By Claire Gilbert, Data Analyst, O2 Integrated

It’s fair to say that for those who run in business intelligence circles, many admire the work of Fast Forward Labs CEO and Founder Hilary Mason.  Perhaps what resonates most with her fans is the moniker she places on data scientists as being ‘awesome nerds’—those who embody the perfect skillsets of math and stats, coding, and communication. She asserts that these individuals have the technical expertise to not only conduct the really, really complex work—but also have the ability to explain the impact of that work to a non-technical audience.

As insights and analytics organizations strive to assemble their own group of ‘awesome nerds,’ there are two ways to consider Hilary’s depiction. Most organizations struggle by taking the first route—searching for those very expensive, highly rare unicorns—individuals that independently sit at this critical intersection of genius. Besides the fact that it would be even more expensive to clone these data scientists, there is simply not enough bandwidth in their day to fulfill on their awesomeness 24/7.

To quote Aristotle, one of the earliest scientists of our time, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” which brings us to the notion of the team. Rather than seeking out those highly sought-after individuals with skills in all three camps, consider creating a collective of individuals with skills from each camp. After all, no one person can solve for the depth and breadth of an organization’s growing data science needs. It takes a specialist such as a mathematician to dive deep; as well as a multidisciplinary mind who can comprehend the breadth, to truly achieve the perfect team.

Team Dynamics of the Data Kind

The ultimate charge for any data science team is to be a problem-solving machine—one that constantly churns in an ever-changing climate. Faced with an increasing abundance of data, which in turn gives rise to once-unanswerable business questions, has led clients to expect new levels of complexity in insights. This chain reaction brings with it a unique set of challenges not previously met by a prescribed methodology. As the sets of inputs become more diverse, so too should the skillsets to answer them. While all three characteristics of the ‘awesome nerd’ are indispensable, it’s the collective of ‘nerds’ that will become the driving force in today’s data world.

True to the construct, no two pieces should operate independent of the third. Furthermore, finding and honing balance within a data science team will result in the highest degree of accuracy and relevancy possible.  Let’s look at the makeup of a perfectly balanced team:Awesome Nerds

  • Mathematician/Statistician:
    • This trained academic builds advanced models based on inputs, while understanding the theory and requirements for the results to be leveraged correctly.
  • Coder/Programmer:
    • This hands-on ‘architect’ is in charge of cleaning, managing and reshaping data, as well as building simulators or other highly technical tools that result in user-friendly data.
  • Communicator/Content Expert:
    • This business ‘translator’ applies an organizational lens to bring previous knowledge to the table in order to connect technical skillsets to client needs.

It’s the interdependence of these skillsets that completes the team and its ability to deliver fully on the promise of data:

A Mathematician/Statistician’s work relies heavily on the Coder/Programmer’s skills.  The notion of garbage-in/garbage-out very much applies here. If the Coder hasn’t sourced and managed the data judiciously, the Mathematician cannot build usable models.  Both then rely on the knowledge of the Communicator/Content Expert.  Even if the data is perfect, and the results statistically correct, the output cannot be activated against unless it is directly relevant to the business challenge. Furthermore, teams out of balance will be faced with hurdles for which they are not adequately prepared, and output that is not adequately delivered.

To Buy or to Build?

In today’s world of high velocity and high volume of data, companies are faced with a choice. Traditional programmers like those who have coded surveys and collected data are currently integrated in the work streams of most insights organizations. However, many of them are not classically trained in math and/or statistics. Likewise, existing quantitative-minded, client-facing talents can be leveraged in the the perfect teamrebuilding of a team. Training either of these existing individuals who have a bent in math and/or stats is possible, yet is a time-intensive process that calls for patience. If organizations value and believe in their existing talent and choose to go this route, it will then point to the gaps that need to be filled—or bought—to build the ‘perfect’ team.

Organizations have long known the value of data, but no matter how large and detailed it gets, without the human dimension, it will fail to live up to its $30 billion valuation by 2019.  The interpretation, distillation and curation of all kinds of data by a team in equilibrium will propel this growth and underscore the importance of data science.

Many people think Hilary’s notion of “awesome nerds” applies only to individuals.  But in practice, we must realize this kind of market potential, the team must embody the constitution of awesomeness.

As organizations assemble and recruit teams, perhaps their mission statement quite simply should be… “If you can find the nerds, keep them, but in the absence of an office full of unicorns, create one.”

As seen on Data Science 101

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