Rutgers goes into combat with big data course

David Reed, director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ

If you want to know just how rapidly big data has grown in the last decade, consider the growth of Amazon Web Services. From a standing start, it made $3.1 billion in profit last year, contributing nearly nine out of every ten dollars made by its parent company. Clearly, a lot of organisations now rely on the cloud service (among others) to run their big data programmes.

Yet at the same time, many of the senior executives in those organisations have not seen their understanding of big data grow by the same rate. Nor have academic institutions kept pace with the rate of change to fill that knowledge gap. 

Paul Szyarto, The Combat CEO“Either universities have a course that covers part of this, or they are not offering it at all. Rutgers is the first to have a big data course,” Paul Szyarto, The Combat CEO, told DataIQ in a recent interview. He should know - the big data certificate program at Rutgers Centre for Innovation Education has been his responsibility for most of this year. In that time, he has learned at least two good reasons why other universities have not put similar courses together.

“Five months ago [in January], I was contacted by the head of the program to become a board member and help create the big data faculty and deliver what they expected. Then I was invited to be the faculty chair and found myself moving from admin to writing the entire curriculum,” he recalled. “That was not an easy task. Then they brought forward the launch date, which gave me seven weeks until it had to be delivered.”

Seeing the goal posts moved not once, but twice for a high-level course aimed at senior executives might have fazed many people. But Szyarto’s background and experience made him perhaps uniquely qualified not just to create the big data program, but to deal with the challenging circumstances of its launch. 

Despite a deprived childhood, he served with distinction in the US Navy and gained degrees from Oxford University, Brandeis University, and the Wharton School of Business. He went on to become a successful entrepreneur and management consultant, using his martial arts skills to channel his aggression and develop the discipline, character, and skills he says are essential in business today (hence the title, Combat CEO).

Reaching out to his impressive contacts book to find tutors on the course was just one way in which he was able to develop it. “Universities rely on tenured professors who are educators, whereas all of our professors are business professionals from top companies, with one of them a big data leader,” he said.

All of those experiences were needed when the first cohort of 40 top-level business people joined the course in May. Said Szyarto: “I had structured it so they would have a complete big data project by the end of the course. The problem was we could see their eyes glazing over because it is really complex. So on the fly, we changed it.”

“They claimed to know what big data was, but out of 40 students, 10 to 12 really did and knew what type of analytics they wanted to run on structured and unstructured data. But the rest didn’t really know what they are doing, so to teach big data was challenging,” he admitted.

The changed course was adapted into eight top-level modules covering big data, analytics, machine learning, implementation, mobilising the C-suite, with sub-modules underneath. As he explained, “if a VP-level person gets the value and recognises a need to focus on specific areas, they can dive into the sub-modules.”

Crucially, the course still has at its heart a big data “capstone” project which each student plots out with the aim of having a compelling business case to put to their CEO by the end. “For me, it has codified what I knew about how to undertake a business transformation and how to convince the CEO that if they don’t act today, this will happen tomorrow - just look at the fate of big retailers in the wake of Amazon and the fact that 50% of Fortune 500 organisations have disappeared in the last ten years,” said Szyarto. “Modern economics is different - McDonald’s is not in the hamburger business, it is in real estate - so you need big data analytics to understand your organisation and the market.”

A second cohort is due to take the course in September and will benefit from this practical approach, taught by individuals with hands-on experience. Said Szyarto: “A lot of companies focus on building a big data solution, but what do you do with it after you have spent millions on it? That is where I come into it with a focus on business value.” Even Rutgers has benefited, adopting the module and sub-module structure for other new courses it is now developing. 

As he noted: “They need to know how to identify, set and test hypotheses, then apply them to real world scenarios. Big data is moving so fast and has got so many aspects to it, you can’t expect people to become experts in data science, but you can give them the ability to know if their data analysts are wasting their time.”

Director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ
An expert commentator on all things data, David has been editor of DataIQ since its inception in 2011.