Joe Valacich, Eller Professor of Management Information Systems
May 17, 2018
Seven Questions with Joe Valacich
"Helping our students develop skills, insight and empathy so they can be great leaders and colleagues in whatever they choose to pursue is an important outcome for making meaningful change in the world."
What brought you to the Eller College?
When I came as a PhD student in the late 1980s, it was the strong reputation of the department. When I came back in 2011 as a full professor, I was really intrigued by the success that Hsinchun Chen and Jay Nunamaker were having with commercialization and tech transfer of their research. While I had been a successful researcher from a purely academic standpoint, I wanted to be in an environment where I could learn how to traverse this “last mile” in the discovery process. Could my research have practical significance to organizations and society? I felt like this was the best place in the world for me to figure that out.
How long have you been at Eller?
This is a two-part answer. I was here as a PhD student for three years and visiting professor for one year. I came back in the fall of 2011 as a full-time faculty member, just finishing up my seventh year. So, overall, 11 years.
What is your current research, and what most excites you about that area of focus?
My primary research focus is at the intersection of human-computer interaction (HCI), neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI). Let me briefly explain: Tight linkages exist between changes in cognitive and emotional processing (e.g., cognitive conflict, arousal) and neuro-motor control (e.g., hand movements). Modern HCI devices such as the mouse and touch screens are fine-grained data sensors for capturing neuro-motor changes (e.g., speed, accuracy, click delays). Emotion and cognitive changes occur when people are unsure or purposefully misleading. And such change causes uncontrollable, yet predictable changes in HCI data. Over the past several years, we have developed deep capabilities for capturing and scoring HCI data in near real-time.
Linking back to the prior question, we are commercializing this work through a company I co-founded, Neuro-ID, Inc. Neuro-ID enhances online forms by scoring how a question was answered with HCI devices. Real-time scores reflect hesitations, answer changes and movements indicating indecision. Neuro-ID is currently working with several large online lenders processing millions of applicants per month; next markets include insurance, credit card anti-fraud, identity theft, government and countless other applications and contexts. We are combining our theoretically informed, research-derived signal with machine learning-based feedback loops to enhance real-time decision making for our customers. What is so fun is that Neuro-ID is rapidly growing in terms of customers and employee headcount. And last month we successfully completed a “growth round” of equity financing. We have offices in Tucson and Provo, Utah, and are headquartered in Whitefish, Montana. I was born and raised in Montana, so that is cool to have our headquarters up there.
What is really exciting is that there is a huge need for scalable solutions for assessing risk and system usability in countless industries and contexts. Our approach is novel and there seems to be no shortage of work or opportunity! Most of this prior and ongoing work is being done with my co-founder, Jeff Jenkins, who was my PhD student here at the UA and is now an assistant professor at BYU. I want to give a lot of credit to Jeff. I couldn’t have a better person to collaborate with.
What are you currently teaching, and what do you most enjoy about teaching?
I teach in our MS MIS program, as well as the full-time MBA and executive MBA programs. I enjoy all of these classes for different reason. In the Master's in MIS class, we all have a technical background so there is a lot of similarity in perspectives and problem-solving approaches. It is kind of a Vulcan mind meld in a good way.
I find the MBAs to be the most challenging but also the most fun. In the MBA, we have such diversity in backgrounds, training, industries and perspectives. I really learn a lot from these students as we explore how the digital world is transforming work and society, especially as we explore not just tech companies, but nonprofits, government, financial services, medical, agriculture and so on. It is really challenging and it keeps me on my toes, so to speak.
How do you bring your research into your teaching?
All that I am learning as we commercialize our technology in Neuro-ID is transforming how and what I teach. What is the most fun for me, and what I think is most interesting for the students, is that I can ground examples not out of a textbook, but out of what is happening every day in our company. I think this gives me greater credibility. For my MS MIS students, I can talk about how we organize our technical teams, prioritize work and why we do what we do. For the MBAs, talking about data privacy concerns, for example, as it applies to our customers leads to a richer discussion than simply talking about something happening in the news or what is written in a book.
Beyond research and teaching, what are your passions?
First, my family and friends. Next, is Neuro-ID. For fun, my wife Jackie and I really enjoy going to rock concerts and are foodies. And, at a personal level, I really love to golf. We also have two shelter dogs and are supportive of various animal-focused organizations, and we fund an MIS scholarship at the University of Montana.
What does the Eller Experience mean to you?
For me, the Eller Experience centers on developing students to be their “best” in the broadest possible way. In Eller, students gain more than technical and professional training for their chosen career, but also gain a strong sense of community and service through various clubs, honor societies and community outreach. Helping our students develop skills, insight and empathy so they can be great leaders and colleagues in whatever vocation or activity they choose to pursue is an important outcome for making meaningful change in the world.