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Meet the Professor: Vic Matta

Thursday, February 19 2015 12:00am

MIS professor encourages students to quantify the seemingly unquantifiable — human reason

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By Meredith S. Jensen
Ohio UniversityMatta Vic

ATHENS — Dr. Vic Matta doesn’t hide his excitement when he says something he knows has blown your mind. He feeds off of it, encourages it, peppers you with questions to make you think about your own choices. Your answers, after all, fuel one of his greatest passions — data collection.

Matta, professor of Management Information Systems at OHIO’s College of Business, can’t help himself. He loves analysis, loves human reasoning, and loves teaching most of all.  He loves watching people grasp a new concept with his help, whether it is something tangible like technology or intangible like personal motivation.

While he’ll tell you he doesn’t have a favorite subject and just likes “teaching everything [he knows],” Matta’s favorite focus is how the human brain interacts with technology through behavioral research and adoption practices. What motivates people to write online reviews?  (Turns out, vengeance.) What makes software successful? (Intuitive interfaces, of course.) How do sociology and technology connect? (That’s where the data analysis comes in.)

“I’ve always been an analytics guy,” he said.

Matta earned his Masters at OHIO in the 90s, focusing on neural networking, an analytics technique that essentially boils down to using technology to figure out things based on a large amount of data, much the way a human brain would. Today, the idea doesn’t seem that revolutionary, he said. Technology has made information gathering much faster and more efficient for businesses, journalists, engineers, and the everyday Google user. But Matta has been keeping his eye on the game for 20 years, which gives his students a primary resource for understanding the evolution of tech systems, and consumer needs and behaviors.

“I was in industrial technology when analytics wasn’t fancy,” Matta said. “And now it’s really hot… The excitement comes from [it being] so hard to do, making that connection. It’s creativity; you’re actually finding that connection, finding that measurement for something so intangible. It’s very interesting because you don’t know how the number is going to be.”

These days, Google can use popular search keywords to predict a flu epidemic before the CDC, and it is easy to take that fact granted. When Matta started working in the 90s, the Internet was just taking off and words like “webpage” were still an unfamiliar part of the lexicon. Building an information network for a company was literally a physical process.

“When I started, a company hired me and said ‘Can you get us on the webpage?’” Matta said. “And I said ‘You mean you’d like a webpage about your company on the Internet?’”

To do this, he had to build a server from scratch, with little more than his intuition and a stack of books. With OHIO’s blessing, he tapped into the university’s inter-network — then just a massive modem in a broom closet at Alden Library — and ran a telephone line all the way to the company in Columbus. 

“It was a fantastic experience,” Matta said. “People thought I was nuts. No one knew what I was talking about. And we made that happen. I eventually got this company online and that was a very formative experience. We had a domain name server, a web server — and I was basically reading books that said ‘do this next.’”  

For Matta, self-teaching would eventually lead to a life of teaching others. In the decade after graduating with his master’s, he picked up teaching a few courses at OHIO and worked with the business incubator Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) among other things. After awhile, Matta said he felt a need to better connect with people than simply technology. He started his own consulting business during nights and weekends, offering companies continued employee education and training on new systems.

“I would constantly meet people and try to understand what they wanted,” he said. “What made me a good teacher was understanding what they wanted to see from technology and what parts of technology they already understood.”

A job with AT&T was the last piece of the puzzle Matta needed to make the picture clear; he was meant to teach.

“They knew that I understood what I wanted their tech piece to be,” he said. “It wasn’t really about just creating a software package. That was when I realized that it’s not just technology that makes things work, it’s design and networking; it’s about knowing people.”

In 2007, Matta joined the College of Business as an assistant professor of MIS while he worked on his PhD from OHIO’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology. He completed that in 2008, and was tenured in 2012. For Matta, MIS is like a perfect blend of his two strengths — understanding technology and understanding how people interact with that technology.

“It’s come a long way. I’ve seen it all evolve,” he said. “It’s about bringing things to people where they want to use them”

Before he moved into academia full time, Matta taught and trained more than 1,000 professionals. His number of students will reach far beyond that before he retires, and he has found he likes it best when the two worlds meet.

“The times I really enjoy my work is when I teach professionals, like the PMBAs,” he said. “There’s reciprocal learning. I built the class on that premise.”

 He finished up working with a visiting group of professionals from Brazil feeling energized. Given his extensive experience in industry, he found he could relate to them and they to him. Talking about how to make projects work because their livelihoods depend on it made sense to him, because for so long, his did, too.

 “You’re engaging people on such a tremendous intellectual level,” he said. “They are able to tap into everything they know. I’m 100 percent engaged not just from the textbook, but I know what I can draw from my experience. You can get into deep, deep concepts. It’s so rewarding to get to that level of discussion.”

The switch from industry to academics has paid off for Matta, not only in reciprocal learning, but in appreciation as well. From students, OHIO’s WPA Greek Chapters recognized him as an Outstanding Educator in 2007, and he was awarded the College of Business Senior Class Faculty Recognition Award in 2010. From his peers, he received the College of Business Excellence in Teaching award in 2009, and was a finalist for OHIO’s Presidential Teaching Award in 2013.

For him, the recognition is further proof that he is doing his life’s work.

“The award nominations are a validation that I picked the right career,” Matta said. “When I switched careers to teaching, I felt I made the right decision. In industry, you’re a hands-on person and you make projects happen. In the academic world, the track is different. You aren’t doing things anymore. You’re showing people how to do things.”