Is being a data scientist the sexiest job of the 21st century?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Data scientist Peter Davenport loves his job but don’t called him a statistician. Photo: Wayne Taylor Data scientist Peter Davenport loves his job but don’t called him a statistician. Photo: Wayne Taylor
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Data scientist Peter Davenport loves his job but don’t called him a statistician. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Data scientist Peter Davenport loves his job but don’t called him a statistician. Photo: Wayne Taylor

A few years ago, The Harvard Business Review hailed the burgeoning role of data scientist “The sexiest job of the 21st century”. With big data technology driving the change, how does the new role stack up?

“It’s probably fair to say it’s a lot sexier than any of its earlier incarnations,” says Peter Davenport, who laments the title of “statistician”.

But if job satisfaction is a barometer for sexiness then Davenport, a data scientist at Sensis, is hard-pressed to find any drawbacks to his role.

Sensis is a marketing services company that includes iconic brands such as the Yellow Pages and White Pages. Dubbed the “oracle” by work colleagues, Davenport assists the company’s sales and marketing teams to understand the behaviour of businesses to develop strategies to then target those businesses.

“It helps the teams to sell but it also provides value back to those businesses,” says Davenport.

Big data is distinguished by the (3Vs) volume, velocity and variety of information that can now be captured and used by businesses to deliver a unique customer experience. Subsequently, many IT specialists are switching their job titles to reflect how big data technology has changed the nature of their work.

“The data scientist term resonates because you start to use lots of data: data from open sources and data coming from new technologies,”  Davenport says. “It feels like a pure science. It’s the breadth that’s amazing.”  The breadth is exactly why data scientists’ tools are integral to their work. Davenport uses R, an open-source program for data mining with SPSS modeller, and MapInfo for geographic analysis. Other popular data software includes GenStat and Hadoop.

Davenport believes that the data scientists who excel in their field are lateral thinkers who can make sense of the mass of data available today. The ability to communicate complex ideas in a concise and logical manner is a highly valued skill that Davenport brings to Sensis.

Echoing the sentiment, Dr Nicola Powell, founder of and data scientist at DataGen, says that communication is the key to giving customers value.

“You might be a great data scientist in terms of being able to identify trends, but if you can’t communicate that to your clients they’re not going to be able to answer their business questions,” Powell says. “The other great skill set is curiosity. I’ve always asked questions and I continue to ask questions.” Powell started her career working in agriculture as a research scientist, but says she did not see lab work as a long-term proposition. Her love of data, research and science combined led her to starting her business a few years ago.

A typical day for Powell might see her spending long hours in front of her computer trying to decipher large amounts of numbers and text. Nonetheless, the work is varied, covering everything from customer behaviour to campaign effectiveness to social media analytics to PR. Powell says her clients’ end goals are always at the forefront of her work.

“It’s all about interpreting results to every level of business,” says Powell. “And sometimes it’s picking the one problem that really needs the answer to.”

So is data scientist the sexiest job in the 21st century?

“Of course!” Powell says gleefully. “It’s definitely a profession to watch out for.”

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