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Wanted: Data Scientist With a Human Touch

  |  March 16, 2012   |  Comments

The race to obtain better insights about customers and prospects is in large part a recruiting game.

The New York Times Co. wants one. So does startup Crowd Twist, which developed customer loyalty technology, and Squarespace, a company that says its software helps people manage their online life. And President Barack Obama's re-election campaign has recruited them.


These organizations, as well as others, are seeking so-called data scientists and analysts to collect and analyze information about on-site activities plus external trends to help shape products and services, as well as inform business decisions and outcomes.

"They are half hacker, half analyst, they use data to build products and find insights. It's Columbus meet Columbo - starry eyed explorers and skeptical detectives," Monica Rogati, senior data scientist, LinkedIn, said in an interview with Forbes.com.

Consider the job description for The New York Times Co. position posted on a jobs site earlier this year:

"Responsibilities: Manage streams of structured and unstructured data. Perform research and analysis on large datasets, including exploratory data analysis, network visualization, trending analysis, and other needed statistical analyses. Develop prototypes and metrics that can be used to drive business decisions."

Welcome to the world of "big data." And demand has intensified for talent that possess the analytical chops of former Oakland A's number cruncher Paul DePodesta, the graphic design skills of guru Edward Tufte, and communications skills of a TED speaker.

To be sure, job titles featuring "data" and "information" have been around for years, encompassing roles in management information system (MIS), database management, and data warehouse operations. As information technologies evolve, so too are job titles, resulting in the creation of positions such as customer relationship manager, business intelligence specialist, and predictive modeling engineer.

In online marketing and media, jobs involved with "big data" include titles such as data analyst, yield manager, and vice president of consumer insights, said Michael Adler, managing partner of AC Lion, a recruiting firm. "The key to the online media world is in the harnessing of data, similar to Wall Street where you have massive amounts of data points to analyze and predict," he said. "From group buys to real-time bidding, there's a huge evolution in these roles."

Businesses now looking for talent with deep analytical and statistical backgrounds include big publishers, portals, ad networks, and e-commerce sites - just about any company that possesses massive amounts of data. Salaries range from $75,000 to $100,000 for someone starting out with strong analytical skills and background to as much as $150,000 to $300,000 for experienced professionals.

Compass Labs, a three year old company that developed a social media advertising platform, represents the kind of company investing heavily in data mining and predictive analytics. Four out of 25 full-time employees are data scientists or analysts; the company co-founder and lead scientist is Ian Eslick and he holds a bachelor's degree and two master's degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By 2018, businesses in the United States could encounter a shortage of between 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills for all industry sectors, according to an estimate by McKinsey Global Institute.

Businesses are collecting and analyzing data to better understand customers and prospects as well as tailor advertising and offers to increase sales or other activities. The New York Times Magazine's article, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets," drove home that point when it explained how a statistician helped Target's marketing team identify likely pregnant shoppers and then give them coupons timed to specific stages of pregnancy.

GE even built data analysis into an advertising campaign; it incorporated the elegant use of data visualization to tell the story of two product lines: gas-powered turbines and medical imaging equipment. "We had an opportunity to work with real data to add new context around the stories being told through our advertisements," said Camille Kubie, manager of global brand and design for GE, referring to TV advertisements that first aired during the 2012 Super Bowl.

More than six years ago, Yahoo recognized the need and opportunity to obtain better insights. "There was an awareness at Yahoo that we were swimming in oceans of data," said Duncan Watts, principal research scientist at Yahoo Research, in an interview. So the research arm was established.

Today, it's getting easier and more difficult to collect and analyze data – easier because computational power is increasing and more difficult because there's more data available from social networks, physical sensors, and other sources. "People sometimes worry that the scale of data will overwhelm us. The real challenge is knowing how to ask the right questions," Watts said.

Another obstacle that businesses face – besides asking the right questions and hiring the right talent – is being mindful of consumer privacy concerns. Marketers beware: If you want to effectively use "big data" in coming years, you will need to better inform people on how this information will benefit consumers – not just businesses.

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Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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