As a data scientist, I sometimes get approached by others on questions related to data science. This could be while at work, or at the meetups I organise and attend, or questions on my site or linkedIn. Through these interactions, I realised there is significant misunderstanding about data science. Misunderstandings arise around the skills needed to practice data science, as well as what data scientists actually do.
Many people are of the perception that deep technical and programming abilities, olympiad level math skills, and a PhD are the minimum requirements, and that having such skills and education qualifications will guarantee success in the field. This is slightly unrealistic and misleading, and does not help to mitigate the issue of scarce data science talent, such as those listed in The New York Times and Bloomberg.
Similarly, based on my interactions with people, as well as comments online, many perceive that a data scientist’s main job is machine learning, or researching the latest neural network architectures—essentially, Kaggle as a full time job. However, machine learning is just a slice of what data scientists actually do (personally, I find it constitutes < 20% of my day to day work).
One hypothesis is the statical fallacy of availability. For the average population, they would probably know about data scientists based on what they’ve seen/heard on the news and articles, or perhaps a course or two on Coursera.
What’s likely to be the background of these data scientists? If it’s from this Forbes article on the recent Turing Award for contributions in AI, you’ll find three very distinguished gentlemen who have amazing publishing records and introduced the world to neural networks, backpropogation, CNNs, and RNNs.
Or perhaps you read the recent Deepmind post about how neural networks and reinforcement learning achieved human expert level performance, and found that the team was largely comprised of PhDs. If it’s from a course, the person is likely to have a PhD, and went through deep mathematical proofs on machine learning techniques. Thus, based on what you can think of, or what is available in memory, many people tend to have a skewed perception on what background a data scientist should have.
The same goes for what data scientists actually do. Most of the sexy headlines on data science involve using machine learning to solve (currently) unsolvable problems, everything from research-based (computer games) to very much applied (self-driving cars). In addition, given that the majority of data science courses are on machine learning, its no wonder that the statistical fallacy of availability would skew people towards thinking that machine learning is the be all end all.
Firstly, yes, there are researchers in labs who spend 80% of their time training tens of the same neural network architecture and hope for convergence on some of them, publish breakthrough research papers, and build cool applications that involve the latest and greatest. Nonetheless, they probably constitute < 1% of the overall data science community.
For most data scientists, while machine learning is a critical aspect of their work, it is only part of it. In addition, the perceived requirement for deep technical and math skills, as well as a PhD, to be effective in data science, is naive.
In my years of experience, first as a data scientist, then as a data science lead, I’ve had the opportunity to hire and assess many data scientists, and observed first hand what is needed for effective data science. In addition, I’ve also reached out and interviewed many experts, people who are Chief Data Officers, Chief Data Scientists, CTOs, and Heads of Data Science—they too, disagree with the flawed public perception.
To provide some context, I’ll reference the commonly used distinction between Type A and Type B data scientists.
The following is tilted towards Type B Data Scientists, due to my personal background, the teams I’ve built, and the objectives I’ve had to achieve. For Type B, the desired outcomes of most data science efforts is a data product that delivers value, either via providing insight for decisions, or automated decision making.
The journey towards putting a data product into production may involve many steps, which include:
Understanding the problem and context, and framing problem statement (framing)
Data acquisition, exploration, and preparation (infra)
Building frameworks (e.g., validation) and pipelines (e.g., data preparation and ML experiments)
Running experiments, monitoring, and analysing (testing)
Putting the data product into production (data products)
As you may have noticed, machine learning makes up a (small) portion of what data scientists actually do. While not every step is necessary in every project, and not every data scientists will do every step, most aspects will be de facto in many data science projects/products.
Given the above, we get a sense that a strong understanding of machine learning alone is insufficient in the data science process. Having additional deep technical, math, and programming skills are useful, but don’t encompass the full picture.
What exactly is needed then? In my quest to understand this, I interviewed many data science experts and leaders, with questions such as:
The overall answer to the questions was this—the best data scientists work with data to “deliver measurable value”.
For me, this was completely out of the left field. I had imagined the answer to be based on math, research, programming, cutting edge techniques, and developing new algorithms. While the answers from the experts/mentors were simple, it was not something that could be replicated in a straightforward manner. If it were programming and technical abilities, I could just practise more and get better at it. If it were math and algorithms, I would study more and practise. However, this was not the case.
How does one practise “using data to deliver measurable value”?
Thus, I began on my next journey to understand what was required. I’ll share what I’ve found in a later post.
Questions? Want to follow my journey? Reach out on Twitter @eugeneyan!
I write about how to be effective in data science, learning, and career. Get weekly updates.
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