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Career Watch: Hot career: Data scientist

Q&A: Anjul Bhambhri

IBM's vice president of Big Data Products explains the role of data scientists.

What is a data scientist? A data scientist is someone who analyzes an organization's big data to discover actionable trends that lead to business results. Data scientists look at what questions business people need to ask to remain competitive. They work directly with C-level executives, advising them on how to drive maximum value from big data and integrate new information. In many ways, a data scientist serves as a change agent in today's workforce, pushing organizational collaboration and information integration.

What sort of background and skills are best to bring to this position? Successful data scientists can handle information complexity, influence both the business and IT organizations, and pursue their own research. They provide the most value when they are learning what the data is telling rather than spending time working on the functional aspects of data management. Therefore, deep knowledge on how to mine the data or use predictive analytics is less important than experience in applying the right questions with the technology tools. Companies will miss out on excellent candidates if they use a traditional checklist focusing on data skills.

People interested in the role should have some background in math, modeling and analysis, with possible professional work in machine learning, data mining or predictive analytics. Candidates should be able to work across the organization and influence various disciplines. And once in the role, the data scientist must continue professional education, pursuing things like IBM's free boot camps on improving data management and strategy skills.

Is there much demand for this role right now? A Google search will find over 10,000 postings for data scientists. That's an impressive number for a nascent field. Businesses are starting to understand the need for data-driven insights. I find myself frequently explaining the position to prospective and current clients. Specifically, I discuss how the role works, the appropriate academic and professional background of a good candidate, and how to integrate the position into your existing organization.

Another indicator of the demand for data scientists is the number of conferences focused on this role. In May 2011, the first annual Data Scientist Summit was held, and in August 2011, the Joint Statistical Meeting was held, with significant attendance by practitioners and companies hoping to find good candidates. Stanford University has estimated that 1,200 exabytes of data were created in 2010. That's a tenfold increase in five years, and it shows that there is a real demand for this role.

What Does an EBT CIO Do?

Forrester Research figures that CIOs currently spend 60% of their time as "chief maintenance officers" -- that is, they have to devote several hours a day to making sure that all the IT infrastructure and applications are running smoothly.

But Forrester envisions a shift to an era of what it calls empowered business technology (EBT), in which business units are more involved in deciding what their technology needs are and how to achieve them.

This transition would greatly reduce the number of hours that CIOs spend as chief maintenance officers and allow them to devote a good deal more time and energy managing things like risk, vendors and innovation.

Here's the breakdown of current and just-beyond-the-horizon CIO duties, as Forrester sees it:

Current CIOs

Chief maintenance officer: 60%

Chief vendor manager: 10%

Chief enterprise architect: 10%

Chief risk officer: 10%

Chief innovation officer: 5%

Chief demand officer: 5%

Empowered Business Technology CIOs

Chief maintenance officer: 25%

Chief vendor manager: 20%

Chief enterprise architect: 20%

Chief risk officer: 15%

Chief innovation officer: 15%

Chief demand officer: 5%

Source: Forrester Research, July 2011


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