A Journey of Exploration from Copper to Data Mining

Francisco Cisternas CUHK Business School

Prof. Francisco Cisternas’ career has traversed diverse fields from engineering to analytics, showing the value of constant learning and keeping up with the newest trends.

“Most people see engineering as different from marketing, but they are very related,” says Prof. Francisco Cisternas, who came from his native Chile to become Assistant Professor of the Department of Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. Originally from an engineering background, he has made his own path and prospered as an expert in marketing and analytics.

A Leap from Engineering to Business

Prof. Cisternas completed his undergraduate studies in Industrial Engineering and Master in Operations Management at the University of Chile. “When I was a kid, I had an inclination towards mathematics and science. I love working out solutions, so I gravitated towards engineering,” he says. Taking business courses alongside his engineering major, Prof. Cisternas picked Operations Management for his Masters at the University of Chile.

He found that operations improves peoples’ lives, and was a chance to address peoples’ everyday problems. “During my engineering course I discovered optimisation, and found the tools I had been learning could generate solutions for people that could improve their quality of life and profits in their business. When you study algebra and calculus, no one cares how many problems you can solve, but in optimisation there are many concrete examples and you can see the impact of the work,” Prof. Cisternas said

“Quantitative marketing is very related to engineering, we can merge engineering tools into marketing, specifically working with big data and modelling to answer managerial questions.” — Prof. Francisco Cisternas

The chance to put this positive philosophy into action came when he was offered a job in the copper industry, which was literally a ‘larger than life’ role. “In the mine site, everything was giant, with trucks like moving buildings that could flatten a car without noticing. We had to take a huge flag in our small trucks so the drivers could see us,” says Prof. Cisternas. He oversaw all the processes from extraction, refining, and export. “However, being in remote sites meant I had to be away from family and friends often, especially when we had to move to the mine and live in converted containers,” he adds.

The experience working in the mining industry started a natural progression to Prof. Cisternas pursuing a PhD in Business Administration (Marketing) from Carnegie Mellon University in the US. Contrary to what some people may think, the fields of engineering and marketing are not that distant. “Quantitative marketing is very related to engineering, we can merge engineering tools into marketing, specifically working with big data and modelling to answer managerial questions,” says Prof. Cisternas.

Prof. Cisternas had worked in the mining industry for several years before stepping into the academic world.

Devotion to Teaching and Mentorship

Prof. Cisternas is known to be very approachable, and mentorship is one of his passions. “I enjoy teaching students, learning new cultures and perspectives. I have taken every opportunity to teach, even as a teaching assistant during my Masters. I also kept teaching as a guest lecturer while I was working in the mining industry.”

Students are benefitting from Prof. Cisternas’ passion in marketing analytics and research, along with his expertise in mobile and online marketing, multi-channel management, and demand optimisation. “Being closer to the students allows me to see if the materials are getting through to the students, I want things to be memorable, and teach by doing and not only in theory, bringing practical experience and skills into the classroom.”

“When you try to do something yourself, that is when the real learning happens.” — Prof. Francisco Cisternas


Prof. Cisternas likes to take his real world experience and translate it to his students. “The work experience helps me when it comes to teaching; students can tell the difference and they get much more excited about cases that comes from real life, and consequently making it much more impactful for the class,” he says.

The Perfect Environment for Marketing Analytics

Having received many offers of teaching positions globally, Prof. Cisternas chose CUHK. “I didn’t have much experience in Asia, but in America I was exposed to more Asian cultures, which drove my interest. The quality of universities and researchers in Hong Kong is high with strong connections to corporates and firms in China, which is perfect for data. Things here are much more advanced and pioneering than other places in the world,” he says.

Aside from this, there have been other attractions in his two and a half years in the city. “Hong Kong is clean, it’s safe, has green areas, and there is so much to surprise you every day. Everyone in my country is Chilean, but there are not many people from my country here, so I have always have something to contribute to any conversation,” Prof. Cisternas jokes.

Prof. Cisternas has always been excited by advances in technology; he was distinguished with the Dipankar and Sharmila Chakravarti Doctoral Fellowship for his PhD studies on digital banking, a prestigious honour at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business. At the time, he also received the PNC Center for Financial Services Innovation Research Grant for work on digital transformation.

“That should be our mission as academics, to train students to be superb data scientists.” — Prof. Francisco Cisternas

His current research is leveraging technology even further, focusing on interactions between the digital and physical channels using big data and machine learning algorithms. Extracting video and images from the stores, Prof. Cisternas is examining how emotions influence purchasing behaviour. “We all know about the so-called ‘retail therapy’, or shopping to feel better, and I wanted to know more about this phenomenon. By looking facial expressions, we can objectively measure peoples’ emotions, the computer does a much better job and I couldn’t analyse 10,000 faces myself,” he says.

Going into the future, Prof. Cisternas is focused on advancing knowledge and improving society. “Data supports people to make decisions and the tools are becoming easier and easier to use, but it’s not just about the tools, you need to have great supporting ideas as well. That should be our mission as academics, to train students to be superb data scientists,” he says.