Data Roles Still Evolving

Susan Hall

With high demand and high salaries offered to data scientists, it’s no wonder that a plethora of universities are beefing up their data science offerings, including Columbia, the University of San Francisco, New York University, Stanford and more.

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In a New York Times article, Rachel Schutt, a senior research scientist at Johnson Research Labs, describes a data scientist as “a hybrid computer scientist software engineer statistician.”

Chris Wiggins, a professor of applied mathematics at Columbia, tells IEEE Spectrum in an interview that this could be a good career path for engineers – students come from a range of fields including computer science, astronomy, physics and applied mathematics. Yet it’s changing even as students are training for it. He says:

“I think more and more companies are going to think more seriously about how to use data science as part of their core product. So there’s a feeling now, there’s attention by the press to data in product and data in companies, so there’s a sense now that we should do something with data, and I think in another five years it will be much more clear what is the something that people in different industries should be doing with data to try to put data science to work. …”

As it becomes more common to hear about companies naming a Chief Data Officer (CDO), the debate continues about where that role fits into the organizational structure. My colleague Loraine Lawson recently wrote about e-commerce giant Alibaba naming its Chief Data Officer, Jonathan Lu Xaoxi, as the company’s new CEO.

Meanwhile, professor and industry adviser Peter Aiken tells Information Management that giving CIOs yet another job – of  CDO – sets them up to fail and sets up company data initiatives to fail. He says:

“Data as an IT asset is poorly managed and because of that, it makes things go wrong in IT.”

On a somewhat depressing note, Aiken says that data scientists in general are ineffective. It takes them three years to become useful to the company, and another three years to develop the domain and specific knowledge that the business needs.

He asserts that data management should be the business’ responsibility, while the only aspects that the CIO should manage are the actual development of databases and the tuning, backup and recovery of the data delivery systems, with security shared between IT and business.

Yet as more companies try to harness their data, he says companies will have to sit down and really hash out what their data roles should be.

Loraine recently suggested a sort of Data Round Table in that regard, bringing together business and IT stakeholders that meet regularly to make a plan and revise it as necessary.

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