Sexy Data Scientists?

In the required readings from the first week of the course Information Strategy of the program Business Information Management at Erasmus University Rotterdam, there was a reference to an article from the Harvard Business Review. The name of the article sparked my interest: Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.

The article discusses that the “data scientist” is a new breed that is substantially important for companies in their wrestle with extensively voluminous information (Davenport and Patil 2012).

With the important breakthroughs of technologies that make taming big data possible, the people with the skills and mind-set to put these technologies are at least as important (Davenport and Patil 2012). Thus, “the shortage of data scientists is becoming a serious constraint in some sectors” (Davenport and Patil 2012).

So who are these highly demanded and scarce people? And where are they?

Since there are no university programs that actually develop data-scientists (partly because it hasn’t yet been defined what role data-scientists have in organisations and how their performance is measure) the search must be done elsewhere.

These special people tend “make discovers while swimming in data”. Thus, according to the article, they are “often creative in displaying information visually and making the patterns they find clear and compelling”, whilst holding the abilities to write code, to be particularly analytical (usually due to past formal training in computer science, math or economics) and -maybe most importantly- to have an intense curiosity. This curiosity being “the desire to go beneath the surface of a problem, find the questions at its heart, and distill them into a very clear set of hypotheses that can be tested” (Davenport and Patel 2012)

However, one skill has not yet been mentioned. Namely, that strong social skills are of great importance. Davenport and Patil say that where “people without strong social skills might thrive in traditional data professions, data scientists must have such skills to be effective”. Thus, in the search for data scientists, both a skill set of analytics and “certain habits of the mind” like “a feel for business” as well as “empathy for customers” are of essence (Davenport and Patil 2012).

These persons are hard to find because there are only so many people to this date that have acquired the skill set needed, whilst the demand for “data scientists” is ever-growing. Even when the desired person is found, it may be hard retaining them since the “competitive market of their services is so fierce” (Davenport and Patil 2012). Thus, with the Big Data hype showing no sign of decline, the article concludes that “data scientists” are the hot job, or the sexy job of the 21st century. “Think of big data as an epic wave gathering now, starting to crest. If you want to catch it, you need people who can surf.”

Davenport, T. H. (2012, October). Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century. Harvard Business Review , 1-8.


One response to “Sexy Data Scientists?”

  1. 342538mh says :

    I think it is an interesting way to state the data scientist’s function and behaviour. As you mentioned is the description of the article needed to catch the vague meaning of this function. This raises some thoughts. Why would companies look especially for data scientists, since there is not an easy, formal description of the function? The question I would like to highlight is: Do all companies know what kind of profile they are looking for?

    An article at CIO written by Allen Bernard (Data Scientist Role Is Clear, Even If Job Description Isn’t, 17-10-2012) comments on the article of Davenport(2012) as well. At Columbia University a course in “data science” was started and led to a rise in the programs that offer similar courses. One of these courses is “Big Data and Business Analytics” taught at our own university (Erasmus University Rotterdam) by Dr. van Dalen.

    Since the article of Davenport is published in 2012 and we are trying to keep up with the possibilities generated by Moore’s Law, there might be a change the number of new data scientists is relatively growing. But, it is the question whether these data scientists are the real skilled people Davenport was referring to.–even-if-job-description-isn-t.html

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