Solving the World’s Hardest Problems
By Zach Fry
On a daily basis we are creating more data than we know what to do with. Every interaction online, and many offline, is being recorded, associated with metadata, and mined for information. For example, that book you were looking at on Amazon, even if you didn’t buy it, tells companies something about your tastes, personality, and preferences. Not all usage of data is this personally invasive. There are companies that are using this increase in data to solve some of the hardest problems facing our world today: finding the cure for cancer, making our cars safer for our daily commutes, reducing food waste, helping developing nations track the spread of disease, the list goes on and on.
Executives in company boardrooms, whether at a small start-up or a Fortune 500, from across all industries talk daily about potential solutions to these pervasive problems. The demand for people who can work with data, such as data analysts, data engineers, software engineers, and database administrators couldn’t be higher. As a result, the market for skilled data-fluent people is extremely competitive. However, solving the world’s hardest problems is blocked, in part, because the pool of candidates who can do the job just isn’t large enough to satisfy the demand.
Bridging this skills gap is what motivates me to be a bootcamp instructor teaching data science at Rutgers. I want to see these problems solved so that we can live in a better world. I derive great satisfaction from watching my students learn that working with data isn’t magic, and that their unique background actually opens opportunities to solve problems that only they can solve.
You don’t need a computer science degree to tell a good story
One of the common misperceptions I hear in my class is that you need a computer science background to be a data analyst. This couldn’t be further from the truth. While I myself have a computer science degree, I spent the first months at my post-college employer learning on the job all the tools that were necessary for me to get the work done. These are the same tools that I now teach in the Rutgers bootcamp, and I could just as easily have learned these skills without the degree while still being competitive.
In fact, if you look at how other people in the industry think about this, you’ll find that my opinion isn’t unique. Companies are looking for people who can interpret their data and help them make decisions. A computer science degree isn’t required for that. What you do need is to know how to use the tools and practice the skills that go into preparing an effective report. This boils down to telling a compelling story with the data.
My students can tell you that I emphasize how important it is to not just crank out a program that produces some numbers but also to contextualize these with the direction the business is moving in. History has shown that ideas are cheap; developing an idea is often not as powerful as being able to sell it to people (see, for example, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison).
My job as an instructor is to empower my students to use the tools and understand how they can effectively communicate their analysis to solve the hardest problems. Over the time I’ve been teaching, I’ve demonstrated to my students that they don’t need a computer science degree, and I am confident that they will effect positive change when they join the workforce.
Gaining a competitive advantage in the workforce
I walk into every class motivated to teach my lesson, and I walk out of every class enjoying that I was able to change how my students see the world while also preparing them to enter the job market. The industry is in dire need of people who can not only crunch numbers but can also tell a good story. Companies are better served by a workforce with diverse knowledge. People who can leverage their subject matter expertise to better understand the problems are much better at solving problems in creative ways. My experience in the tech workforce is that these people are often the most competitive.
It’s a shame that our higher education system doesn’t make the lessons that my students are learning more of a requirement. If it did, we’d be equipping our graduates with the tools to be able to understand problems, intuit solutions, and communicate them effectively. It would also enable individuals to be more competitive in the job market, leading to more people being able to solve these essential problems.
I teach a menagerie of tools and techniques in our bootcamp that are broadly effective no matter where someone will be working. For example, whether a student is working in a data warehouse, as a financial analyst, or even plugged in somewhere in the supply chain, we give them the knowledge to pull down free tools to do the data analysis, teach them how to pick up new skills to do what they want, and then present them.
Ultimately, the more people we have who are equipped to solve these problems, the more progress we can make in actually solving them, and the better off we’ll be.
Zach Fry teaches for the Rutgers Data Science Bootcamp.