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Nate Sterken, right, presents his work during the NFL’s Big Data Bowl event last month in Indianapolis. (AP Photo for NFL / Doug McSchooler)

Nate Sterken loves football and he loves data. He’s developed such a deep understanding of the routes that wide receivers run he might as well be a defensive back in the NFL.

While he’s unlikely to get that shot at pro football, Sterken did impress the league enough to win its recent “Big Data Bowl,” a contest that asked college students and analytics professionals to use the NFL’s player location data to surface insights.

Sterken, our latest Geek of the Week, is a data scientist for Placed, the Seattle-based consumer location analytics platform (acquired by Snap in 2017).

“I took the traditional path to a data science career,” Sterken said. “In college I studied political science and wrote for a satirical newspaper, then I worked for the federal government at the Department of Labor, White House, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, then I worked in politics for a small consulting group and the Obama for America 2012 campaign, then I worked in tech for Amazon and now Placed.”

Sterken said that one constant during all of his schooling and then his career path was that on ever Saturday during the fall, he stopped whatever he was doing to watch University of Michigan football. On other days of the week he would obsessively read up on Michigan football.

“In my submission to the Big Data Bowl I analyzed the effectiveness of route combinations — said another way, I used the location of the players to determine the optimal target on each play,” Sterken said. “Leveraging my experience working with location trace data from cell phones, I trained a neural network to recognize routes.”

Nate Sterken and his daughter, Ellie. (Photo courtesy of Nate Sterken)

Having the data to work with is possible because a couple years ago the NFL started tracking players (and officials, balls, pylons, etc.) through RFID chips embedded in equipment.

Sterken built a route recognition network, or RouteNet, that analyzed thousands of receiver routes run during week five of the 2017 NFL season. He was able to determine which route combinations produced the greatest success, and a key finding was that the flat-in-post route, a staple of the Steve Spurrier days at the University of Florida, was the best three-receiver route combination.

Sterken presented his findings at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis where he was named the winner. He didn’t get a Super Bowl ring but he did receive four tickets to a 2019 regular season NFL game and $1,000 gift card to the NFLshop.com.

So has all that data crunching made football more or less enjoyable for Sterken to watch?

“When watching a game I care about (read: a Michigan game) I can’t calmly analyze the game as it’s happening,” he said. “It’s only once the emotional roller coaster is over that I can look back at it and try to figure out what happened.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Nate Sterken:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I work on building data products. I do it because it’s really fun and lets me work on a lot of different things — some days I have my headphones on all day prototyping a new model, others I’m working with our engineering team to implement models at scale, and on others I work with our product team to identify the most impactful things to build.

When I’m not at the office I like to analyze sports data. Historically that’s meant spending an unhealthy amount of time fantasy sports — my wife likes to remind me that I woke up at 3 a.m. during our honeymoon so I could participate in a fantasy football draft. The Big Data Bowl was the first time I got my hands on real player tracking data. I had a great time writing my paper because it gave me a chance to explore the strategic side of football. The Jimmies and Joes are always more important than the Xs and Os but coaches have far more impact in football than in any other major sport — both in getting their team ready each week and during the game when they call the plays. With more analysis of and attention to football strategy I hope people will start to see football in a new light.

This plot shows all wide receiver routes run during week five of the 2017 NFL Season – the red lines are those classified by RouteNet as matching the label at the top of the image. As you can see, RouteNet was able to accurately classify routes. (GIF courtesy of Nate Sterken)

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? Re: working with data, people should know that the boring data is often the most useful and the interesting-sounding stuff doesn’t help too much. For example, when predicting how someone will vote, publicly available data like age and party registration will get you 80 percent there — information like whether you subscribe to Dog Fancy or liked Snickers’ Facebook page doesn’t really help too much, despite what the consultants credit-claiming after their candidate happened to win will tell you.

re: football, people should know that there are rich strategic and tactical layers behind the on-the-field spectacle of 300-pound men running into each other. It’s hard to observe on TV because the camera is so zoomed in and the plays happen so fast, but when you are able to watch the entire field in slow motion you can see it’s an intricate game. In other words, football has an ever-changing meta and seeing that play out over time is a lot of fun. Also Blizzard isn’t able to nerf a strategy right after you spent all of your dust to build a deck, so that’s nice too.

Where do you find your inspiration? I don’t think of myself as an inspired person … I’m just trying to make things work. That said, having a child put things into perspective: children so clearly model themselves after you and you don’t want to teach them bad habits. It’s also much easier to identify what is and is not important when you have a baby at home. I might also just be too tired to care as much as I used to, but my daughter is a champion sleeper so that’s probably not it.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? I have a love / hate relationship with my phone. Despite my daily attempts to use it less it’s still the one piece of technology I’d miss the most if it was gone. That said, if anyone has any good strategies for reducing phone time please let me know — I’ve already tried time-tracking apps and turning the screen gray so I’m going to need some extra-strength tips.

