I had the fortune yesterday to judge presentations from shortlisted teams on this year’s S2DS - the summer school that helps scientists convert to data science. Organised by Pivigo, it is genuinely remarkable - astrophycists, theoretical physicists, biologists, mathematicians and statisticians - all mixing their skills in teams to work on live, real-world business challenges.
The winner we picked was a genuinely excellent example of why data and analytics is not just for deep-pocketed blue chips. Parts Alliance is a car parts group which takes 95% of its orders by phone and promises to deliver to the garages which make up its customer base within 30 to 60 minutes. It has no existing data science infrastructure - just a chief financial officer committed to bringing best practice to bear on solving core business problems, in this case, price optimisation which could yield multi-million pound returns.
It was that business outcome which tipped the balance in favour of this project in the face of strong competition from teams dealing with briefs provided by Barclays, Royal Mail and Sonr (a social media monitoring start-up). What was startling was the uniformly-high level of presentation skills and engagement with real-world issues shown by candidates. Forget the cliché about theoretical academics - these were skilled individuals with a strong desire to make a practical difference.
At the graduation dinner, all 90-plus participants were on hand to celebrate the end of the five-week conversion course, from industry sponsors and mentors through to the PhDs themselves. Kim Nilsson, CEO of Pivigo, is to be congratulated on the excellent job she has done to build up S2DS into a major feeder of hard-to-find talent into industry. At least one major organisation involved is now looking at whether to send its own analysts on the course, proving it has real value. She also pulled off the difficult trick of creating teams from very diverse disciplines, nationalities and genders that not only cohered, but shared knowledge and felt rewarded by the whole experience.
That is one major learning I took away from the day, neatly summarised in the team skills diagram presented by one of the finalist teams. Together, the three of them made up a perfect data scientist, they told the panel. All too true and an important point to remember if you are recruiting against that job title. As a fellow judge said, data science is a set of tools, it is not a person.
That said, the number of individuals on S2DS, their intelligence and engagement, suggests that data science is in a good place right now. For everybody involved, the champagne was well deserved. For the companies who will ultimately benefit from their skills and impact, those celebrations are yet to come - and not that far in the future.