Claire McCollough is the first college student to win the event, a year after placing fifth overall.
The annual data analytics competition at Alteryx’s Inspire conference is called the Grand Prix with good reason: It’s a lot like a race, as “drivers” use the company’s software to quickly complete data analysis challenges and qualify for the final. Even the grand prize—tickets to a Formula One race in Texas—are on brand.
So, when she was building a playlist for her competition in the finals, Claire McCollough (Acct, IA’21; MAcct’22) didn’t stray too far from the theme, racing to a soundtrack from the Mario Kart racing game series.
“I played piano for 12 years, so I’m usually aware of music—I actually prefer to work in silence, because it tends to distract me,” McCollough said. “But I know I tend to align what I’m doing to the tempo of the music, so I wanted something fast.”
It certainly seemed to help: McCollough became the first college student in the 14-year history of the competition to win the event outright, doing so a year after placing fifth in the global event, which features chief information officers, data scientists and other Alteryx power users.
“I was planning to enjoy myself, because I’ve been doing this kind of thing for fun—so if I qualified, great, and if not, no big deal,” McCollough said. “I knew my chances to get in were slim, because I’d have to beat the best of the best to even get my foot in the door.”
Alteryx is an analytics platform that helps companies leverage their data to make better decisions faster—crucial in the digital era, where speed is vital in identifying new opportunities and quickly pivoting to new customers, products and markets. The software company’s conference took place in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center, and the return to an in-person event added a sense of excitement that was missing when McCollough competed last year.
Finding a way to focus
Libby Duane Adams, co-founder and chief advocacy officer at Alteryx, said she was “proud of Claire’s approach to acquiring knowledge and skills in data analytics through our SparkED education program.
“Not only have we seen her grow and thrive, she has shown us her abilities as a leader and mentor by supporting other students in our program who want to start their careers with strong data analytics skills.”
Part of McCollough’s training included solving workflows while loud audience noises played in the background. “I’ve always been good at focusing—you have to be good at that if you’re reading an accounting textbook—so I was able to get in the zone onstage,” she said.
The live competition may have heightened the stakes, but McCollough is an Alteryx expert who’s infused her technical talent into the accounting coursework at Leeds. That sweet spot is where the accounting division is aiming to bring all its students, said Joshua Neil, senior instructor and faculty director of the master’s program in accounting and taxation.
“For the last five years, we’ve been telling students this is a very valuable intersection, in terms of analytics and accounting, and if you’re into that, we’ll make some classes and tools available for you,” Neil said. “But it’s become more mainstream in the last 18 months. We’re starting to see textbooks come out that have tools like Tableau embedded in them, and you see our students applying these tools during their internships.”
Analytics meets accounting
McCollough is currently doing an internship as a forensic accountant with PwC, in Chicago, using her talents in data analytics and her Leeds accounting education to support investigations in areas like fraud, negligence and valuation.
Competitions like the Grand Prix are a chance for her to flex her Alteryx knowledge in a real-world setting, exactly what she’s doing so well in her internship. Her Alteryx mastery, in fact, was key to getting nominated as an Alteryx ACE, an elite group of power users and ambassadors.
“In the competition, I could tell I improved dramatically from last year, even in my own skills—and honestly, seeing that level of improvement alone would have been enough for me,” she said. “It did make the win more fulfilling, having to beat the people who won the last two years and getting to win in front of all the ACEs I just spent the week with. And my parents got to be there, too, since it was in Denver.”
McCollough’s skill with Alteryx goes well beyond the current accounting curriculum, but Leeds is making adjustments to both reflect the increasing real-world demand for analytics in accounting, as well as the new business analytics track within the CPA license. This fall, Neil said, an analytics course offered by Kai Larsen is being modified for accounting master’s students, with an emphasis on bringing in people from industry to show how these skills are used to help accountants do their jobs better.
McCollough, Neil said, played a role in helping to make that happen.
“Data is everywhere,” McCollough said. “There’s a saying that knowledge is power. In order to harness your data, you need to know something about it—and if you choose to ignore your data, or don’t have the skills to harness it, you’re giving that power away.”