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Predicting the Future

A scholarship opportunity allows first-generation student Alexis Moreno (’21) to write a new story.

April 30, 2021

Alexis Moreno was finishing up a temporary job as a call center representative for EdFinancial Services when his supervisor asked him curiously: What was he studying in college? And what did he plan to do in a year when he graduated?

“Well,” said Moreno, a statistics major and rising senior at the time, “I want to build statistical models to try to predict the future.”

A graduate of Knoxville’s Central High School, Moreno had spent his first two years at UT as an engineering student. But an internship experience after his sophomore year helped him realize his true love is numbers and using them to better understand the world around him.

“Engineering had felt like a safe option,” says Moreno, who transferred into the statistics program in the College of Arts and Sciences his junior year. Raised by a single mother who could neither read nor write in English, he was the first in his family to graduate from high school. “I had a pretty nomadic existence for most of my life. So stability was really important for me.”

Moreno spent his childhood in Gwinnett County, Georgia, moving from place to place with his mother, who worked in bars and restaurants, and two younger siblings. When his mom left for Mexico during his junior year of high school, Moreno moved in with his aunt in Knoxville.

“My time at UT has been the longest I’ve ever lived in one place,” says Moreno, who chose UT after being awarded the Tennessee Pledge scholarship (a part of the Tri-Star Scholarship Program), which covers his tuition and fees and room and board throughout his time in college.

“That motivated me to really go above and beyond. I never made below a 3.0 a semester.” Moreno will graduate this spring summa cum laude, with a near-perfect GPA. “I was too afraid to lose my scholarship.”

With a university education entirely paid for, Moreno pursued his passion for predictions and new knowledge. He learned to code in his business analytics and statistics classes and spent time on his own perfecting how to translate even the most technical information into something accessible to anyone.

That mix of energy, skill, and improvisation came in especially useful when his call center supervisor at EdFinancial asked Moreno if he would stay on for a paid internship focused on simplifying the way the company tracks call volume. Previously, the department had employed a manual process for predicting call volume, which was the way management determined how many reps to employ throughout the year. Calculations took as long as eight weeks.

Using a statistical forecasting model—the prophet model developed by Facebook—Moreno automated the process. Knowing his managers wouldn’t understand code, he built a website where they could access the information and export it into a spreadsheet.

“In most cases, it took under 15 minutes to get projections that were taking them weeks to do before,” Moreno says.

Brian Stevens, a senior lecturer in the Department of Business Analytics and Statistics in UT’s Haslam College of Business, taught Moreno regression modeling and data mining and analytics. Moreno had stood out as a leader in those classes, often helping other students grasp difficult topics. Stevens had no idea about the challenges Moreno had faced to get to UT.

“You could’ve told me both his parents went to Harvard and I would’ve believed you,” Stevens says.

Stevens was less surprised to learn that Moreno has been so successful in the professional world—even before graduating.

“It really takes an inquisitive person, someone who can communicate through an entire data set and do it in a way that makes sense to anyone, to be a successful as a coder,” Stevens says. “And Alexis is not just a brilliant coder. He’s a brilliant communicator.”

Moreno was recently offered a job as a junior data scientist with Publicis Sapient, a digital consulting company headquartered in Boston; he was one of only eight applicants out of 1,400 to be offered a full-time job. What cinched his success was his performance during a technical interview where he was provided with information from one of the company’s recent marketing campaigns. The numbers were in spreadsheets, with some information purposely missing or intended to mislead. He had to determine, with no additional information, whether the campaign had been successful or not.

“That’s where my college classes really helped,” Moreno says. “I had to build a narrative using just numbers. It was open-ended. There was no right answer. It’s like what we learned: the answer is only as good as the case you make for it.”

Based on the raw data of Moreno’s life alone, few could have predicted his success so far. But, as he explains, that’s why data scientists make educated guesses; the unpredictable will always come into play.

To learn more about the TriStar Scholarship Program and eligibility, visit the One Stop website.

Produced by Brian Canever and the Office of Communications and Marketing

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