By Michael Cox
Date: November 6, 2019
As a Performance and Process Improvement Analyst at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) — the agency that oversees public transport, taxis, bicycle infrastructure and more for the City and County of San Francisco — Michael Cox, as he recently told a five year old, “takes boring numbers and turns them into impactful pictures on the computer that help people do their jobs better.” It’s no small job. With more than 700,000 weekday boardings a year, and a jurisdiction of more than 1,000 miles of road, the agency uses Michael’s work in analytics and measurements to increase safety and efficiency to ensure that San Francisco citizens get to work, home and play faster.
In his current job, Michael works with teams to create metrics and analytics that help SFMTA learn more about the internal performance – for instance, reporting on employee absence rates or environmental resource management – in addition to priority statistics, like on-time performance. But getting the buses to run on-time wasn’t always his first instinct – graduating with a BS in Earth Science, he enjoyed data and wanted to work in sustainability – but it took a few more years before sharpening his passion to learn how people can get to where they need to be in the least environmentally impactful manner (the transportation sector accounts for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., mostly due to single occupancy gas-powered automobiles see here).
Michael shared with us his thoughts on how local government powers cities, the role of data in transforming how agencies drive results, and getting into government as a young person.
I have always been fascinated by transportation and how people get around spaces. I came from a small town in New York (< 4000 people), so the local government and public transit there was not very expansive. I didn’t enjoy having to drive to get from home to basically anywhere, so I did a small research project in undergrad on car-free suburbs. I found it fascinating, but I didn’t consider transportation as a career field, mostly due to a lack of exposure to career opportunities in that realm (you don’t meet too many transit planners in a town without transit!). Later on, after a stint working in the manufacturing field, I returned to graduate school and decided to explore my earlier interests in transportation. I ultimately did a research project on bus rapid transit in NYC and it inspired me to work for a major transit agency once I graduated.
My team is responsible for much of the external reporting of the Agency’s performance. Some metrics, like on-time performance, have particularly high visibility in the public sphere, since no one likes for their bus or train to show up late. I have seen numbers that I helped calculate in news articles, especially ones critical about our low-performing routes. As an agency, we have many things to improve, but I’m glad to be part of a team that can help keep us accountable to the public if we aren’t making the mark. Additionally, if we are not measuring our performance, it is hard to make improvements and prioritize our efforts effectively.
Trying to thoroughly validate all of the data we’re working with is a huge challenge. We often work with expansive data sets that encompass our entire transit network, and it would be impossible to check every record individually. Thus, we have to be intentional in how we set up data processing workflows from the start, and clearly communicate what we’re doing so that all stakeholders are on board throughout the project. For example, I worked with our Human Resources team to analyze absence and leave trends for over 3000 of our front-line employees in the last 6 years. The raw data related to this are spread out over almost 12 different tables in three different databases, and were not synced with each other to provide meaningful analysis. We had to come up with a workflow that would combine and summarize all of that information into one table that would be useful for a variety of analytical exercises. We ended up choosing a small sample of employees and using them as test cases. We sent the results of this initial analysis to all of our stakeholders and ultimately received their blessing to build a more complete version.
Apply often and apply early! The job application process for many local government jobs, particularly here in SF, can be pretty long and slow. It took about 4.5 months for me to go through the application, interview, and background check process to get my current position, and that is considered on the fast end of things overall at my Agency. It definitely helps to network and find out where openings might be happening in the near future so that you can be prepared if an opportunity does arise. For me, this involves reaching out to people that are doing work that I’m interested in and asking if they will take some time to talk about their jobs or career.
I have a mentor at work who gives great career advice and I check in with him regularly. I also try to be specific and honest about my career interests among my friends, family, and coworkers. They often come across job opportunities that they know are up my alley, and they send them my way. And I of course do the same for them!
And most importantly, I think you should try to do your best work no matter what job you’re in. Many of the opportunities I’ve had throughout my life came from people who worked with me and saw potential in my abilities and ideas. I think your work and accomplishments are your best advocate when looking for a new job or promotion, and I believe that holds true no matter what field you are looking into.