Remember that time during an already painful adolescence, when tears slowly fell on the pages of your evil algebra book, and you scratched your head thinking, "When will I ever use this in real life?" Whether as a teen, college student or parent trying to help kids with homework, most of us are guilty of cursing the creator of linear inequalities, quadratic equations and functions.
Guess what? Algebra is actually quite useful, and it can be especially valuable in the workplace. Here are five ways you'll use algebra in your career.
1. Proving your worth as an employee
In today's resource-strapped corporate environment, it is more important than ever to prove the worth of your work. What did you work on today, and how did it make the company money? This is where algebra comes in.
Kara Sutton, new-media specialist at ReYrD, a cash-back loyalty program provider based in Denver, uses algebraic equations daily to calculate the return on investment of her social-media, print and online advertising and email-marketing campaigns.
"These numbers justify my work at the company and ease the tensions that can arise around budget," Sutton says. "I can prove to [the CEO] that each new customer is worth, say $100, and that to gain that customer, it costs maybe $5. That $5, multiplied by the number of new customers we are aiming for, is my budget. I can show that we make, for example, $95 for each $5 spent. No one can argue with that."
2. Solving clients' problems
No matter what your job is, your central function -- directly or indirectly -- is to solve clients' problems or meet clients' needs. That is how your company makes money, and it's what you get paid to help achieve.
Joshua Kuehler, founder of Internal Consistency, a human-resources consulting firm based in Chicago, shares an example of how algebra can help you provide value to your clients by solving their problems.
"I analyze data collected from surveys, generally employee-related surveys such as engagement, performance, opinion, training, etc.," Kuehler says. "I use a statistical analysis called regression to determine what drivers or predictors impact an outcome -- for example, turnover. A result of this regression analysis is an algebraic equation."
Here's what it might look like: Turnover = 1.213 + 0.75 (relationship with manager) + 0.22 (professional development) + 0.13 (skill alignment).
"I can then plug in numbers to predict the turnover. This enables clients to ask, 'What if we focused on managerial relationships as a means to reduce turnover?' This analysis has yielded the biggest 'ah-ha's' from clients and gives them strategic insight as to where they should invest resources."
3. Creating efficiency
Matt McCormick runs JCD Repair, a small business that performs iPhone, iPod and iPad repairs in Chicago. Throughout the shop's five-year history, effectively tracking and keeping efficient levels of inventory on hand has been a struggle.
"It's been a nightmare keeping enough parts in stock without tying up too much cash in inventory," McCormick says. "In addition, our business has been doubling every year, so getting our inventory right is like hitting a moving target."
Then McCormick figured out how to use algebra to help him solve his business problems and run his shop more efficiently. "About a month ago, I completely redid our inventory system using an online tool that we built that uses an algebraic formula to keep track of how much inventory we've been using and predict how much we will use. To help fine-tune the system, all of the inputs are variables that we can tweak as we try to perfect it. While it's only been a month of usage, the system is working out great so far."
Dan Cassidy, CEO and founder of Inspiyr.com, a lifestyle website for men, also uses algebra to keep his business running productively and profitably.
"Working in digital publishing, we use algebra on a daily basis," Cassidy says. "Tracking important KPI's [key performance indicators] such as visitation, engagement and revenue statistics requires at least a basic level of algebra in order to determine trends" and decide what steps to take next. By using algebra to continually gauge the performance of his site, Cassidy can make decisions that will help improve the site and run a more profitable business.
4. Making sound decisions
Too often, people make important decisions based on nothing but intuition and subjectivity. Throw a little algebra into the equation, and you can take your decisions from high-risk to calculated and sound.
Katherine Wertheim, a fundraising consultant in the Los Angeles area, used algebra to make a more cost-efficient business travel decision.
"I needed to travel from my home in Ventura, Calif., to San Francisco, which is about 700 miles round trip," Wertheim says. "I wanted to calculate whether renting a car for a 24-hour trip would make sense. So I had to figure out, given the cost of gas, what improvement in mileage I would need to justify the cost of renting a car. Since my car at the time was a '66 Mustang convertible that got 15 miles to the gallon highway, I easily saved enough money in gas to justify the cost of the rental, not to mention wear and tear on my car."
5. Making career and financial choices
Algebra can also help you make better personal career and financial choices. John Graves, editor of The Retirement Journal, offers several examples of career questions that can be answered using algebra.
- How much should you be saving for retirement?
- Should you pay down a credit card or build up your savings?
- If you make x, with potential of y as a bonus, how much time will you have to spend to earn y?
- Is your sick time more valuable as cash or as time off?
- Should you take a lower-paying job with greater future income potential or the higher-paying repetitive job?
Algebra is more than just a cruel joke played on us by math teachers. Maybe it's time to end the feud with algebra, brush up on some basic concepts and start thinking about how it can help you be a better employee or business owner and a more efficient individual.
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