(Photo courtesy of Nate Sterken)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I have a convertible standing/sitting desk — I was really excited when I got it but I have since learned I have a strong sitting preference so it’s not much different than a normal desk. I also have a Lego engineer on my desk who is holding a plan that ends with someone getting eaten by shark — I like to keep that around because even when one of my plans isn’t going well it isn’t going that bad.

One part of my workspace that frequently does not work is my mouse, which has the charging port on the bottom and is therefore unusable whenever the battery runs out (see picture). This happens surprisingly often … I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, but I think there’s some kind of battery draining conspiracy going on at my office. I’ve already said too much.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Find someone who inspires you and is more emotionally intelligent than you (or who shores up whatever you need help shoring up) and marry that person. You can’t check this one off in a weekend but it’s worth the investment. Also, try to use your phone less and avoid the daily news cycle – it’s not important to know about and read reactions (and reactions to the reactions) to every tweet. Note: I typically spectacularly fail at these last two pieces of advice but my success in following the first makes up for it.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Linux! Unless I want to work with any kind of office software or play a game, in which case … Windows! But if I also want to use some command line utilities … Mac! (don’t @ me Windows Subsystem for Linux truthers, we both know it’s terrible) But if I want to use a mouse that doesn’t turn in to a paper weight when it needs to be charged (and since I haven’t had any touch-bar-powered DJ gigs for quite a while) … Linux!

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Confession time — I never watched Star Trek. I can tell you the original justification for why Han Solo expressed the duration of the Kessel Run in distance as opposed to time — the Kessel Run is a trip between asteroids that are drifting apart (despite Disney’s latest explanations to the otherwise), so distance is totally the better metric than time — so I still feel OK about my geek cred.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? My gut reaction was to go for the time machine, but I’m sure I’d quickly imperil the universe with some kind of space/time/continuity problem, so I can’t pick that. Transporter is the clear next best option, but it would probably be killing me and creating a clone with each transport, so that’s out too. So cloak of invisibility it is, though I’d be willing to trade it straight up for some kind of personal flying device.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Convince my co-workers at Placed to come join me. Except Rob.

I once waited in line for … “The Phantom Menace.” Also, a bar in Chicago that was going to show the 2006 Michigan – Ohio State game. Now that I think about it waiting in lines only results in tragedy.

Your role models: Jim Harbaugh (obviously). Also my parents (they both work incredibly hard every day and treat people the way they would want to be treated).

Greatest game in history: It’s a tie between the 1997 Michigan – Ohio State game and “Baldur’s Gate II.” I would love to meet anyone else who would answer the same way … I think we’d get along.

Best gadget ever: The NES. When I was a kid I used to measure all potential expenditures in number of Nintendos: “Sure, going to a baseball game would be fun, but is it TWO NINTENDOS worth of fun?” It was an impossible standard for all other activities.

First computer: My dad wrote an early email system at the University of Michigan before I was born so there were always computers around the house growing up. An Apple IIgs is the first model that I remember, though I remember a friend had a machine that ran “Norton Commander.” I was also confused about the meaning of “hard disk” for a while because in my young mind a “hard disk” clearly referred to a 3.5 disk while “floppy disk” referred to a 5.25 disk — some kind of additional unseen “hard disk” inside the computer didn’t seem like a reasonable explanation.

Current phone: I just bought an iPhone XR a few weeks ago. I was hoping to hang on to my iPhone 6s until 5G became commonplace but then there was an unfortunate situation with a melted chocolate bar that necessitated an upgrade.

Favorite app: NYTimes and Twitter are where I spend the most time, showing just how successful I’ve been at reducing my attention to the daily news cycle. I’ve started following a lot of football analytics people on Twitter (as opposed to the political figures/commentators who were in my feed earlier) and that’s helped reduce my blood pressure. Dream Quest and Six Ages are my favorite games — if you’re reading this article you should buy them both.

Favorite cause: Against Malaria Foundation — I took a lot of philosophy courses in college and read some Peter Singer essays (standard data science career prep) that stuck with me. I’m not able to live up to those ideas every day but I try to keep them in mind when making donations. I learned about AMF through Give Well, which does a great job of evaluating charities from a utilitarian perspective.

Most important technology of 2019: GPS / location data. If I were born 100 years earlier I’d have spent a lot of time wandering around lost. And without highly-accurate player location data it would be a lot less fun to analyze football.

Most important technology of 2021: Self-driving cars. Who knows when they’ll arrive but I’m sure that future generations will look back at letting humans drive cars with the same horror we now look back at things like surgery without anesthesia and super-sized value meals.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: I’ll channel some quotes from my role models: attack every day with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind. When you are about to start something difficult don’t wait for a pep talk or a Snickers bar. And finally (note: this is only appropriate for football): solve your problems with aggression.

Website: Placed

Twitter: @nsterken

LinkedIn: Nate Sterken

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