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Big Data, big talent challenge

Posted by Chad O'Connor  November 2, 2012 11:00 AM

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Maybe data geeks truly are superheroes (see Tom Davenport's recent HBR article, "Data Scientist, the Sexiest Job of the 21st Century," for further credence) particularly if they can further bolster the Commonwealth's innovation economy. But right now, they appear to be in short supply -- or even nonexistent, particularly the ones being sought by most employers. But there are solutions for companies large and small to make Boston a true Big Data Hub.

The Commonwealth has been fighting a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to being on the cutting edge of technology. Not life sciences or biotech -- we clearly have leadership status there -- but the kind of technology that gets discussed at cocktail parties or over family dinners. Maybe it's because of our history of being home to long gone companies like Wang, Apollo or DEC, or because Facebook fled to the West Coast to make it big and we haven't seen a home run in a while.

It's an unfair characterization -- there is plenty happening here with scores of promising startups in "mainstream" technology such as mobile and Cloud technologies, coming out of discoveries started at our world-class universities and nurtured at technology clusters like the Cambridge Innovation Center and its forthcoming Boston center.

But we strongly believe that the future of the region hinges on the latest tech term to cross into the mainstream’s lexicon: Big Data.

In its simplest form, Big Data is "is a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools." But it's hard to put something so complex into a simple form, as the "Big" signifies not only volume, but variety, a diverse collection of new data sources and types, from the DNA data to map the human genome to marketers attempting to determine consumer sentiment based on Twitter and Facebook rants.

Regardless of the evolving definition, Big Data is poised to be Big Business for the Commonwealth.

A report from the Mass. Technology Leadership Council last year stated that there are already 100 companies in the region engaged in Big Data technologies, plus another 20 in stealth mode, and that "it offers commercial opportunities of a comparable scale to enterprise software in the late 1980s, the Internet boom of the 1990s, and the social media explosion of today."

Efforts such as the new hack/reduce center in Cambridge and MIT's bigdata@csail think tank are both moves in the right direction. Governor Patrick has called the Commonwealth "the premium location in the world in big data," and likened the state's past investments in cleantech and life sciences to the ones planned toward creating a larger cluster of Big Data companies, positioning "the Commonwealth as a leader in the growing global community."

Clearly, there is a huge opportunity for Massachusetts to become the dominant player in geography for Big Data companies. So why hasn't it happened yet?

The Biggest Roadblock is People -- Not Technology
The Big Data opportunity carries with it a huge challenge around organizational development and change. More than just new technical skills, organizations are looking to create new roles, processes and programs to leverage Big Data. Yet expanding their teams with new leadership that understands Big Data is very challenging; in NewVantage Partners' recently-released Big Data Executive Survey, we learned that 82.5 percent of the polled C-level executives and function heads found it "challenging," "very difficult" or "impossible" to find or hire Big Data talent.

There’s a Perceived Skills Gap
Another finding of the Big Data Executive Survey was the challenge of finding good "Big Data People": nearly 64 percent of respondents stated that it was "very difficult to find or hire" or "impossible to find or hire" data scientists. Nine out of 10 are actively seeking out data scientists, while two-thirds are trying to retrain existing personnel.

Companies are Looking for Employees Who Are Extremely Rare
Many business executives focused on Big Data describe the ideal candidate for their team as someone trained in data science, with outstanding analytical skills and first-rate business acumen. This is an ideal blend of skills, but exceedingly rare and difficult to find in one individual.

So what can be done to bridge this Big Data skills gap?

Build Teams That Amalgamate Disparate Skills
As discussed, the ideal candidate just may not exist -- but this doesn't mean that you can't create one, through the flexibility and power of a team. Just as software companies have thrived with Agile development teams, Big Data initiatives should bring together individuals with equal expertise in data, analytics and business. Ideally, this team approach should be built to enhance collaboration between business units with self-organizing, cross-functional teams.

Go Where the Talent Is -- and Pay Them Accordingly
Kendall Square and Boston’s Innovation District -- including the revitalized Seaport --have emerged as two of the region’s technology hotbeds, yet many major employers are situated well outside these environs, and are losing Big Data talent to startups with "cool" locations. Several companies, such as Staples, Amazon, and Google have elected to build innovation/R&D organizations in Cambridge or Boston to leverage access to talent and provide a stimulating, enjoyable work environment. Given the dearth of Big Data talent, it's also imperative to pay them accordingly. Anecdotally, we’ve heard stories of major companies finding the right candidate -- only to lose out to a startup that offered more money and a better work environment.

As the governor says on his recorded announcement at Logan Airport, "It's all here" -- the infrastructure is in place to make Boston the next great Big Data hub. Employers need to modify their expectations, build the right teams in the right location and compensate talent adequately if the region is to establish itself as the pre-eminent Big Data capital of the world.

Randy Bean is a managing partner and founder, and Steve Maxwell is a general partner, of NewVantage Partners, a Boston-based consultancy focused on guiding business and technology executives in the creation of strategic solutions that harness the power of their data.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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