Published: May 21, 2021

Future forensic accountant held her own against seasoned data scientists, analytics officers

Claire McCollough Alteryx Grand Prix contestant

Like many people, when she was forced indoors during the pandemic, Claire McCollough passed the time with puzzles.

But McCollough, a veteran puzzler, wasn’t satisfied with the jigsaw and crossword varieties. After teaching herself SQL, Tableau and Power BI over the summer, she took a Leeds course in business analytics that introduced her to Alteryx—and a whole different kind of puzzle.

“I love the problem-solving nature of my programming classes at Leeds,” she said. “They just align really well with the way my brain works. I love puzzles of every kind, and Alteryx just felt like a puzzle to me.”

To say she’s good at it would be an understatement: In May, McCollough placed fifth in the global Grand Prix, held at Alteryx’s virtual Inspire conference. She was the only student among the 10 finalists, who were chief analytics officers, data scientists and decision-makers at Fortune 500 companies and boutique analytics firms. The road to the finals included a grueling preliminary round featuring other Alteryx power users.

'Really humbled and kind of star-struck'

Alteryx is an analytics platform that helps companies leverage their data to make better decisions faster—crucial in the digital era, where speed is crucial in identifying new opportunities and quickly pivoting to new customers, products and markets. Aside from being an invaluable part of any data analyst’s toolkit, Alteryx is home to a global community of users who pose and solve questions and take part in weekly challenges, using the platform to solve different puzzles.

“Each week, doing the challenges, I would see the same usernames showing up, and when I got to the top 10, I saw I’d be competing against those same people,” she said. “I am really humbled and kind of star-struck about that.”

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“I love the problem-solving nature of my programming classes at Leeds. They just align really well with the way my brain works.”

Claire McCollough Bus'21; MAcct'22

As you would expect of someone who enjoys answering questions about Alteryx in a virtual community, McCollough is not only a star student at Leeds, but a capable tutor. She is a head tutor in the Academic Success and Achievement Program and has also worked as a teaching assistant, in addition to her involvement with the Dean’s Leadership Fellows Program, the Navigators Christian fellowship group and the Women in Business Club, of which she is incoming president.

“I love working with students—they have really encouraged me to go deeper and learn more,” she said.

She especially enjoys challenging her students to go deeper than what the numbers say at face value—pushing them to understand that data alone is not knowledge. It’s that perspective that’s made her such a good fit for a business education, as opposed to a strictly programming one.

“One thing I’ve been really grateful about my education is the breadth of knowledge I’ve received. I feel like I can speak business now,” McCollough said. “So when I'm given an Alteryx question that talks about warehouse inventory, I understand what that means and why it’s important, whereas for a student just studying computer science might not understand the context of the problem, and it might take longer for them to come up with a solution.”

That ability is coming in handy on her current internship with GbBIS, a market profile and mapping company. McCollough, who is majoring in accounting and information analyics, will graduate with her bachelor’s this December before completing a master’s in accounting in December 2022; in between, she’ll do an internship in forensic accounting with PwC, an area she wants to explore for her career.

“My overarching career goal is to solve puzzles in ways that help other people, and right now that's looking like forensic accounting,” she said.

A strong combination for success

Kai Larsen, associate professor of information management at Leeds, has taught McCollough in class and brought her on to help him with a research project. Aside from her technical acumen, Prof. Larsen is most impressed by how self-driven she is. 

Claire McCollough Alteryx Grand Prix contestant“She’s one of the more active students, always ready to help others and always looking for another challenge,” he said, pointing out that the advanced certification she earned in Alteryx is held by a small percentage of the tool’s hundreds of thousands of users. 

In class, Prof. Larsen challenges students to become data-driven critical thinkers—to use data to understand relationships between things, and through that read of the data, to make better choices—“and Claire understands that,” he said. “Having that combination of information management and accounting is an incredible combination if you want to get into something like auditing.”

She may not have taken first place, but the grand prize isn’t exactly out of the question: The winner received a ticket and travel voucher to Analyticon 2022, which will be held in—Denver. She plans to try to attend, since the event is so close to home.

“The goal was not really to win—first prize is exciting, but I was looking forward to having fun,” she said. “This is what I love doing—I love puzzles, I knew I’d have a good time.”