March 17, 2016

Colliding with a big conversation about Data Science

By Paul Laughlin

Data ScienceYesterday I had the pleasure of attending Scotland’s first “collider” event for Data Science.

Data Talent Scotland brought together over 400 from the worlds of academia & commerce to talk Data Science & improve understanding of one another.

Scotland is blessed with a rich source of Data Science courses & supporting universities (11 Masters courses in Data Science alone). There are also plenty of students on these well attended courses, as shown by the hundreds attending this event. Most appear enthusiastic about pursuing careers in Data Science.

Yet, just like elsewhere in the UK, I still hear about difficulties recruiting Data Scientists & more demand than supply in companies ‘talent pipelines’. Why does this happen? Probably because too often these two worlds don’t meet, nor talk the same language. Bridging that divide was one of the best achievements of this event.

After initially gathering in a packed exhibition hall (at the great venue of The Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh), delegates had chance to visit over 50 exhibition stands. These included stands from universities, but were predominantly potential employers, so of obvious interest to students. As someone who focussed on the FS sector, I must commend Ageas, Tesco Bank & RBS for exhibiting, as well as many others from large consultancies to smaller agencies & public sector.

The first section included presentations from 3 of the event sponsors. Here are my recollections of their advice to students:

  • John Buchanan (Barrachd) gave a number of examples of real world Big Data projects. Identifying how the majority are still focussed on untapped internal structured data (despite the potential in external & unstructured sources). He also helped students understand the practical needs businesses have & how those drive the data projects.
  • Costi Perricos (Deloitte) focussed on the potential power of data & analytics to transform the way businesses operate. Not just making existing ways of working more efficient but enabling new operating models. It also helped students get a feel for the kind of opportunities they might be exposed to if they went to work for one of the ‘big 4’.
  • Jon Orme (Comet) brought the focus back to the individual customer. How can data science be used to improve individual customer experiences. He highlighted this by mapping out a typical multi-channel customer journey & how data could help improve almost every touchpoint or targeting of personalised comms (without being creepy).

After another chance to network, everyone then split up into different workshops. I had the privilege of leading the keynote workshop on the main stage. Now, running an interactive ‘workshop’ for over 100 people in a space this big is a challenge, But feedback suggested that it went down well and tweets certainly enjoyed Barak Obama making an appearance:

Data Science

More seriously, spending this time sharing with students the importance of softer skills, prompted a number of conversations as to how much these are needed. Unprompted, a student earlier in the day asked in a Q&A how they can build the softer skills they need (as well as have those identified). As I’ve found when training at client sites, there was particular interest from Data Science students to improve their questioning, influencing & communication (inc. data visualisation) skills. That has prompted me to perhaps develop material to go deeper into each of those areas. My slides are available for download on SlideShare:

The other workshops also had positive reports & included ones covering: developing a career in Data Science R&D; employability tips & case studies from Fashion & Health industries.

After the workshops and a lunch that disappeared very quick (well we did let students in ;-), the event moved on to a couple of presentations & panel/Q&A session. These presentations included:

  • Sally Aitken (TSB Bank) shared more about her role as Head of Change and the major data projects within TSB. Usefully for students she focussed on what are often the most challenging but also less glamorous end of data projects. A major migration project from legacy Lloyds Banking Group systems to their new Sabadell systems. Extract Transform & Load (ETL) projects may not be what many data students aspire to do, but matter for businesses.
  • Chris Roche (Aridhia) gave an inspirational final speech, not just because their work in areas of precision medicine & Alzheimer research is so needed by society, but also because he stressed the need for new ways of working as well. Through the approach they have developed, he brought to life the concepts on collaboration, platform & innovation.

Paul Forrest (chairman of MBN) hosted a panel session with experts across the industries of management consultancy, tech startups, Edinburgh University & the Data Lab. There were a number of interesting points discussed, but the topics that stayed with me are questions on how we foster this greater understanding for students & even back to schools. How can we better prepare children & students for the data & work challenges of tomorrow?

On reflection afterwards, I’m left feeling events like this are certainly part of the solution. But more is needed. More cross-pollination between industry/commerce & academia or schools. How could more leaders from both go & talk with people in the other world? I will certainly be exploring the opportunity to help universities by providing some of this ‘softer skills’ learning for students, so employers can benefit from Data Scientists more ready for the work place.

Another learning point from the event is surely the positive impact of having two classes of school children there. Most surprisingly the class off primary school children were a real benefit. Their confidence to ask questions & power of their questions put others to shame. If you want you event to really get conversation started, invite along school children who will ask: “Do you enjoy your job?”; “Is your job interesting?”; “What should I study at school?”. It’s surprising how they open up the debate for others.

If you made it along, I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn’t then it’s well worth considering attending #DTS2017. Meanwhile, let’s see the same happening elsewhere in the UK. I know for one thing that there is enough local academic & commercial talent to consider Data Talent Wales, so I’ll start exploring that one. What can you do to help?