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Building an Analytical Backbone: Meet Harsha Mokkarala, 2U’s Chief Data Scientist

Written by Bannon Puckett on Sep 27, 2021

Related content: Leadership

Harsha Mokkarala, Chief Data Scientist

Harsha Mokkarala is a serial problem-solver.

“I don’t like getting bored or sitting idle, and I always want to fill up my time,” he shares. Throughout his career, a constant desire to seek new challenges has led Harsha to a variety of exciting positions: from senior director of online marketing strategy at Capital One to his present role as chief data scientist at 2U.

Read on to learn how Harsha’s Data Science team is using analytics to drive continuous impact and innovation at 2U—streamlining operations, improving student outcomes, and strengthening our value proposition for university partners across the globe.

How did you get your start at Capital One, and how did you grow and evolve while working there?

I grew up in India and came to the U.S. in early 2002 to get my master’s in Computer Engineering from the University of Wisconsin. I was a programmer through and through—a “tech nerd” by every stretch of the imagination. When I was being interviewed at Capital One, I actually said, “Hey, you’re a bank. What would you do with someone like me?” I was a pretty hardcore technologist at that point.

Today, Capital One is a massive organization with more than 50,000 employees. But at the time, it was a Richmond, Virginia-based credit card company with just a few thousand employees. In my early days, they handed me a bunch of processes and said, “Bring us up to date on data infrastructure.” That was my early work at Capital One—I started very deep in the technology of the organization.

But I’m a very curious person, so I wouldn’t stop there. I was one of the tech guys who would ask, “What do you do with this thing I built? Can you walk me through what happens on the other side?” I began to realize that a lot of what I was building on the backend was being leveraged for consumer marketing and consumer experience. I spent a lot of time trying to drift into that lane, sitting with the people who made business decisions and asking, “What are your conversations like? What are you looking at? Show me the math. Show me how you’re actually doing these things.”

At some point, I hit a fork in the road. Someone said, “You’re quite good at math, analysis, and business strategy. Would you like to continue going down the tech path, or start doing more business and marketing strategy and management?” I’m very grateful Capital One offered that opportunity. It would have been very easy to not do that and stay in my own lane. That was an early lesson in the impact of good people managers and leaders.

Hear how Harsha describes what he learned at Capital One compared to 2U.

Let’s fast forward to 2013. What brought you to 2U?

I’m very much a “lean forward” kind of guy. After about nine years, Capital One had become easy in some ways. A predecessor of mine from Capital One, Jeff Rinehart, had moved over to 2U about two years prior and was chief marketing officer at the time. He picked up the phone and asked, “Would you like to come work at 2U on my team as our executive vice president of marketing strategy? Here, you live two years in two days.”

I started the interview process and absolutely fell in love with all the people I met. As I was brought in, my mission was very clear: to bring data-driven decision-making to the company. This was about one year before 2U went public. Those early days of building something new and scaling the operation were really hard work—and I couldn’t get enough of it. I used to joke that we were inventing something new every single day.

What was your path to chief data scientist, and what does that role entail?

In 2016, I was named chief marketing officer after Jeff moved on to other opportunities beyond 2U. As our digital strategy evolved over the next four years, my role morphed along with it, and I took on oversight of other aspects of the business, including our admissions function. Then, in 2020, I realized I had been focused on marketing and P&Ls (profits and losses) for over 10 years straight. I wanted to go back to building stuff again. That’s how the chief data scientist role came about.

I was excited to take on this new opportunity, because data truly is the glue that holds everything together. At 2U, we see students throughout their entire education journey, from the first time they express interest in a degree program, boot camp, or short course all the way through graduating and finding a career in their chosen area. The Data Science team helps create a closed-loop ecosystem that brings all of that information together. In creating the team, the notion was that, as we scale, bringing advanced analytics to the fore is a powerful way to maximize the value of our data. Technology is here to help us gain deeper insights that can’t be obtained through brute human force. We can get more efficient with our operations, improve student outcomes, and enhance our value proposition for partners by building a strong analytical backbone.

What are some projects your team is currently invested in bringing to life?

Right now, we’re working on a project in the machine learning space. We get a ton of feedback from prospects and students engaged in 2U-powered programs: what actions they take, what they tell us in conversations with program representatives, what they share in comments through written surveys and verbal transcriptions, and so on. We want to understand their experiences and sentiments better—for instance, what specifically are nursing students doing as compared to data science students in their journey with us, and how can we make the experience even better? Technology has dramatically increased the volume of qualitative and quantitative insights we’re able to gather. It’s impossible for humans to synthesize millions of these data points. Machine learning can do it relatively rapidly and produce insights into what’s working and what’s not.

We’re also working to merge data across our portfolio of programs—bringing it together and making it more consistent in order to provide a more well-rounded view of current and prospective students. If someone asks us to describe our operation, we can do that using standard metrics for student satisfaction, retention, and so on across all of our educational offerings. The data is all in one place so we can compare, contrast, and aggregate.

Of everything you’ve done at 2U so far, what makes you the proudest?

I’m very proud of the team we’ve built here, and the sheer number of people I’ve had the fortune of bringing to the company. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a lot of 2Utes grow from young, bright-eyed people to seasoned veterans—advancing from what are sometimes their first jobs to now senior positions, managing teams, and driving crucial agendas for the company. That’s my biggest achievement.

Learn more about us.

At 2U, we’re on a mission—to eliminate the back row in higher education and help universities thrive in the digital age. To learn more about who we are and what we do, follow the links below.