For data scientists, Atlanta may prove a unique opportunity to accelerate one’s career. A lot of local industries heavily recruit data scientists; if that wasn’t enough, many also produce data-software solutions. The city’s educational ecosystem offers opportunities for tech pros at all levels to boost their data-related skills. White-hot demand for data scientists isn’t unique to the region. IBM says the number of data science jobs will increase by 28 percent
by 2020, and some executives
have predicted data scientists will see a negative
unemployment rate. There’s also a paradigm shift with regard to which data-related skills are in demand, observed Justin Laliberte, managing partner in the IT practice at Atlanta-based recruiter Lucas Group. All around the country, he sees the need for tech pros who support analytics packages (such as dashboard designers) ebbing away. With more data solutions “coming out of the box,” he said, “the need is for people who understand the data.”
Why Atlanta Loves Analytics
Atlanta has long been home to companies involved in consumer products, healthcare and transportation. These sectors share a heavy reliance on logistics: planning, procedures and information that allow them to operate with the highest levels of optimization and efficiency. As more data is captured, it increasingly governs how these companies move everything from raw materials to finished products. For example, studying data patterns can help dispatchers plan the optimum route for a truck during a particular time of day, allowing it to save both time and money (in fuel costs) by minimizing the stretches it spends in stopped traffic or even waiting to make a left turn. In addition, Laliberte said, the presence of two other industries in the area is worth noting: insurance, with its heavy emphasis on numbers, and a growing number of cybersecurity companies. Anxious to develop enhanced predictive capabilities, such firms are hiring data talent with the idea of creating specialized departments focused on gaining insight from the information that comes their way. While business intelligence specialists and other data professionals are still needed, employers are most concerned with developing true data-science talent.
What Makes a Data Scientist?
What distinguishes a data scientist from other tech pros with some data knowledge? According to Laliberte, employers focus on four characteristics. In their eyes, data scientists are:
- Obsessed with applicable technology and scalable coding languages.
- Have business acumen, i.e., the ability to understand how a business unit works.
- Can take complex research and present it to stakeholders in an understandable way.
- Are excited by data anomalies and things that don’t make sense.
In Atlanta, data pros who meet these criteria are so few and far between that employers “are really just pulling data scientists from each other,” Laliberte added. When not poaching employees, they’re hiring technology majors right out of college and teaching them the business. The latter is an imperfect strategy, he observed, because managers need to focus more on getting work done than training new hires in the intricacies of data use. And domain expertise can be important: “There are a lot of industry-specific things data scientists need to understand in order to tell stories.” To improve the candidate pool, Laliberte said Atlanta’s employers are taking advantage of the area’s educational institutions to better train students, and creating clear career paths to keep them aboard once they’re hired. Atlanta’s schools look at data from a variety of angles, he said, allowing both undergraduates and graduates to pick a program that matches their interests. For example, Georgia Tech undertakes a large number of government projects, while Kennesaw State centers much of its curriculum on business. That kind of “educational backbone” makes Atlanta a good city for data scientists who want options.
Making the Right Investment
Since data scientists need years of education and experience before they hit their stride, Atlanta’s employers often recruit people with the right traits and technical potential, then put them on a path that includes both training and career progression. “They’re willing to take a young developer who’s obsessed with hacking and learning new things, then challenge them to solve conceptual problems and learn the business,” Laliberte said. “They’re creating step-by-step career progressions so that their new hires can move projects forward until, at some point, they hand it off to a data scientist for the advanced work.” Along the way, the employee develops their skills and learns the business; eventually, they’re ready to take on the role of a full-blown data scientist themselves. When considering candidates fresh out of school, companies look for junior developers “who have data as a native focus, people who love solving anomalies,” Laliberte said. In terms of older candidates, employers are attracted to data pros who have spent at least a year outside of academia, hold a master’s or Ph.D., “and can solve a business problem they’ve never seen before.” Laliberte suggests that candidates be clear about their interests when they approach employers about data roles in Atlanta. “Be able to speak to business areas that interest you,” he said. “Everyone knows you can code. Have an interest and don’t have an attitude that says, ‘I’ll do anything.’” If you’re working with a recruiter, make sure they understand the data scientist’s role. It’s a unique hiring process, Laliberte observed, involving multiple iterations of case studies and problems to solve. Specialized recruiters will understand the process and help coach you through it, so be sure to vet any headhunters you’re considering (make sure to ask how many data scientists they’ve placed over the past year).