Geek looking at data


Geek Of The Week: Philip Tananka

Aug 17, 2012, 10:27 AM by Jack DePoe
philip-tananka“A Number-Crunching Artist”

You might say that Philip Tananka is a paint-by-numbers kind of guy. Not that he enjoys those kitschy hobby kits depicting country cottages and puppies at play. Rather, as the Director of Standard Research at Environics Analytics, Philip paints vivid portraits of consumer segments and markets using data. He and his team of analysts work to uncover the insights and informative nuggets buried in the depths of massive databases that can help clients solve their toughest business problems.

“A researcher is not just a numbers cruncher,” Philip maintains. “You have to be able to see the big picture, help find new insights in the data that perhaps the client and the advocate haven’t thought of.  Sometimes, even something as simple as a map can reveal insights no one has considered.”

Before arriving at that stage, however, there’s still a lot of number crunching going on, and Philip is something of an artist in that area as well. Besides guiding his team in their analyses, he takes on his share of project work.  In addition, he’s working on a team that is designing cutting-edge techniques in research, moving into the new field of big data analysis and campaign management.

“The larger the scope, the more complex the project, the happier I am,” Philip says. “I like when a project takes weeks or months to set up, run and test.  Then you execute it, take in the feedback and make adjustments over time to see where things are going. I like that sort of challenge.”

Taking on challenging tasks got Philip started in geography. In his hometown of Minsk, Belarus, Philip had two career choices coming out of high school: business or geography. On the business side, the state-run economy made for a limited set of prospects, and Philip recalls that, while the exams were challenging, the coursework was less so.  On the other hand, the geography program was easier to get into, but had a more challenging workload. Naturally, Philip was attracted to the latter.

“I remember a friend of my mother’s was a geography graduate,” he says. “He sat me down in a room one day and, while chain-smoking, grilled me on my knowledge of geography. It felt almost like an interrogation, but in the end, I realized I knew enough about it to choose that path. Plus, the better I answered the questions, the sooner I could get out of there and breathe some fresh air!”

On the subject of fresh air, Philip has long been a fan of the outdoors.  As a young man, he spent summers at his grandparents’ farm in the Belarus countryside, taking early-morning fishing trips or hiking across fields to pick wild mushrooms.  During his time at Belarusian State University, he spent his summers working in a rebuilding program for Europe, started after World War II, which still continues to this day.  In Denmark, he helped build a recreated Viking village using period-authentic materials and tools. In Germany, he helped build a playground for handicapped people. He says that his time spent with this not-for-profit organization gave him insight into people from other cultures.  Every time he went abroad, he returned home with ideas on how to change his life for the better.

His enjoyment of outdoor pursuits helped him decide to move to Canada and what he calls the “untouched” nature of Ontario.  His first stop was at Ryerson University, where he earned a certificate in Applied Digital Geography and GIS. “I didn’t know there was so much diversity in the area of geography,” observes Philip. “The opportunities seemed almost infinite.”

And indeed, Philip found opportunities right after graduation, quickly scoring a job with a land surveying company.  From there he move on to DMTI, then Cara Operations before landing at Environics Analytics in 2007, the same year he began a Master of Spatial Analysis program at Ryerson University, from which he would earn a degree two years later.

During his first few months in Toronto, Philip met his wife, Alina, who also hails from Minsk.  Though they had to travel halfway around the world to find one another, their relationship grew quickly and they soon married. Ten years later, their family includes two-year-old Daniel and four-month-old Paulina. And his outdoor adventures have not slowed due to marriage or family life.

“I got my wife into camping early on,” Philip says. “So now, we take the kids camping at least twice a month in the spring and summer.  Daniel already knows how to fish and cut wood for a fire.  Even with a baby, we still want to go so they grow up loving the outdoors like we do.”

But family life is not all about excursions to northern Ontario and fishing for dinner.  Philip enjoys his Winner’s Circle neighbourhood in East Mississauga on the Etobicoke border, where many of his favourite shops are within walking distance. Like a typical member of the Winner’s Circle segment, he and his family are big believers in local and sustainable shopping, so they frequent local shops such as Starsky’s Polish Grocery, where they can find Eastern European foods that remind them of home, and Aurora Meats, an Italian butcher.  “But of course,” he chuckles, “We also have a Costco membership and will buy furniture at Ikea.”

While Philip does enjoy his current community, the High Park Village area of Toronto will always hold a special place in his heart since he lived there for many years before moving to Etobicoke. “I think everyone has a sort of “motherland”, which isn’t just the country where they were born,” he explains. “It’s the area you know and grew up in, maybe ten kilometres square”—the geographer in him instinctively mapping it out in his head.  “For immigrants, you get two. The one where you grew up, but also the area you first really call home in your new country.”

Come to think of it, Philip’s life does sound a lot like an idyllic paint-by-the-number scene, with a smattering of simple pleasures, a large dollop of hard work and a growing family portrait that celebrates the best of what Canada has to offer.

–Jack DePoe