Thursday, December 8, 2011

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Data Scientist

Some time in the early 1970s I formed my first career aspiration. When I grew up I wanted to be a bus. Yes, you read that right - not a bus driver, but a bus. It seems ridiculous now, some 40-odd years later, but I certainly wanted it bad back then! The reason it didn't seem crazy all those years ago is that I really had no idea what being a bus involved and what's more a bus seemed like a pretty cool thing to be - lots of the books that I had read to me featured buses zooming all over the countryside having all manner of exciting adventures, there was at least one cartoon where one of the main characters was a bus, and buses even had songs sung about them. Why wouldn't a three year old boy want to be a bus?

Fast forward 40 years and focus on the data industry: big data is being talked about in server rooms, board rooms and everywhere in between, and the term Data Scientist is becoming more and more common. It's a position I'd never heard of twelve months ago and now it seems hardly a day goes by where I don't see it mentioned in a blog post, industry email, or white paper, etc. A quick look at a number of job posting sites across the web confirms that organisations are indeed looking to hire people into roles with the Data Scientist title. But does anyone really know what the job entails, is there an agreed job description, even in a general sense? Judging by the diverse descriptions of the job ads I looked at it certainly doesn't seem so. I've talked before about my concerns that the Big Data concept is very much an overloaded and poorly understood term and I worry that the new "must have" role of Data Scientist is facing the same problems.

But, so what? Does this situation even matter? I think so. I applaud anything that raises the profile of those of us that work in the data and information space. I still remember what it was like to ride the wave in the early days of business intelligence and data warehousing and if others can have similar experiences and success today due to the next big thing being data centric then that's a good thing. However, I worry if the  shining beacon of the Data Scientist role starts to lure people from other facets of IT, or potentially worse still, attracts students entering University whilst the speciality is still in its infancy. With the role a Data Scientist will play, and how they will deliver value, yet to become understood in a consistent way then how can we expect our higher education institutions to prepare courses of study that will equip students with the skills that they will need when they reach the work force? I wonder if we will see such courses morphing, emerging and disappearing over coming years as industry and the universities try to better find what is expected of Data Scientists and how to build the knowledge and skills base they need to be successful. What of these early students, the guinea pigs or crash test dummies of the coming wave of graduate data scientists? Are we leading them astray, promising them areas of work, challenges and career paths which no-one yet knows will actually be there in the same form (or at all) five or ten years from now? Let's not promise too much too early. Better people come to the profession with their eyes open and with realistic views of what to expect, than simply because of hype.

Enough doom and gloom. If anyone can really tell me what a Data Scientist does, I'd love to know. I actually might want to be one when I grow up.

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