Meet a professor - Thomas A. Weber

Thomas Weber © 2019 EPFL

Thomas Weber © 2019 EPFL

Prof. Thomas Weber has accepted to answer a few questions about himself.

Can you describe yourself in a few words?

Born in the Saarland, a small state in the Southwest of Germany, I began my studies in Electrical Engineering and Mathematics at the Technical University Aachen in 1989. As one of about 800 students in lectures, that combined with other disciplines were even bigger, I sought the opposite of such crowds by also studying at a small engineering school in France. So in 1995, I graduated as Ingénieur des Arts et Manufactures at the Ecole Centrale Paris and Diplom-Ingenieur at the RWTH Aachen, with one year spent in between at Imperial College London to write my diploma thesis on a topic in control theory. I then went on to study at MIT for graduate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as well as Technology and Policy. This is where my focus shifted from Engineering towards Economics. Working at the Boston Consulting Group in Munich helped in this endeavor, and BCG was so kind as to sponsor my PhD at the Wharton School, after which I started as a faculty member in the Economics and Finance Group of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University in 2003. When the opportunity arose to come to EPFL in 2011, having spent more than a decade in the United States, I was eager to return to Europe, much closer to family and home. At EPFL, I have been working at the intersection of Operations, Economics and Strategy.

You’ve been at EPFL for close to 8 years, how has your vision of the institution evolved?

Upon my arrival at EPFL, I was immediately thrown into “institutional cold waters” by being entrusted with the directorship of the Management of Technology and Entrepreneurship Institute (MTEI) at the College of Management (CDM). At the time, the CDM had only an interim director, so that I had to frequently interact directly with the presidency which was both interesting and challenging, and which sharpened my senses for demanding administrative questions. The evolution of EPFL as an institution continues to be astounding on its path to truly global leadership. I am curious to see EPFL evolve further and hope that the deep humanity and generosity of the place encouraging diversity in academic work stays very much intact over the coming years. As the current director of the doctoral program in Management of Technology (EDMT), I am fortunate to be able to interact with our next generation of researchers who truly are the backbone of our research at the CDM. Somewhat returning to my roots in Engineering, I am also interested to see the fruits of various transversal efforts come to bear, through designing a joint course with EPFL’s engineering school (STI), and furthermore, in the context of the EPFL-wide minor in Systems Engineering which I have been directing since last year.

You define yourself as a scientist at the intersection of operations, economics and strategy. What does that mean?

All three areas have to do with systems and the control thereof. At the lowest level, “operations” is about the optimization of a workflow or, more generally of selecting inputs to a system so that it behaves optimally in terms of maximizing some functional of its outputs. “Economics” is about the strategic interaction of such systems and the design of mechanisms that govern such games, which themselves can be viewed as systems. Finally, strategy has to do with finding rules so as to map recognizable states of nature to feasible actions. I have been interested in the interplay of these types of decision problems in the presence uncertainty for a long time, which leads to a rather diverse research agenda, ranging from optimization, via game theory, to the sharing economy and the environment.

What is your flagship research project and why is it important?

An interesting project I have been working on for over a decade is optimal credit collections, where the first step is to estimate a stochastic repayment process from observations about debtors’ repayment behavior from a variety of data sources. The second step consists in finding a collection strategy, as a mapping from the state of a distressed loan to actions, to maximize the expected return of an account portfolio. The problem is interesting for many reasons. It has the hierarchical features of operations, economics, and strategy explained before. There are also many fascinating technical challenges based on the underlying theory of self- and cross-exciting point processes, with insights from our research that may be applied in other settings, for example to understand leader-follower behavior in cryptocurrency markets. With the support of a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation we are investigating the problem from different angles, ranging from mathematical analysis, via analytics and machine learning, to regulatory implications. 

Can you describe your typical day during the semester and during semester break?

A typical day at EPFL would depend on whether it is a “teaching day” or a “research day.” On a teaching day, I would prepare the lecture, give the lecture, and usually hold office hours later in the afternoon, often with other meetings before and after, for example related to projects or master theses. On a research day, I would meet with people from my group, work on ideas and papers myself, and also engage in conversations with colleagues around the world. The semester break sees conference travel and more extended research, or the preparation of a new course. It is a necessary period of gathering some breathing room and new energy for the next semester.

Outside of research, do you have another passion/interest?

At EPFL, I have rediscovered a sport that I had already practiced in my youth for about 10 years: Judo. It is a very physical activity which for me provides the perfect counterbalance to the otherwise rather sedentary life as a researcher. Incidentally, the principle of judo, namely to maximize effect with a minimum of effort, is in spirit quite related to my research interests. Other than that I have also picked up the study of bass about 6 years ago at the Ecole de Jazz et de Musique Actuelle (EJMA) in Lausanne, which offers a stimulating environment to develop as a musician and to practice the art of playing with others.