ORMS Today
February 1999

Plenty to be Thankful For

By Vijay Mehrotra

In the spirit of the new year, here are 20 things that we should all be thankful for today:

  • ERP Systems (Existence). Sure, these aren't the smartest systems in the world, but like it or not, they have really paved the way for getting more and more modeling tools into use by more and more people. At the very least, they are a huge step forward in terms of getting data collected and for getting people using a modeling system to figure out what to do.

  • ERP Systems (Limitations). When even SAP says that "ERP is dead," you know that there is serious change going on in the perceived value of these systems. Viva supply chain optimization!

  • Enterprise Software Packages. This is where our work will really make its mark in the business mainstream. People who make enterprise software will perpetually be looking for ways to differentiate themselves from competitors to get more customers to pay more money. What this means is that more and more of them will end up building intelligent models into their products, either to innovate or to catch up with their competitors. It's our challenge to keep up with them by combining powerful solutions with the practical needs of implementation.

  • ILOG/CPLEX and its Competitors. To a relatively non-technical OR professional like me, it is comforting to know that there are people, commericially as well as in universities, working day and night on improving the speed of solvers and increasing the size and complexity of the problems that can actually be solved.

  • Solver. That thing in that spreadsheet made by that company. It lets the rest of us set up and solve a mathematical programming problem without ever thinking about the words "sparsity," "pivot" or "dual" if we don't want to.

  • Cut-and-Paste. It doesn't seem that it was so long ago that I was overjoyed to use XEDIT on a mainframe just to avoid typing. Without cntl-x and cntl-v, I'd probably still be working on that dissertation.

  • Faster Computers. For making it possible to create bigger, stronger, faster tools that can be used by more and more people with less and less up-front cost, we INFORMS people owe a lot to Moore's Law (as users of those same machines, we can't help but scratch our heads at how quickly we need to replace our PCs to run the latest and greatest software, but that's just a fact of life today).

  • Cheap Memory. See Faster Computers above.

  • WWW. Yes, I kind of miss the old days with Usenet Newsgroups being a cozy little on-line world for those of us in the know. No, I don't think that humanity is all that much fundamentally better off because we can track our stocks, order a pizza, or listen to the World Series through our PCs. But there really is something amazing about all of the information that is now at our fingertips.

  • Relational Databases, Cubes and Beyond. Keep storing that data efficiently, and we'll keep figuring out how to make smart use of it.

  • INFORMS (the acronym). Rob Saltzman and Richard Bradford don't get nearly enough credit for coming up with this name. Let's be clear about it. We might still be talking about the merger of ORSA and TIMS if these guys hadn't come up with the rarest of acronyms: meaningful and yet not all that contrived.

  • Deregulation. Yesterday in the airline industry, today in electric power, tomorrow who knows where? It makes the world a lot more competitive and chaotic for those trying to manage businesses, which in turn creates a need for analysis and models to provide visibility and intelligence.

  • Military Funding. I'll be honest: I'm a pretty dovish guy myself. But even I can't dispute the fact that a lot of advances directly and indirectly relevant to our profession have come as a result of defense dollars. See WWW above.

  • Reductions in Military Funding. I know this has made life harder for the tenure-trackers and grad students out there to get $$$. But I'm happy to live in a world where the Cold War threats no longer loom as they once did, and the drop in military research is a byproduct.

  • Federal Express. A company built around planning and logistics that keeps growing, delivering more volume and value for its customers. Another wildly successful commercial for the OR profession.

  • Lucent Technologies. Check out www.informs.org/Press/Lucent.html to learn about all the things that this behemoth is doing with modeling, from network analysis to product design to manufacturing.

  • A.K. Erlang. An obscure Danish Telecomm engineer, this guy is still a household name in call centers all over the world, more than 70 years after his death. We stochastic types don't really think much about his basic results, yet they are still incredibly widely used even today.

  • Tom Cook. A true hero for making the Operations Research group at American Airlines into the textbook example of how modeling can be a wildly important part of the way a company goes about its business. And for making the big effort to publicize what is being done, for this visibility is worth a lot for all of us. Also, thanks to Bob Crandall for believing

  • Gene Woolsey. Like him or hate him, it doesn't much matter. He has an opinion and he has built his life around it; if you can't demonstrate the value of all your modeling and analysis to the bottom line, then you haven't done your job. There are days that I really wish that I had been forced to jump through some of the hoops that his students do. I would have gotten more dirt under my fingernails, and it would have made me a much better consultant.

  • George B. Dantzig. Inspiring to work in a profession where the founder is still alive and innovating. To George, the invention of the simplex method was the beginning of an amazing career, not the end. I'm proud to have known this man.

    Vijay Mehrotra is the CEO of Onward, an operations management consulting firm in Mountain View, Calif. He holds a Ph.D. in operations research from Stanford University and can be reached via e-mail at vijay@onward-net.com.

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