort Collins, Colorado. That's what brought us away from our family roots in the Chicago and the greater Indianapolis and Fort Wayne areas. So if anything, there's this theme, from my schooling through today, and on as we raise our kids to be adults now, to understand the importance of giving a “yes” to something… and the necessity to then say “no” to a number of things, in order to make that “yes” really matter. So that's been really what we have done, is just find things that we feel really interested in, and selectively and cautiously go forward… and find out then what the next adventure might be after that.
That's inspirational. How about something someone might not know about you? Any hidden talents?
Well I don't know if it's a talent, but it's something that certainly very few people know. And that is that I think that I may have set the world record for the longest paper airplane flight. It was in fifth grade, out on the soccer fields, with the science teacher. He had us make the best paper airplane we knew how to make. I just did probably what most people would make… not quite the long narrow one, but sort of the boxy one. And it was my turn to throw the airplane, and it sort of floated around… and then it just took off… and two and a half minutes later, we were like cheering and running to get it. We think that, though it wasn't official… you have to be indoors to set a record, apparently. But there is a very good movie on paper airplanes, so you could take a look… it's really cute. But yeah, that's the one claim to fame I have. I'm gonna stand by it… talk to Guinness.
My last question for you is, say that after this interview, you walk outside, and you find a $10 million winning lottery ticket. What do you do with it?
Well, I have to revert back to what we've talked to our kids about since they were little. We would encourage them to… or i would… give, save, and spend. So that would be my mindset, is to try to give money to where it's going to matter and where there's the greatest need; save, or maybe I would say invest, in either businesses or other opportunities that seem like they will matter over the long term; then it's always nice to spend a little bit too. But definitely in that order.
What would you spend a little bit on right now?
A lake house. One of the things that we would love to do is have time with all of our family, where all the generations could be together. There are like five generations that we have access to in a pretty concentrated area. So I think that a lake house in northern Indiana, that would be just big enough to let everybody sleep on the floor or in a bunk house and be together. I think that's the best way that we could spend our time while we're not working and raising teenagers.
Perfect. Thank you so much.
Yeah, thank you.