Launching the three-week Data Boot Camp in Scotland, aimed at training up to 50 analysts into true data scientists was already a significant step for The Data Lab. But what really put a gloss onto the programme was the involvement of Michael Li, founder and CEO of US-based The Data Incubator and a former NASA analyst whose courses have been described as harder to get into than Harvard.
Brian Hills, head of data at The Data Lab, said at the time of the boot camp’s launch: “Securing Michael Li and The Data Incubator is a real coup for Scotland. They are recognised as the go-to experts in the data training sector globally. It means Scotland will make the most of the opportunity on our doorstep by actively enhancing the pipeline of talented data scientists. We are looking forward to working closely with them, targeting industries such as finance and oil and gas where data science skills are in high demand.”
So what tempted Li to hop on a flight to the Highlands and what expectations does he have about bringing his data science training skills to the UK? Li spoke to DataIQ last month to explain how the project is partly a return to home territory - he is familiar with the UK having spent two years as a Marshall scholar at Churchill College, Cambridge, and been a regular visitor to London since.
“I am sure there will be differences between the UK and US. Maths is the same in both, but the philosophy and approach can be rather different,” he pointed out. “But that is also true of the West Coast versus the East Coast of America where the approaches to data science are very different. One of the reasons why The Data Incubator exists is to span both coasts, identify the best of breed in Silcon Valley and New York to create best practice.”
Demand for data scientists is expanding rapidly, while the pool of candidates is severely limited. For that reasons, The Data Incubator established itself to help those with existing mathematical, statistical, scientific and analytical skills to make the leap up into this new role.
“Data science is a field that requires a background in mathematics and statistics, machine learning, computer science, databases and ETL. That is a lot of different skills. There are more tools than you can possibly learn in one lifetime, so a lot of effort has to go into boiling them down into the ones that will have the most impact,” says Li.
He acknowledges that data science adoption is often focused on the technology, but should recognise the critical role of human skills and team working. “It means not just one individual, but a combination of people and how you get them to interact,” says Li.
Establishing a course that can deliver against this emerging need was challenging. One of the reasons why Li took it on was a realisation that, “some of things I was really enjoying as part of my job were mentoring and teaching. I started thnking how those people could become more productive and get a better understanding of what’s going on.”
Li notes: “Our philosophy about education and training is that it has to be hands-on - data science is not a spectator sport. You can’t just talk all day about MapReduce - you have got to get your hands dirty building in it in order to know how to do it. It is the nitty-gritty of understanding how different tools work.”
A key part of the course is project-based, taking students through the canonical workflow of data science so they know how to go through a process end-to-end. Tutoring and online learning are blended so students can upload projects and get instant feedback on their mastery of the learning. “We are also helping students to understand that they need to turn projects around in five days, not five years, because that is the business imeframe. They don’t have the time to investigate every detail. The output doesn’t have to be perfect, only good enough because deadlines in the commercial arena are very pressing,” he points out.
The Data Boot Camp is just part of The Data Lab’s efforts to close the skills gap in Scotland and seize the economic opportunity presented by data and analytics. It has just partnered with the University of St Andrews’ School of Computer Science to launch the country’s first Engineering Doctorate (EngD) in Computer Science.
The EngD is an advanced research apprenticeship suitable for graduates and sector employees, offering in-depth research training experience for research engineers. The course will be a collaboration between the University and industry sponsors, bringing together innovative Scottish businesses with world-leading researchers to position Scotland at the forefront of the data revolution. As such, it fits in with Scotland’s academic and commercial heritage. Says Li: “Scotland has a great history of innovation and technology, from Watt and Baird onwards."
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