— Written by Emily Glassberg Sands
By 2025, the top job role in the world — with the most growth in demand — will be that of a data analyst and scientist, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Work Report 2020. As the demand for data scientists outstrips supply worldwide, India is grappling with its own serious shortage, according to industry reports. The country also trails on data science skills — ranking at 51 out of 60 countries in Coursera’s Global Skills Index Report 2020.
At the same time, India has the opportunity to significantly expand its pipeline of talent, if many more students across disciplines prepare for jobs in data science. Not every data scientist has a STEM background or needs one. Data scientists can come from different fields — I’m a labour economist by training and first applied data science for my PhD thesis. It is not uncommon for companies globally to fill out their data science teams with talent from a broader choice of fields — including social sciences — alongside traditional hires like computer scientists.
While empirical and computational skills are tools in the data scientist’s toolbox, the core of data science is being able to identify, frame, and answer questions about why humans (or other diverse actors) do what they do. Data scientists solve problems across industries — from retail to education and personal finance. They come up with solutions using math, theory, with their particular choice of applied methods — it could be experimentation, causal inference or machine learning.
Stacking the right skills
Deciding what type of data scientist you want to be is the first step to inform the skills you need. Does your interest lie in the analysis (decision science) or building (data products/machine learning scientist)? I would recommend building ‘T-shaped’ skills for each, where the vertical bar corresponds to building ‘depth of expertise’, and the horizontal bar represents ‘breadth of knowledge.’ Hiring managers typically look for a range of skills. Alongside foundational knowledge in math and statistics, preferred programming or computational skills for decision science roles include SQL, Hive and data manipulation (for data access), besides comfort with a scripting language like R or Python (for analysis). For data products, hiring managers scan for production-grade software engineering skills as well.
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But there are other cross-functional, 21st century skills employers look for in a well-rounded data scientist. This field demands analytical creativity. Alongside knowledge of standard techniques for analysis, your success as a data scientist depends on your ability to interpret data, innovate and bring a creative approach to problem-solving. Building product and business domain knowledge, especially if you are sure of the industry you want to work in, is an added advantage. Finally, data science is a team sport — data scientists need strong interpersonal and communication skills to work effectively with both technical and non-technical partners.
Skilling to scale a home-grown talent pool
While India’s top-ranked technology and management schools are ramping up data science offerings, meeting the scale of demand will require much greater access to a high-quality data science education. Today, location no longer matters for learners aspiring to build both depth and breadth of knowledge in this field. They can learn from the best online, at home from Bangalore or Boston. In 2020, Coursera learners in India chose the same top-enrolled courses as their counterparts did in the US — including introduction to Data Science in Python from University of Michigan and Neural Networks and Deep Learning from DeepLearning.AI.
In India, IIT Madras recently broke new ground with its inclusive online BSc Degree in Programming and Data Science— the school admitted 8,154 students to the first batch, with a diverse mix of students from engineering, arts, science and commerce backgrounds.
Learning is a continuous journey for a data scientist. By keeping pace with cutting-edge data science skills, many more Indians will have a viable path on this journey, helping them meet the opportunities emerging for WEF’s No. 1 ‘job of tomorrow.’
— The author is VP of data science, Coursera