Training tomorrow’s data professionals

There is no shortage of data these days. According to an oft-cited statistic, which seems to originate with IBM, 90% of the data ever created by humanity was made in the past two years. But what use is data if nobody is around to analyse and interpret it? 

A recent study by the UK government’s IT skills body, e-skills, found that jobs relating to ‘big data’ or ‘data science’, modish terms for analytics, rose 43% in the past year alone. 

That suggests that data miners and analytics professionals are in high demand. “As someone who is trying to hire lots of analysts at the moment, it’s very clear that there is a lot competition for talent,” says Tom Khabaza, analytics manager at BSkyB’s customer intelligence division, SkyIQ. 

Of course, one industry in particular – finance – has always had a voracious appetite for mathematicians and statisticians to process the vast quantity of data it handles. 

What is happening now, though, is that demand is spreading to other industries. Meanwhile, the job of being a data analyst is becoming increasingly dependent upon technology knowledge.

“Take supermarkets, which are analysing data on their customers,” says Dr Kathy Maitland, a lecturer in computer science at Birmingham City University. “Traditionally, they would have had a business school graduate looking at the data from a marketing perspective. Now, they are looking for people with knowledge of SAS, IBM or SAP’s software.”

In early December, Birmingham City University announced a new partnership with SAS – one of the analytics industry’s leading software vendors. The SAS Student Academy will see BCU embed SAS certification training into a new MSc in business intelligence, and offer teacher training to other universities hoping to do the same. 

“Including vendor material from SAS into our curriculum enables our students to get to certification levels that improve their employability,” explains Maitland. “If you look at the employment opportunities that are out there, there are a lot of jobs that specifically require SAS certification.” 

Maitland insists that, while SAS provides materials for the certification component of its new business intelligence course, the academic side is strictly independent. Nevertheless, should a software vendor such as SAS have such privileged access to the young analysts of tomorrow? 

Khabaza doesn’t see it as problem – at least not yet. “A degree of involvement from the likes of SAS would be a good thing,” he says. “I tend to find that in university departments there is insufficient awareness of how the data mining and analytics technology might actually be applied.

“It would be quite wrong if software companies came to dominate the educational or the research agenda, but right now there’s not enough involvement.”

The society of data miners

Khabaza is in the process of creating a professional body to represent the data mining and analytics community, called the Society of Data Miners. “Our goal is to increase the benefits of data mining to society, government and commerce,” he says. “One of the ways we want to do that is to improve and spread knowledge of analytics.

“The most obvious way to do that in the long term is through education. We want to make sure that schools, universities and business schools are teaching students about analytics, and are teaching them the right things about analytics.

“Most business schools already teach statistics,” he says. “But there’s a difference between teaching statistics and teaching the application of analytics in broad terms as a solution – what kind of business problems can it help to solve?”

In the longer term, Khabaza hopes that the Society will help devices certification for analytics professionals, and help to establish career paths for analytics experts.

“Analytics should be a profession,” he says. “It should have a professional status and analysts should be able to be proud of their work.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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