Our Stern Faculty Spotlight this month is Dr. Ilan Lobel, Associate Professor of Technology, Operations and Statistics. Dr. Lobel received his Ph.D. from MIT in Operations Research in 2009 and came to Stern in 2010. His research focuses on how marketplaces are changing the nature of operations management and his teaching accolades include being named to the 2017 Poets & Quants Top 40 MBA Professors Under 40 list and receiving the 2018 Stern Distinguished Teaching Award.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Would you please introduce yourself, your areas of expertise, and what you teach at NYU?
I grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but I have been living in the US for almost 18 years now. In terms of research, my main area of expertise is at the interface of operations research and game theory. The main course I teach is called Decision Models & Analytics, which focuses on teaching students how to analyze business problems through the lenses of optimization and simulation models.
What is your educational background?
I studied electrical engineering in Brazil for my undergrad, and then I came to the US to do a PhD at MIT in operations research.
How did you become interested in operations research?
Operations research is the science of problem solving. It’s the study of how to turn real-world problems into models that can be analyzed and solved. When you think about it this way, how can one not be interested in it?
Do you ever do consulting work? If so, then what types of problems are you typically asked to address?
Yes, I have been a consultant for a number of tech companies over the years, including Microsoft, Google and Lyft. With Microsoft and Google, I worked on questions related to the design of their ad marketplaces. One problem that I have worked on with Lyft is shared rides. It’s a really interesting problem because it requires one to think simultaneously about system optimization (with its complex multiparty matching) and its economics (as in how customers respond to matches with potentially large detours).
What are your current research interests?
One topic that I am currently focusing on is how marketplaces are changing the nature of operations management. Traditional operations management is all about how to best deploy capacity. But imagine now you are running a marketplace company such as Uber or Airbnb. These companies don’t directly control capacity. Instead, they set market rules and then independent supply units (such as drivers in the case of Uber and hosts in the case of Airbnb) decide whether and to what extent to participate in the market. I am doing research on a number of questions related to running a business via a marketplace. They include investigating what are the pros and cons of this approach, studying the extent to which pricing can be used to direct supply to where it is most needed, and how to think about capacity management in such systems.
What is something that your students may not know about you, but you think that they should?
Like many academics, I chose this job because I wanted to do research, but once I started the job I found teaching to be immensely rewarding. There is nothing quite as magical as seeing the face of a student who was confused a minute ago when it clicks for them and they get the point you are trying to make. I really missed being in a classroom last year… teaching is not nearly as fun when done via Zoom.
Now for some quick-hitting questions:
What is one word that describes you? Empathetic… At least that’s what I always try to be. I know life can be complicated so I always try to be understanding.
What are you reading right now? Postwar by Tony Judt. Recent events made me want to read up on 20th-century European history.
What is something that you do for fun? Whatever my kids decide I should be doing for fun. It usually involves building Legos, solving puzzles, playing chess or going to the zoo.
What is one of your favorite TV shows or movies? I love The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Americans. Of the shows I am currently watching, Succession is probably my favorite.
If you could meet anyone living or dead, who would it be? John von Neumann, one of greatest mathematicians of all times and one of the founding fathers of both linear optimization and game theory.
Last questions, do you have any career advice for you students?
Learn some analytics. No matter the career you plan to pursue, knowing how to work with data is a giant differentiator in today’s job market. I believe Stern offers more analytics classes and has more faculty with computer science and engineering degrees than any other top business school. You should take advantage of that.