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School of Data Science

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Posted May 16, 2013 By Ann All     Feedback

Because data science is an emerging field with a broad range of requirements, some companies create specialized internal training programs to get the skills they want and need.

A growing number of companies find themselves in the market for data scientists.

Seventy percent of organizations recently surveyed by New Vantage Partners said they planned on hiring data scientists, a role the survey defined as "applying varying degrees of statistics, data visualizations, computer programming, data mining, machine learning, and database engineering to solve complex data problems. " Yet they weren't exactly confident they'd be able to find data scientists; 80 percent of them found it challenging to fill these positions.

Though not everyone can even agree on what data scientists do, it seems almost everyone believes there aren't enough data scientists to go around.

Because of this shortage, companies are coming up with some creative ways to swell the ranks of their data professionals. For instance, Opera Solutions, a provider of data analytics software and consulting services, creates teams comprised of different kinds of data professionals rather than trying to find individuals with all of the needed data skills.

Growing Your Own Data Scientists

Utopia, a provider of enterprise data solutions, has for several years offered a specialized training program called Utopia University.

Some 130 people have completed the three-month program, which Utopia offers at its facilities in suburban Chicago and Bangalore. The first two months involve mostly classroom learning, and participants get hands-on experience with "live" data in the third month. They receive a monthly stipend throughout the program.

The idea, said Arvind Singh, Utopia's co-founder, president and CEO, is to allow participants to "work on real projects to apply what they've learned" under the supervision of Utopia's senior data consultants. "We give them a combination of knowledge, tools, technologies and our methodologies, and also a real world experience in the 'safe haven' of our delivery center."

Mike Nicely, who became a data migration consultant with Utopia after completing the program, said working closely with senior consultants was definitely a positive experience. "Instead of simply learning about the technology, you get to see how it works and interacts with different systems in a production setting. You also get exposed to an entire team of people with different experiences to learn from," he said.

It can be a challenge to find the right candidates, said Philip Kelley, the company's senior director of global human resources, largely because of the newness of the field. "Those that have gone down a traditional programming or engineering path in many instances haven't thought about it because they didn't know about it," he said.

Recruiting and Retaining Data Scientists

Both Kelley and Singh said there is a dearth of people interested in data science despite the growing number of universities offering data-intensive curriculums. For Utopia, one of the best sources of candidates is referrals from those who have already completed the program. "People who have gone through the program and been successful have been able to refer people that have been just as successful as they have," Kelley said.

Utopia also works with several universities located near its delivery centers to find candidates studying computer science or engineering who might be interested in pursuing a career in data science. The primary qualifications are familiarity with relational databases and SQL programming. Before being admitted to the Utopia University program, candidates are interviewed by Kelley and by one of the program's instructors.

Steve Ludwig, a program participant who is now a data migration consultant with Utopia, called the program "an excellent find in a job market looking for workers with multiple years of experience" and lauded its inclusion of real-world experience. He said, "I would say that similar educational opportunities are nearly impossible to find."

Like some other experts, Singh believes that as the data science field matures it will attract "not just techies and geeks" but professionals from a variety of backgrounds. "A good data consultant requires a healthy dose of communications skills," he said, which is why Utopia University participants are required to deliver presentations to their classmates and to Utopia executives like Singh during the program.

"We want to ensure they can deliver the point of view of Utopia to our clients in a very professional and appropriate manner," Kelley said.

Retaining the trainees is also a concern, given the red-hot demand for data professionals. The key, said Singh, is to "give them an aggressive growth path with roles, compensation and opportunities." For some of Utopia's employees, many of whom are recent college graduates, engagements in which they work with clients in regions outside North America are a "massive attraction," he said.

Perhaps the most important lesson Utopia has learned with its training program is not to rush it. "You have to be very thoughtful and methodical, or it might not yield the kind of response you hope," said Kelley, noting that the company conducts post mortems with each graduating class and incorporates what it learns into successive programs.

"A lot of organizations seem to be taking shortcuts on this," said Singh. "But you can't train people to build predictive and prescriptive models in the sky without an understanding of what is happening in the foundational trenches of data management."

Ann All has been writing about technology and business for 15 years. She is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today and eSecurity Planet.

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