Jared Knowles is the president of Civilytics Consulting, LLC. He founded Civilytics in 2016 to pursue his passion of providing high-quality public performance metrics for government services. He also provides an array of consulting services including statistical computing, research design, and training in data analysis and R programming. He formerly served as a research analyst with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, where he led the design and deployment of the Wisconsin Dropout Early Warning System (DEWS), a machine learning predictive framework available to all schools serving students grades 5-9 in the state.
Knowles completed his PhD in political science at UW–Madison in 2015. He was also a fellow in the Interdisciplinary Training Program in Education Sciences, an Institute of Education Sciences pre-doctoral training program at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Knowles is also an avid photographer and loves to travel.
Tell us about your path from graduate school to your current position.
During my time in graduate school I took the unusual step of working full-time for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as a research analyst. This role was helpful to me in my dissertation research as it gave me an inside look at a government agency, an opportunity to build contacts statewide, and access to experts and data necessary to complete my dissertation project which was a study of school board elections in Wisconsin.
During this time, I also participated in national workshops for other state and local education agency staff with similar research roles to my own. It was here that I learned how much demand there was in the sector for quick turnaround data analyses, staff training, and advising. When my partner’s career took us away from Madison to Boston, I used it as an opportunity to explore building a business around providing the kind of consultation work I was doing at conferences. I connected with a couple of key clients who were interested in collaboration and the rest of the business built from there.
Tell us about your business and what you do.
The mission of Civilytics is to build inclusive public analytics for government accountability. Right now, that means that we are developing the business on two fronts. The first front is helping build capacity in education agencies to better report, analyze, interpret, and communicate information about the performance of schools to the communities they serve. This work takes on a variety of interesting forms from training analysts in technical skills like statistical computing, serving in an advisory capacity for larger projects, auditing and evaluating complex tools like machine learning algorithms, or developing new data tools for exploring questions of equity in schools.
The second front is translating this work to other policy areas where public accountability is less well-developed – starting with policing. For this work, I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know people working in this field, learning about their challenges, and gathering information about what great work is already being done in this area. Now I’m putting this work together to provide measures of policing for local journalists, advocates, and governments across the country to help them engage with questions about how best to keep their communities safe.
What do you like about this job? What is challenging?
What I loved about working for the State of Wisconsin was getting to work in a team of experts on difficult problems where I could bring data to help inform that thinking alongside the experience of those experts. Now, when I work with a client, they are pulling me in to help only with their most difficult problems. I really like that aspect of the work – coming in, helping the client identify the problem, and then working with them to get it solved. The variety and challenge of the work is rewarding.
One challenge is there are fewer avenues of feedback in a provider-customer relationship than there are in the academic world. I’m responsible for reviewing and guaranteeing my own work meets the needs of the client. Clients don’t, and shouldn’t, go out of their way to recognize your work or give you feedback (positive or negative). It is different than the feedback environment in academia and takes some time to adjust to.
What skills from graduate school are the most useful to you as a founder of your own company?
In graduate school you often work independently, at long stretches, tackling challenging problems with no clear solution. Being able to do that in a focused way, with confidence, is something that completing my PhD helped me do.
Graduate school also presents you with a lot of rejection – publications, conference proposals, seminar papers. It hurts, but you are learning how to take tough feedback, learn what you can from it, and move forward. That gives you an advantage when dealing with inevitable setbacks – a project proposal that is rejected, a contract that falls through, or a client unhappy with the work.
More specifically, I received excellent training opportunities in a wide array of methods for analyzing data, and spent a lot of time mastering some tools of data analysis which allow me to complete my work. The breadth of tools I can reach for is a big advantage for my clients who may not know the right tool to meet their needs, but want to work with someone who they feel confident can complete the task.
What kinds of things did you do as a student that you believe made you competitive as a job candidate?
When starting a business, I found the breadth of skills I acquired as a graduate student – many secondary to the purpose of completing my dissertation – was most useful in finding clients and solving problems. Finding ways to get perspective outside your department and engage with ideas that challenge the dogmas and practices within your own discipline will give you the breadth necessary to access a wider pool of potential clients.
I also took advantage of opportunities to live out the Wisconsin Idea and bring the university to the public through public service. Staying embedded in a community outside of the university helped me understand my future client base, learn a different set of skills, and build relationships with people across the country interested in similar work as my own.
What advice do you have for current graduate students interested in this starting their own company?
The hardest part of starting a company is not creating value, but finding customers who can see that value. I’m by no means an extrovert, but you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone, meet new people, and share your interests and expertise with others. It can be a little intimidating, but opening yourself up to others is the only way you can build the recognition you need to find clients.
And, if you are starting a small company, I can’t recommend enough focusing on grounding your work in kindness. At least in my industry, there isn’t much point in focusing on competition with other small companies – there is enough work to go around. Collaboration, kindness, and an open mind for opportunities instead help you avoid being isolated – a real challenge for small businesses – you can get referrals, subcontracting help, and review and feedback from a network of similar small businesses. This is a big help when starting out.