The youngest tenured faculty in the world-renowned Krannert School of Management of Purdue University, USA – 35 year old Dr Mohammad Saifur Rahman speaks to Weekend Tribune about his life’s work, and how the new world is built around data.
How did you end up as the youngest tenured faculty in the history of Purdue University?
I completed my HSC from Notre Dame College in Bangladesh, and went on to Southern Illinois University in 1999 for a Bachelors in Computer Science. After I graduated, I enrolled in the MBA program at the same university. My interest area was management information systems (MIS), and I moved on to Purdue University to pursue my PhD in the subject. After four years of research, I was employed at the University of Calgary in Canada as an Assistant Professor, and became an Associate Professor in 2013 with an early promotion. After this, I came back to Purdue University as an Associate Professor in 2014.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
I think the best accomplishment of my life is being an ‘educator’. Being a faculty member gives you an opportunity to impact a lot of people. I love to talk to my students, excite them, share insights with them, and learn from them. Besides, being a faculty member at one of the best universities in USA gives me the opportunity to learn and research; I mean I practically have the scope to learn every single day.
Teaching or research – what do you prefer?
I think I like research more because I can take its outcomes to my class and teach them about it. Incidentally, the classes I teach, whether its undergrad or PhD, there is always an influence of my research - it is an important part of my life. However, I enjoy teaching too. I get to see fresh young minds, hungry to learn new things, and steer them to new directions and lifelong journeys. And it always feels great to hear a student say - “because of your class I am doing this and that.” Nothing can give me such pleasure - the fact that I can actually influence somebody.
What are you researching on currently?
I work on fields like Internet commerce, technology usage, retail and web analytics, consumer behaviour, and decision making. My work combines massive amounts of data from different sources (eg server logs, transactions, US census) to generate insights on how technology drives consumer behaviour, and how online and conventional markets are using new channels to compete and target consumers. I also have particular interest in analysing consumer debt management strategies in the era of Financial Technology. A few of my PhD students are also conducting research on peer-to-peer loans and how that environment is interacting with the local financial market structure.
This is basically a method of debt financing that enables individuals to borrow and lend money, without the use of an official financial institution as an intermediary. Peer-to-peer loan removes middlemen from the process. You can call this social lending.
For example, you need $5,000. Instead of borrowing it from a single bank, you borrow it from 100 individuals, each of whom will loan you $50. These loans will be disbursed through a digital platform which will act as intermediary between borrowers and investors.
For lenders, these loans will generate income in the form of interest, often exceeding what can be earned by traditional means. For borrowers, peer-to-peer loans give access to financing that they may not have otherwise gotten.
Does blockchain technology have any relation to this?
Yes. With blockchain, many people can write entries into a record of information, and a community of users can control how that record is amended and updated. However, considering the present stage of the peer-to-peer industry’s evolution, I can say that it’s too early for it to adopt blockchain technology, as it is still establishing itself into the mainstream. There is also still a great deal of uncertainty in respect to the regulatory environment.
Do you think companies here should focus on analysing customer data for their online platforms?
Of course. Bangladeshis are still not that habituated with buying things online, but the amount of mobile and mobile data proliferation in Bangladesh is quite encouraging. Mobile operators have lots of data about their customers and they have information on what kind of activity they do and what kind of apps they use. This data could be effectively used to begin a mobile based e-commerce in Bangladesh. It could be accelerated with the introduction of mobile wallets.
How do you address the controversies surrounding privacy and security in relation to data driven technology?
Whenever we are working with data and consumers, we sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement regarding the company. Usually, when I get the data, I don’t know who the customer is or what is his/her name. They are just numbers to me.
What about cyber security breaches?
Security breaching is an unavoidable problem. Of course there are antivirus, firewalls etc. but it might happen anytime. In countries like Bangladesh, data is in a really vulnerable position. It is not difficult to hack and that is a scary thing. If I know your national ID and bank information and all of that, I might use those against you. In this era, data is your biggest identity. I think appropriate measures need to be in place for protecting data. Then, even if you fail, you can at least say that you tried.
Apart from research work, Dr Mohammad Saifur Rahman is also well-known for publishing in major journals including Management Science, Information Systems Research, and MIT Sloan Management Review. Currently, he is serving as associate editor of Management Science and Information Systems Research and as the lead organiser for Krannert-Walmart Data Dive, what is believed to be the first data dive on a college campus.