FICO, the predictive analytics software company, wants to be sure that when it comes to the skills required to become a data scientist that everyone gets the picture.

In this case the “picture” is an infographic produced by FICO that describes the eight characteristics of a good data scientist. These include the ability to tease out insights from data, communicate with business users and focus on the practical applications of their work.

“There’s more demand than ever for data scientists, but at the same time we demand more from job candidates,” says Dr. Andrew Jennings, FICO’s chief analytics officer and head of FICO Labs. “FICO has been hiring data scientists — or analysts, as we used to call them — since 1956. We’ve learned that excellent math skills alone just aren’t enough. We want someone who can solve problems for businesses, and explain their insights to people who don’t have a Ph.D. in operations research.”

With the demand for data scientists skyrocketing – the job-search site has reported that postings skyrocketed 15,000 percent between the summer of 2011 and 2012 – Jennings says that FICO wanted to help clarify what data scientists are and how they differ from the more traditional data analysts. FICO decided to send its message by way of an infographic “to have a bit of fun,” as Jennings put it, but also because the company felt that by presenting it in this way “the information would be easier for a broad range of people to absorb.”  

Apart from “foundational skills,” such as a strong background in statistics and data interpretation, Jennings says today’s data scientists – as opposed to the data analysts of yore – need additional skills in three key areas: problem solving, communications and professional flexibility.

Using the example of a credit card company faced with customer attrition, Jennings describes problem solving as predicting the point at which a certain set of customers will fall away and stop using the credit card. Moreover, the prediction should inform an action to try and retain not every customer, but the profitable ones. This would include recommendations about the sort of action that would work best for this set of customers, such as sending them a particular marketing message as opposed to offering them a price cut, for instance.

Communication skills come into play in terms of knowing the right questions to ask and how best to communicate the answers back to the business managers. With the above example, that would mean being able to come back and describe the type of consumers at risk of leaving and the action with the best chance of forestalling that.

Flexibility refers to the ability to apply the methods and tools best suited to the problem at hand. For a data scientist, “Everything shouldn’t look like a nail, just because you have a hammer,” Jennings laughs. “If you’re an expert in neural networks that shouldn’t mean that every problem requires a neural net to solve it.”

Demand to fill the talent gap with good data scientists is pushing up salaries. “This is a great time to be a data scientist,” Jennings notes. Starting salaries for inexperienced professionals straight out of school are in the mid-eighties, he says, while compensation for data scientists with three to four years of experience now exceeds $100,000.

Based in San Jose, California, FICO provides analytics software and tools used across multiple industries to manage risk, fight fraud and build more profitable customer relationships. The company works with clients in more than 80 countries make to make use of big data and mathematical algorithms to predict consumer behavior.

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