Aaron Slobodin looks the part of a typical Squamish 21-year old as he enters Quest University’s cafeteria, headphones wrapped around his neck and carrying a large hiking backpack. He’s wearing a burgundy T-shirt with an image of a mountain and waves on the front, and khaki shorts. According to one of his Quest math professors, Slobodin is one of the university’s star students, flourishing in his studies of both applied and pure mathematics. Recently, Slobodin created and implemented an optimal scheduling system for the popular downtown hot spot, Zephyr Cafe. The Squamish Chief recently sat down with him for a chat about his work and the importance of math.
Q: I understand your Quest instructor Richard Hoshino connected you with Zephyr Café, and you created a scheduling program for them. Can you explain how it works?
A: Practically speaking, the manager inputs an [Excel spreadsheet] of data that expresses employees’ seniority, availability and their ability to work different jobs, because there are baristas, line and kitchen cooks there. Some people can work all three. The program takes that information and the restaurant’s requirements such as how many people they need to work each shift during each job type, each day. The program, in the background, takes that information and exports a final schedule. So if you say, only three people can work the Sunday barista morning shift then the program will assign three people to work that shift based on the employees’ inputted seniority, availability, and ability to work as a barista.
Q: What difference has that made for the café?
A: Before, by hand, it would take the manager one to two hours for a two-week schedule and last week she made a one-week schedule in four minutes.
Q: It seems strange there wasn’t already a program like that out there, or was there?
A: There are apps that do this, but from what I know, the reason we are not seeing more restaurants and cafes using those sort of apps is because a lot of them aren’t customizable. There are not enough preferences [built in]. They are too blanket apps. The reason this one is a little different is you have a ton of customization power. You can really decide and influence the schedule.
Q: How does it feel to have used your skills to create such a program?
A: I had a lot of fun working with them, they are a great group of people. It was really fulfilling to complete the project and have a product that everyone was excited about. It’s pretty cool to walk into Zephyr now and see the schedules on the wall.
Q: Was math something you were always passionate about, even when you were little?
A: I was pretty encouraged. My mom really enjoys math so it is something I always did a lot of as a kid, but not something I thought I would pursue in undergrad, but when I got here I took a couple of courses and it just kind of fit and really sparked my interest, and I just kept taking more until I had taken eight.
Q: Every student here has an overarching question they are trying to answer, what is yours?
A: How do revolutionary ideas change mathematics? It is just really getting at what are some interesting types of math and how to learn them.
Q: I am sure you are aware, a lot of people – myself included – have real math phobias. Others don’t believe math applies directly to their lives. What is your pitch for why math matters?
A: I have a lot of people asking me why I would pursue pure mathematics,
‘What are you going to do with that?’ So much behind the scenes is actually math. The reason your DVD player works is because of math, linear algebra. There are more applications than I am even aware of. Say there’s not even an application of your specific field, you can still go to other fields, biology or chemistry or even big businesses and say ‘I have been solving really abstract problems for the last 10 years. I hear you have some problems, can I help.’ It is all problem solving.
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