With the 2018 Conference rapidly approaching, we wanted to again give some attention to a critical component of the conference: career development. We recently corresponded with Cory Jez, Coordinator of Basketball Analytics with the Utah Jazz, to learn about his experience at SSAC and how the conference ultimately served as a catalyst for his entrance into the world of professional basketball. Cory holds a degree in Economics from Virginia Tech.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I am definitely the product of a basketball family. My father played and coached college basketball and coached me through high school. I graduated from Virginia Tech with an Economics degree in 2011. Not really knowing what I wanted to do with said Economics degree, I went to work as an Analyst for a marketing firm in my hometown of Richmond, VA. Like a lot of business students, I had considered myself an Excel guru in college, but when I discovered tools like SQL and Tableau, I was absolutely hooked. I went on to spend time consulting for Tableau Software, and working in different Business Intelligence roles for different firms before making my leap into sports.
How did you find your way into sports and how did the Sloan conference help get you there?
After working in the Analytics field for about 4 years, I began realizing that I had developed an in-demand skillset, and I felt the need to be more engaged in my work than just building reports for a business to which I didn’t relate. Being a huge sports fan and seeing the “Moneyball” revolution come to the mainstream lead me to explore working in sports in some analytical capacity. Attending my first Sloan conference in 2015 (on my own dime) and competing in the ESPN Hackathon was definitely a catalyst for this. Shortly after that conference, I decided to step away from a cushy corporate Business Intelligence job and began freelancing for the Pac-12 Conference on their Fan Engagement program, which mostly centered around shared intelligence for tickets and fan analytics. Even though it wasn’t “on the field” data, it was definitely a step in the right direction. In 2016, I had the opportunity to join Fanduel to run their Business Analytics team, which gave me a lot of exposure to the different factors, on and off the field, that drive their business. When the chance to work with the Utah Jazz specifically on basketball analytics became available, I jumped at the opportunity.
As much as moving into sports-related roles helped me continue working towards my goal of working for a team – equally important was the investment I made in myself and my personal development. Attending conferences like Sloan, competing in Kaggle competitions, taking online classes, and doing side-projects all helped prepare me to capitalize on an opportunity with a front-office when it presented itself.
Can you tell us a bit about your current role?
My core role is to support the Front Office and Coaching Staff with any data points needed in the decision-making process. In Utah, we have an amazing leadership group, led by our GM, Dennis Lindsey, that supports collaborative decision making from all members of the organization. The “old school vs. new school” dichotomy simply does not exist here, and that allows us to make decisions supported by information from a variety of sources. My role is to supply input from an analytical perspective, just as a scout will provide input from their observations. In combining all that information, we can do our best to come to decisions which (while they may not always be “right”) will be well-founded in process and perspective.
What type of skillset do you need to obtain and thrive in such a role?
To work in any analytical role, sports or otherwise, there is certainly a baseline of technical competency needed to complete your work. Experience with relational databases, data collection and aggregation, statistics and advanced analysis, as well as data visualization and communication are all keys to any analytical function. However just being good with a few technical skills isn’t adequate. The biggest key to being a successful analyst is the ability to communicate your findings to your stakeholders (whether a GM, a scout, or whoever you work with) in a simple, concise, manner. Analytics, at its core, is a service. You must have a mindset of service leadership to drive change from an analytical perspective.
How has your experience working in sports and an NBA franchise differed from your expectations?
I think one of the biggest assets I had when starting with an NBA franchise is that I didn’t carry with me a lot of expectations. I didn’t have preconceived notions of work that was or was not within my domain. This has allowed me to try to soak up as much information as possible – be it watching film with scouts, breaking down sets, or learning more about the CBA from our cap expert. Certainly, reading sites like CleaningTheGlass (shoutout Ben Falk) are helpful for understanding life in the front office, but each organization is so different that it is tough to know what to expect.
What has been the biggest challenge for you since joining the Jazz?
When you’re doing side-projects on your own, there’s a part of you that wants to showcase your analytical muscles. A neural network has to be more impressive than linear regression, right? A Tableau dashboard has to be more impressive than an excel spreadsheet, right? Well a GM, or coach, or scout doesn’t have time to debate the best error-metric or visualization type; they need information, and they need it in a manner that is concise, understandable, and actionable. For me, I have to temper the desire to reach for the most complex model or solution, and provide the answer that is most impactful and easiest to understand, which is often accomplished by the simplest approach.
What advice would you give to those who are striving to work in sports/sports analytics?
If you really want to work in sports, and sports analytics specifically, then why aren’t you already doing so? The unique thing about this field is that there is very little proprietary information. On-court performance, salaries, etc. are all public domain. Except for a few data points which require significant cost (i.e. Second Spectrum), anybody can create an open-sourced project on their own today. Jobs with professional franchises are scarce commodities, few exist and there is a lot of competition for every opening which comes up. The best advice I can give is to do what you’re passionate about and everything else will take care of itself.
What is your favorite part about the Sloan conference?
Where else can you pass Robert Kraft in the hallway, take a selfie with Shane Battier, and see The White Mamba moderate a panel?? In all seriousness, this conference is so unique in that it brings together people with such diverse backgrounds and interests. I’ve developed a number of relationships over the years at Sloan, and certainly the best thing anyone can do is to come, be engaged, network, and learn as much as they can from the conference.
What is your ultimate goal? To be a general manager?
Like most young professionals, I of course have career ambitions and a desire to continue to grow my experience and skillset. I also understand that I’m relatively new to the front-office world of sports, and that I have a lot to learn. If there’s anything I took away from the experience of interviewing with professional franchises, it’s that timing, networking, skills and experience all play a massive role in these types of opportunities. I’m just focused on being a valuable asset to the Jazz in my current role, while learning as much as I can about the NBA. If I do that, my career path will (hopefully) take care of itself.