Thomas Davenport (Harvard Business School, Deloitte) and DJ Patil (Greylock Partners) co-authored a piece for Harvard Business Review titled "Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century," about the explosion of data science professionals onto the business scene. As businesses move to capture the value of data to drive innovation and decision-making, the role of the data scientist becomes essential to business strategy. In the piece, Davenport and Patil provide a profile of the data scientist:
Data scientists’ most basic, universal skill is the ability to write code. This may be less true in five years’ time, when many more people will have the title “data scientist” on their business cards. More enduring will be the need for data scientists to communicate in language that all their stakeholders understand—and to demonstrate the special skills involved in storytelling with data, whether verbally, visually, or—ideally—both.
But we would say the dominant trait among data scientists is an intense curiosity—a 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. This often entails the associative thinking that characterizes the most creative scientists in any field. For example, we know of a data scientist studying a fraud problem who realized that it was analogous to a type of DNA sequencing problem. By bringing together those disparate worlds, he and his team were able to craft a solution that dramatically reduced fraud losses.
Perhaps it’s becoming clear why the word “scientist” fits this emerging role. Experimental physicists, for example, also have to design equipment, gather data, conduct multiple experiments, and communicate their results. Thus, companies looking for people who can work with complex data have had good luck recruiting among those with educational and work backgrounds in the physical or social sciences. Some of the best and brightest data scientists are PhDs in esoteric fields like ecology and systems biology. George Roumeliotis, the head of a data science team at Intuit in Silicon Valley, holds a doctorate in astrophysics. A little less surprisingly, many of the data scientists working in business today were formally trained in computer science, math, or economics. They can emerge from any field that has a strong data and computational focus.
It’s important to keep that image of the scientist in mind—because the word “data” might easily send a search for talent down the wrong path. As Portillo told us, “The traditional backgrounds of people you saw 10 to 15 years ago just don’t cut it these days.” A quantitative analyst can be great at analyzing data but not at subduing a mass of unstructured data and getting it into a form in which it can be analyzed. A data management expert might be great at generating and organizing data in structured form but not at turning unstructured data into structured data—and also not at actually analyzing the data. And while people without strong social skills might thrive in traditional data professions, data scientists must have such skills to be effective.
The article goes on to discuss recruitment strategies, including how to attract and maintain data scientists, and close with a summary of the extraordinarily lucrative future of the evolving role.