We're all familiar with the stereotype of the IT professional. He (and it is usually a he) prefers machines to people, and would rather write programs than prose. It's the classic left-brain skillset.
Like many stereotypes, there is some truth to the assumptions, even though they don't fit every individual. As IT becomes more integral to business, however, IT departments will need more people who buck the cliché. They'll need staff with strong right-brain skills: creativity, intuition, and empathy.
Nowhere is this need more pronounced than in big-data, a growing field that is already suffering from a lack of qualified workers. McKinsey & Co. predicts that by 2018, the United States could face a shortage of more than 1.5 million people who can work with, analyze, and interpret data in ways that enable business decisions.
Many IT departments are scrambling to find people with the right technical skills for big-data. They are looking for people with strong backgrounds in statistics, business analytics, search algorithms, natural language processing, or other specialized skills (on the software side), along with Hadoop and/or data storage skills (on the hardware/infrastructure side). Such specialists are being snapped up fast and paid exorbitant salaries, especially if they have worked for one of the search or social media companies that have pioneered data analysis. (One analyst told me that $300,000 to $500,000 wasn't out of line for a top data scientist.)
Rather than a crisis, this shortage could be an opportunity for CIOs to enrich and strengthen their department by identifying and encouraging IT staffers with right-brain skills. For IT professionals, it's an opportunity to increase their level of job satisfaction and potential for advancement. In recent interviews for a Computerworld story, several data scientists said the best candidates for big-data jobs are "Renaissance men" -- intensely curious and creative people who are interested in many different disciplines, including the arts and humanities. Again and again, my sources pointed to the following characteristics:
- Intellectual curiosity
- A comfort level with non-technical people and the ability to explain big-data concepts and analysis in terms that business people understand
- An ability to understand how to analyze data in ways that support the business and further business goals
- Dogged persistence despite repeated failure, because big-data is an area in which you have to try lots of things that don't work, in order to find those that do
- An open, flexible mind that can switch perspectives and assumptions
- A strong creative bent
"These are people who fit at the intersection of multiple domains," said D.J. Patil, data scientist in residence at Greylock Partners, a venture capital firm. "They have to take ideas from one field and apply them to another field, and they have to be comfortable with ambiguity."
Patil ought to know. He is among the first wave of data scientists, having worked on data analytics at LinkedIn, PayPal, and eBay. Last year, he placed second on Forbes magazine's ranking of data scientists, just behind Larry Page. With Jeff Hammerbacher (founder of Cloudera), Patil coined the term "data scientist" when they both worked at LinkedIn. It's the type of mind a person has that determines how well they can work with data. People can learn the technical skills along the way. At LinkedIn, for example, Patil hired a neurosurgeon for his data analytics team. "He hated surgery," he says.
Of course, there are different specializations within data science, each of which might be suited to different individuals. An IT person with an interest in art, for example, might be perfect at the job of visualizing complex data. Someone who writes well could thrive at explaining how data analysis can be turned into business advantage.
To take advantage of this opportunity, both CIOs and IT professionals need to broaden their thinking when it comes to IT hiring. CIOs shouldn't focus narrowly on searching only for technical qualifications. Instead, they should keep an ear to the ground -- perhaps through their professional networks -- for these Renaissance types. And they should review the staff they already have, looking for those closet right-brainers with an interest in and aptitude for big-data.
IT professionals need to demonstrate all their skills and interests. Especially for those who've felt confined by the nerd stereotype, now is the time to break out of the mold and talk about your community theater alter ego. Enlightened managers are starting to realize that your right brain may be just as valuable, perhaps even more valuable, than your left.
Tam Harbert is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.