Rejoice, liberal arts student, your career in data analytics awaits

Published on the 24/02/2016 | Written by Donovan Jackson

liberal arts degree

There’s plenty of hype around analytics and Gartner is tipping this sector of the industry for big things throughout 2016. But just how ready are businesses to take practical advantage of their data stores?...

Probably not very, is the gist of what emerged from a discussion with Rich Clayton, VP of Business Analytics at Oracle. He pointed out that according to consulting firm McKinsey, in the USA alone, there is a ‘1.5 million gap in the number of data managers and a 150 000 gap in data scientists’.

In other words, while there is a shortage of data scientists, that’s not where the problem is most acute; indeed, having an army of data scientists and an absence of data savvy managers is a recipe for failure.

“The root cause here, what is needed, is a reform of the curriculum,” said Clayton.

He isn’t alone in that view; Ian McCrae, Orion Health CEO, has voiced similar concerns. But where McCrae is calling for more science and maths skills particularly in the formative years, Clayton has a quite different take. “The single biggest thing is a need to join the softer creative skills with data science skills. We’ve all seen or know of great leaders who have done marginal ‘analysis’ but are persuasive communicators. They win; then there are those who have the data science abilities, but win nothing.”

Where McCrae and Clayton’s views coincide is that both believe it is necessary for universities to transform their academic offerings. “But if the workforce is caught off guard, there is an abundance of free academic programs to learn, including from MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. There’s no reason not to, except complacency.”

In what has to come as good news to liberal arts students of every stripe, Clayton believes it is exactly these sorts of skills which are now essential to get more out of data. Effectively, he noted, ‘assembling the data is no longer an issue – it is available’ – but using it is where the challenge lies. “What is crucial is diversity of experience and skills; [for example] the University of Pittsburgh has hired music and arts specialists to avoid ‘expertise bias’ and get fresh thinking on what to ask of data.”

Getting arts and literature specialists to quiz data depends, of course, on their being provided with the right sort of tools to do so – and Clayton said this is precisely what the tech industry is doing, with visually driven solutions which take their cue from social media and other widely used consumer-type platforms.

He added that most data which organisations have amassed has never been looked at before. “We don’t know what it means, we don’t know how to ask the right questions. We need to bring together data scientists and lateral thinkers, particularly those who can use visual analysis to explore data without knowing any programming.”

So, that BA in English, Women’s Studies and Psychology might just land you a job in data analytics.

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