Within seven years, Big Data will create at least 1 million, and as many as 2 million, new jobs in the United States. That’s the prediction of David Houle, a futurist whose interests seem as vast as the realm of Big Data itself.
In a fascinating interview a couple of weeks ago — one that, incidentally, was scheduled for 20 minutes but lasted a full hour because I was so blown away by the guy — Houle shared some of the insights and concepts that underlie his newly released book, “Entering the Shift Age: The End of the Information Age and the New Era of Transformation.” One of the topics we discussed at length was Big Data, which, Houle said, constitutes one of the two largest areas of job growth (the other is health management) in the developed countries of the world.
To set the stage for the Big Data discussion, Houle explained the contextual nature of knowledge acquisition at this juncture:
What I’ve been saying since I named this new age the “shift age” back in 2006, is that the cliché of the information age is “content is king.” The cliché that’s true in the shift age is “context is king.” One way of looking at Big Data is that it’s nothing but the single greatest amount of contextual relationships, information and data that humanity has ever experienced. So we’ve gone completely contextual. The way I talk about Big Data is it’s the third generation of human mapping. The first generation was, “What does this continent look like?” The second generation of mapping was, “OK, now that we know what the continents and oceans look like, how do we drive or navigate across them?” The third level of mapping is what we have now with Big Data, which is the mapping of what we do moment to moment. It’s moment-to-moment sociology. It’s moment-to-moment anthropology. So the data head says, “The most recent data we have relative to this is 2010.” Sorry, research that’s from the past is no longer valid in relation to what’s about to happen tomorrow. What happened yesterday is more relevant to what’s going to happen tomorrow. So it becomes more moment-to-moment mapping.
I asked Houle where these jobs will be located, and what they will entail. His response:
I would say that within three years, there won’t be a Fortune 500 company that won’t have a Chief Data Officer or Chief Data Engineer. And I think small-and medium-sized companies will need to have somebody who is outside the CIO/CTO category, unless it’s a brand new hire. If there’s any legacy thinking, they won’t be thinking this way. What I say to CEOs when I talk to them is, “Where are you not looking that you need to be looking?” I’ve heard so many CEOs say, “I look at the lower right-hand corner of the spreadsheet. If I know these four numbers, I know the health of my company.” That’s no longer true. You’re looking at the way you formerly defined your business. You don’t have a data engineer bringing in correlative data that may lead to a new product, or a new market, or a new business relationship. So these jobs will be in C-suites; I think there will be third-party data engineering organizations that aren’t just aggregating data, but they’re analyzing how business can more rapidly deploy the data. This is a category of employment that is either freshly born or is still in the nine-month gestation. So Fortune 500 companies by 2016 will have a Chief Data Officer, and a half-dozen people who will report to him; or it will be contracted out to massively-parallel computing organizations that are “curating” the data, for lack of a better word. In a small company, the CIO may take on this task. So I think it will be everywhere. There isn’t anything that Big Data is not going to impact, significantly.
I asked Houle what he would advise young people to do to position themselves to be able to tap into this explosion of jobs in managing and analyzing data. He said these positions could well be filled by generalists:
If you’re already deeply into geekiness, or deeply into some vertical that is connected to information technology, go down that path, but be mindful of the rapidity of change. If you’re not, I think a Chief Data Engineer could well be somebody who’s a complete generalist that doesn’t know computers. With massive amounts of data, what’s needed are creative points of view—the ability to creatively think outside the box. Or to be able to translate to CEOs why this data over here, which seemingly doesn’t have any relativity to the legacy of how you run your business, should be taken seriously. So if you love something, there tends to be an overlap between what you’re good at and what you love—if there isn’t anything you love or have a calling for at a young age, what you should decide to do is develop a generalist educational background where you can think creatively, because that’s what’s going to be needed. How do you creatively look at this overwhelming avalanche of data, rather than thinking of it as a data head and how to categorize it? What this is going to give us is never-before-seen patterns, for those who can discern them.