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Career boost: Break into data science

Bruce Harpham | Feb. 26, 2016
The high demand for data scientists has many IT pros contemplating a lucrative career shift

Bailey-Assam enrolled in Columbia University’s Data Science Institute part-time certificate program to further develop her data science skills. Prior to beginning the Columbia program, she completed several college-level math courses to enhance her understanding. “I recently took an algorithms class, and it was a fascinating introduction to this topic. It was helpful to see the computer science approach to problem solving — breaking a problem into simpler components,” she says.

“My Columbia studies have directly helped me do better work. In a recent project, I was working on an Adobe Analytics implementation for a client. When I encountered a few problems, I was able to take a structured approach to solving the problem and complete the project,” says Bailey-Assam, who is often involved in analytics projects for clients in her current role at McKinsey & Co.

“In real life, there are constant gaps and problems in the data quality that you have to work on. So you need to develop practices and skills to clean data in order to do your work,” Bailey-Assam shares. For example, raw HTML data often needs to be cleaned with a VBA script before it can be analyzed with Microsoft Excel or other tools. In addition to Excel and Access, Bailey-Assam’s toolkit includes Python, R, and a variety of APIs to obtain data.

“If you are interested in data science, don’t let a lack of a computer science or math degree prevent you from entering the field. It’s important to recognize that data science is new, so there is flexibility. You can start by taking a data science course with Coursera (e.g.) to see if you are interested in the field,” Bailey-Assam says, pointing to Coursera’s eight-week Introduction to Data Science from the University of Washington. “Next, you can complete a program at Columbia to further develop your skills.”

The certification path to data science success

Certifications are a well-known option for career advancement in IT, and data science is no different.

“The certified analytics professional [CAP] credential tells employers that an individual has independently verified knowledge and experience in analytics,” explains Polly Mitchell-Guthrie, senior manager at SAP and chair of the Analytics Certification Board at the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), the organization that runs the CAP program. Since the program launched in 2013, 300 professionals have earned the CAP certification.

INFORMS offers a wealth of resources to current and prospective data science professionals, including several analytics conferences, a library of publications, and continuing education programs. Joining the organization, studying its publications, and participating in conferences are other ways to explore the profession and find opportunities.


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