Data Science: The Role of Music and Other Skills

Susan Hall

In the whole debate over the value of liberal arts these days, it’s interesting that Bill Franks, chief analytics officer for Teradata and author of the book “Taming the Big Data Tidal Wave,” urges employers seeking data scientists to look for candidates that, along with other skills, have some creative background such as in art or music.

That’s one of five criteria he outlines for interviewing in an article at SearchBusinessAnalytics. It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this notion, and it provides some validation as a mom who has spent years paying for piano and guitar lessons. Though I want my son to enjoy making music, it’s not just about being better at math, as some music teachers have mentioned as one of the benefits.

Though Franks ties that to creativity, he also makes it a separate criterion. He says technical skills are not what differentiates the best people in analytics. He says of creativity:

As much as you'd like to follow the book and go by what the formulas say, the data is never as complete as you'd like, the data is never as clean as you'd like, and the problem is never as well-defined as it would be in a textbook. The really good analytics professionals and data scientists are those that are able to understand the business problem; they're able to apply creativity and present the results well.

Of course he looks for business savvy and presentation skills, as part of the required soft skills. My colleague Don Tennant just wrote about a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management that found employers find the biggest gaps in the tech industry around critical thinking/problem solving and technology application. The biggest knowledge gaps the respondents mentioned, though, included effectively writing and speaking in English.

Other data experts have told me that the advances in technology don’t reduce the need for analytics training, but only raise the bar. You have to know which data projects to pursue and which questions to ask. Then you have to understand what the data means and how to use it effectively. Increasingly that means working interdepartmentally, where those softer skills become more important. A previous article quotes Suzanne Fairlie, president of ProSearch, a nationwide executive search company, saying of the skills gap she’s seeing:

it's not necessarily a gap in deep technical skills; it primarily involves the strategic skills that managers are increasingly demanding of everyone in their departments.

The list includes "business analysis skills, relationship skills, understanding the value of IT to the organization, navigating internal politics. Those are hard to come by, and yet, they're so essential."

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