How to get a hot job in big data

The big data revolution is creating a new breed of business-IT jobs -- and threatening to destabilize dyed-in-the-wool IT careers

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Data manipulation: The artist with the spreadsheet tattoo

Matt Giandonato didn't start his career as a numbers geek. Trained as an artist, the digital print manager for Tukaiz, a marketing services production company, finds himself spending less time refining designs in Illustrator these days and more time crunching data in Excel.

Giandonato's dance with data began in 2004 when Tukaiz sent out personalized calendars to its customers with each recipient's name blended seamlessly into every photo. The clients liked it so much they asked Tukaiz to create personalized products to send to all of their customers. Now so-called variable printing accounts for a third of Tukaiz's business, which means Giandonato spends much of each day poring over spreadsheets filled with client data and manipulating it to create calendars, postcards, notebooks, brochures, and more.

"Over the last 10 years, we've gone from virtually no digital work to being almost completely digital," he says. "I deal with data files every day. Opening a file in Excel is one thing, but learning how to combine files, sort them in certain ways, and break out data to work with different workflows was a challenge at first. But when demand for these products kept growing, we realized that this is the wave of the future."

Along the way Giandonato also got involved with developing Tukaiz's PixyMe app for Apple's iTunes Store. With PixyMe, users can type a short message and have it appear inside a photo written in snow or displayed as balloons, for example, then choose to have the image delivered electronically or printed as a postcard and mailed to any U.S. destination. Giandonato's job was to ensure that whatever people entered into PixyMe could actually be printed by Tukaiz.

"You never know what people are going to type," he says. "Certain characters have a particular function within an application that can make the postcard come out blank. It's amazing what one little character can do to a print job. You have to figure out what they did wrong and how to fix it, which means you need to know a lot about data."

Data discovery: The geek who joined the lawyer's nest

Not all big data jobs are being snapped up by line-of-business pros. Entrepreneurial techies are capitalizing on the new business-IT blend as well, especially in industries where the data revolution has had a deep impact, such as the legal profession.

Take electronic discovery, which is now a multi-billion-dollar industry that accounts for the lion's share of costs associated with most litigation.

"A run-of-the-mill case used to involve 50GB to 100GB of data," says Craig Carpenter, VP of marketing for Recommind, a maker of predictive coding software that automates e-discovery by finding key documents while filtering out irrelevant ones. "These days a typical case can easily run 200GB to 300GB, and we're increasingly seeing cases involving several terabytes of data."

When discovery was largely paper-based, the job fell to paralegals and clerks. But as more companies began storing documents and communications digitally, discovery moved into the digital realm and technology-savvy people took over, notes Jeff Fehrman, vice president of forensics and consulting at professional services organization Integreon.

"Email administrators would be asked to collect mailboxes from certain individuals relevant to an investigation, or network administrators would be asked to retrieve document stores," he says. "All of these IT people were still responsible for doing their day-to-day jobs, but they were also asked to help with litigation. They ended up being pulled in different directions."

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