A career path that began with studying infectious diseases and led to analyzing terabytes of game data may seem a circuitous route. For Brendan Burke, though, the applied math skills he picked up as an undergraduate biology and political science major, the programming skills he added as a bioengineering graduate student, and his use of the two as a research scientist led to a job in the booming IT field of data science.
"A lot of the skill set I developed very specifically for biology could be applied in very commercially viable ways," says Burke, who earned both of his degrees from Stanford University and worked at the California school as a scientist. As head of player science at Playnomics, a Silicon Valley company that uses game data to develop player analytics, the math and computer science skills he used to determine how many touch points a virus requires to spread across a population now help him understand how people interact with games.
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"Something in data science gets your creative juices flowing when you see something that you built for an entirely different purpose can be used in all of these other ways," he says.
Data science also excites companies that want to use the data they've amassed to make strategic decisions that will benefit the bottom line.
A range of industries are using data to guide business decisions and bring in revenue, says Laura Kelley, a vice president at technology staffing firm Modis. "Companies are using this information to launch products and services. Whether it's what customers are buying, what products or services get the better ROI, [data] comes into strategic decisions."
Businesses, though, are struggling to find employees to handle big data, the term assigned to gathering and analyzing massive quantities of information. This field is relatively new to enterprise IT, and although many companies are exploring data science programs, the necessary talent is still maturing, say technology and staffing executives.
This places people with applicable skills in demand now and in the future, say hiring experts. The U.S. faces a substantial shortage of workers with data science skills, according to a much-talked about report published last year by consulting firm McKinsey and Company. The report predicted that by 2018, the country will lack 1.5 million analysts who can make strategic decisions using big data and between 140,000 to 190,000 workers with the proper data-processing technology skills.
"There [will be] more career opportunities in the future for this type of strategic analysis," says Kelley, who has seen the business intelligence analyst job change into a data scientist position in the last 18 months. "We've always used information, but not to this level. With the amount of data companies are capturing on everything and everybody, it's just amazing what can be done with that."