30 Under 30 Supply Chain Star Neta Berger on What Predictive Analytics Tools Can Learn from Excel

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of Q&As with a few winners of this year’s Thomas/ISM 30 Under 30 Rising Supply Chain Stars Recognition Program. Check out previously published interviews with Charlotte de Brabandt, Rhiana Gallen, Tanner Ryan, Jordan Haller and Leah Williams.

Supply chain has been a part of Neta Berger’s life for well over a decade, starting from her high school DECA days to her supply chain management studies at Arizona State University to Google, where she currently works as a supply chain program manager.

Risk mitigation is a central part of Berger’s role at Google, and she certainly has ample experience in this area. Berger was working as a commodity manager at Cisco at the time of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and she managed daily meetings focused on resolving immediate shortages.

Read on for what the Cisco experience taught Berger about risk management, as well as for her thoughts on what technologies she expects will prove disruptive for supply chain and why professionals still insist on using Excel.

Spend Matters: DECA, an organization that prepares students for careers in business, entrepreneurship, finance and marketing, helped spark your interest in supply chain. How did you become involved in DECA in high school?

Neta Berger: My high school offered a number of business electives, which were taught by retired business professionals from [Silicon Valley]. That offered me the opportunity to take classes like introduction to business, international business and marketing.

My marketing class was taught by the teacher advising DECA, Carl Schmidt, and of course he offered some extra credit for joining. Once I joined the club, the competitions which DECA takes part in each year really engaged me. We trained for competitions as a team every weekend, and I really enjoyed the feeling of being part of a competitive group and pushing each other to be slightly better each week.

While most of the competitions are based on marketing principles, the business plan competition was a bit of an empty canvas, and that's where I really started learning about putting together operational details of different ideas and got my general interest in supply chain started.

I also had exposure to the field at home, since my father works in operations, as well, and he was able to give me some more color into what working in operations would be like.

SM: Now that you’ve been working in the supply chain field for nearly a decade, what do you like the most about this profession? What do you find most challenging?

NB: Supply chain is incredibly dynamic. Every day brings new challenges and new problems to work through and resolve. Supply chain is also a bit of a team sport, which I love. In order to successfully execute against targets, not one person can work alone and accomplish everything that needs to be done. Teamwork extends beyond internal teams to our external partners. That competitive team environment, and the ability to touch and feel the product we work and then see it out in the field after launch is really satisfying to me.

The most challenging part of working in this field is keeping all the balls in the air. Everything in operations needs to happen at a specific time to avoid cascading effects that can push out launch schedules, and a big part of the challenge is keeping everything moving in the right direction with so many distributed teams working together.

SM: Speaking of challenges, you were working at Cisco at the time of the 2011 earthquake in Japan. What did you learn from that experience?

NB: The March 11, 2011, earthquake and subsequent tsunami happened about three months into my new role as a commodity manager for [Cisco] Memory products. It was probably the first time that I really got to understand how the full supply chain operated together to get things done. As teams worked together to resolve issues, I started to really understand where all the pieces in the supply chain fit together.

It was a really intense time. The earthquake really devastated the infrastructure in Japan, and it was amazing to see how committed the suppliers were both to their workers and to their customers during this time.

One of the biggest lessons I learned was how much proactively planning for major supply chain events, like this one, makes a difference in the company’s ability to recover. For example, qualifying alternate sources or putting in place business continuity plans for each node of the supply chain are processes that can take weeks or months to implement properly. Without teams evaluating and mitigating risks proactively, the impact to our specific supply chain would have been much worse.

SM: As we regularly cover technology on Spend Matters, we have to take advantage of the fact that you work at one of the world’s top technology companies to ask about which technologies you think will prove truly disruptive for supply chain. What technologies are you most excited about?

NB: I would love to see machine learning and predictive analytics interplay into procurement. I see some of that work happening already, and I think it has a lot of potential to automate both basic tactical tasks as well as predict disruptions in the supply chain and provide teams with clearer indications of where risk lies in the supply chain and ways to mitigate that risk prior to it materializing.

At the end of the day though, I do think that the technologies that will be most widely adapted are those that will have the lowest barrier to entry. There is a reason that one of the most widely used tools in supply chain is something like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. These are easy tools with low levels of training to yield material results.

I think that once predictive analytics tools lower their barriers to entry to the levels of Excel — and interplay with ERP systems — that is when the will reach their tipping point and be truly useful for everyone in the field. One area that you already see this happening is in data visualization with tools like JMP and Tableau that make it very easy to get insights from larger sets of data.

SM: When you first joined Google in 2015, you were the materials program manager at Google Nest, and you also took an active role in the Women@Nest employee resource group, increasing membership from eight to 200. Can you tell us a bit more about Women@Nest?

NB: Women@Nest is a group that is focused on creating a community for women working within Nest. When I started working at Nest, the group was just starting up, and I saw it as a way to meet other people at Nest across different departments.

Women@Nest was really a way to make the company seem a little smaller when I was starting, and I feel like it became that place for a lot of the members who joined over time. We had the opportunity to grow a community that supported and mentored each other really organically.

The really impressive thing with Women@Nest is that we had very high-level support, all the way up to the CTO and CEO of Nest joining events and lending us their advice. Within the Women@Nest group I co-led the planning of a day-long summit focused on career development, providing a space for mindfulness and mentorship, and growing the community in general as we had attendees from all genders.

SM: Also in 2015, you began an MBA program at Santa Clara University. How do you balance work and school?

NB: Balancing work, school and other personal responsibilities is always a challenge. I think about it less like a balancing act and more like a pendulum. I let my focus shift like a pendulum between the different areas based on where my attention will result in the most impact towards solving an immediate task.

I also try to really go with my energy and focus on analytical activities during certain times of day versus more tactical activities later at night when I feel more tired.

SM: What are your plans post-MBA?

NB: My program at Santa Clara University is a part-time, evening program, which has afforded me the option to continue working in my field while expanding my overall understanding of the business.

I originally applied to this MBA program before I joined Google with the intent to eventually join a company with a smaller hardware team or some kind of hardware start-up accelerator — like PCH's Highway1 — where I could have a larger impact on the overall supply chain. I felt that the MBA would give me a broader understanding of the business and an ability to better consult smaller operation teams and articulate areas where the business could improve.

However, shortly before starting the MBA program I got the opportunity to join Google's Nest Product Operations team. Joining Google at the earlier stages of their hardware team really offered me the possibility of [seeing] how it matures over time, which was the original intent of the MBA. For now, my post-MBA plans are to stay at Google and see how the organization continues to grow and expand.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

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