News & Blog

Insights from Strata California

Posted on March 30, 2015

The Data Lab, in collaboration with Scottish Development International (SDI), supported a group of representatives from Scottish business to attend the recent Strata + Hadoop World Conference, “Make Data Work” in San Jose, California. We met with three of the attendees – Dave Evans (Data Scientist at FreeAgent), Tony Lucas (founder of Helpa) and George Theologou (Analyst at Skyscanner) who shared their main take-aways from the event with us.

Data Scientist - still the sexiest job of the 21st century

Back in 2012, the Harvard Business Review published the infamous article “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century” and recruitment remains a hot topic. There was a big buzz about recruitment and skills shortages throughout the conference with humorous anecdotes of presentations ending with recruitment pitches and even someone walking around with a “Touch my shoulder if you are interested in a job” sign on their back. Part of this challenge is identifying candidates who have a relatively unique blend of skills. As Tony Lucas mentioned, with the array of tools available through open source, anyone could learn to work with data, but the challenge is identifying candidates who also have relevant business and scientific knowledge to deliver real tangible business benefit. George Theologou added that Data Science should be approached as a team effort, since it is very hard to find a balance of all the required skills in one person.

Beyond Big Data

The group were pleasantly surprised that the conference wasn’t all about “big data”, the theme used to market a number of conferences these days. Instead, the event had more focus on practical applications of data science and looking forward towards topics such as the Internet of Things. For instance, most presentations where very down to earth, featuring real examples of how data science is actually making an impact and generating change for business, rather than focusing on “what the future may look like” thanks to big data.

A great example the group highlighted was a keynote called “Connected Cows?”, which showcased an example of how the application of data science could be used to fundamentally re-think the old way of doing business in agriculture through a combination of data, the cloud and data science. Another highlight of the conference was President Barack Obama’s announcement of the US first ever Chief Data Scientist and Deputy Chief Technology officer for Data Policy (Dr. DJ Patil), and his points on the importance of Data Science.

There were also a number of practical hands on sessions during the week which some of the group are now applying in their businesses since they returned.

Culture: Experiment and fail fast

The group highlighted that cultural differences really can have an impact on how organisations approach data science.

Tony Lucas felt there wasn’t much difference in the appetite or application of data science in Scotland compared to larger markets like the US. However, other countries were much better at promoting themselves and making a noise about their capabilities, perhaps as, in the case of the US, this is fuelled by their expertise in creating data science technologies. He also raised an interesting point about how it would be interesting to see if the real wealth is going to be in the companies using these tools rather than the data science toolmakers themselves.

George Theologou from Skyscanner highlighted the importance of applying a start-up mentality to larger organisations when it comes to data science, in the sense of being open to experiment more, and not being afraid to fail. Instead, companies should encourage Silicon Valley mentality, embrace the concept of quick fail as a way of testing new things, learn from the successes and failures and find ways to apply those lessons to better innovate via Data Science.

This notion was complemented by Dave Evans who emphasised the importance of commitment and investment in R&D and data science teams within an organisation. Those teams should be empowered to show the rest of the organisation the value of data, and how it can be scaled from short-term problem solving, to data scientists actually coming up with the next big product or solution for a company.

Community Building

Dave highlighted how great it was to hear people on the streets of Silicon Valley and surrounding areas talk about data science and start-ups as part of their day-to-day conversations. Looking forward, the group suggested that building a data science community was an important next step for Data Science in Scotland. This is one of the main objectives of The Data Lab, and we are working on developing activities that will support community building which will be announced soon.

Next stop for Strata is London on May 5th and we look forward to contributing to the data science discussion from a European perspective. In the meantime if you would like to find out more about The Data Lab take a look at out website and subscribe to our mailing list, or contact us.

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  • Dr Dave Evans worked on the search for the Higgs boson at the University of California, San Diego and CERN, Switzerland before becoming FreeAgent's first data scientist in 2013.
  • Tony Lucas is the Founder of Helpa - Everyones Personal Assistant. Helpa is his third startup (Flexiant and XCalibre previously) and is focused on harnessing big data and AI technologies to deliver an innovative new service to make users lives easier and more productive.
  • George Theologou joined Skyscanner a year ago and works with the Data Science team in creating new travel data products. He previously worked in IT Analytics and holds an MSc in Operational Research (School of Mathematics) from the University of Edinburgh and a BSc in Management Science and Technology from Athens University of Economics and Business.

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