Canary in the Data Mine

I spent a couple of weeks last month  interviewing experts about the big data workforce—that mix of IT pros, statisticians, mathematicians, engineers and functional business experts who companies need to tame their burgeoning databases. The resulting story, Building Your Big Data Team, is posted at Data Informed, a new website focused on big data technology, applications and management. In my story, there’s some advice for IT and business leaders about education and training for data scientists.

Meanwhile,  CIO.com has posted my feature, Big Data in the Real World Isn’t So Easy, about the challenges facing companies that want to analyze massive amounts of data. CIOs I interviewed for that story also talked about how they were rethinking the way they staff their data and analytics teams. One big focus: deepen connections between data analysts in IT and business domain experts.

As always, when confronted with new technology, IT leaders are figuring out what to do. But what’s happening now is triage: recruit talent from other companies, send developers to learn new tools, identify employees who can deepen their mathematical, engineering or domain expertise on the job.

Today’s demand for data experts is only the beginning. Last week, the Conference Board’s Gad Levanon and Jessica Forde blogged about new Bureau of Labor Statistics Data predicting the fastest growing occupations in the next decade:  “The rate of increase in market research analysts, personal financial advisors, and financial analysts indicate the growing need for professionals who can use data to aid in decision making processes.”

I wonder if our education system can fill the pipeline fast enough.

Big Data and the Future Workforce

I have spent the past couple of months working on projects that turn out to be related: a feature on Big Data analytics, and one about motivating students to pursue STEM–science, technology, engineering and mathematics–careers. (Both projects are in progress–publishing sometime this winter, I expect.)

For the analytics feature, I interviewed an advertising agency CIO. Here’s what he said when I asked him about what the impact of new investments in Big Data technologies and analytics platforms had been on his staff: “There’s such competition for anyone who understands the media business and has a math background.”

That doesn’t sound like big news. CIOs are always looking for IT professionals with business knowledge, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that increasing demand for analytics would generate a need for more technologists who are good at statistics. But the kicker was what he said next. It’s not just IT that needs business-savvy math experts. The business units need them too.

By coincidence, a few days later I was visiting my daughter’s grade-school classroom, where the kids were doing an exercise analyzing “mystery” data (a set of unidentified things that had varying lengths or heights) and generating hypotheses about what the data might be describing. Teaching students, even the really young ones, how to understand data and statistics has been a part of our local curriculum for at least a few years now. But I don’t think kids hear enough, early enough, about what they’re going to be able to do with these skills. Nor do they always get the opportunity to apply them in ways that prepare them for college or the workplace.

I think this probably as true now as it was when I was in high school, and a teacher who knew I wanted to be a writer told me not to worry about Algebra. He reinforced my teenage indifference about the subject. Fortunately, I got another chance to appreciate math, via a graduate school statistics course, before I ended up in roles that required me to conceive, write and edit scores of articles based on survey data.

A math teacher who I interviewed for the story about STEM careers told me that he didn’t always have a good answer for students who ask why they need to learn, say, trigonometry. “There’s no such thing as a math career unless you’re going into academia,” he says. He’s made an effort to learn about how math is applied in the workplace, and he concludes that students shouldn’t learn the subject in a vacuum, as a set of concepts and procedures disconnected from real-world problems that professionals have to solve. Other experts I talked to echoed this teacher’s assessment, not just about math but also about other STEM subjects.

It makes sense that if you want to turn students on to careers in science and technology, you have to show them what the work is like and inspire them with examples of challenges they could tackle as professionals or skilled technicians. For that matter, you have to show them how science and technology may permeate careers that aren’t, on the surface, related (such as sales, marketing or public relations for a technology, healthcare or engineering company). The world is interdisciplinary.

Maybe kids who graduate from high school shouldn’t just have to pass standardized tests to demonstrate they’re knowledgeable in core subjects. Maybe they should also have to show they know what to do with that knowledge through projects that simulate how adults work together and the kind of work we do. I don’t know how you test for that, or if you should. Maybe you have high school seniors do a special project as a graduation requirement as well as incorporate problem solving experiences into regular coursework. This could make kids’ education more rigorous, more practical and probably more interesting at the same time. Whether they go to college or get technical training, they’ll be better prepared to go to work and more attractive as job candidates.

At least I think so. Makes me wonder what, if CIOs and others who hire people for STEM positions could reshape what students are taught, they’d want to see.

I Need a Mobile Application Strategy

The last cover story I edited for CIO magazine, Elisabeth Horwitt’s “How to Craft a Mobile Application Strategy,” is online. The story outlines the key issues IT leaders need to consider as they plunge ahead with mobile apps, including whether future development will be on mobile platforms only (free registration is required). A sidebar covers coping with mobile security threats

As Horwitt notes, the calculation for many CIOs isn’t if they should develop mobile only applications, but when: there will come a time, for many if not all workers, that there’s no need for a desktop or laptop. Though I’m using a laptop right now, I’m writing in a cloud-based word-processing application. The only thing stopping me from finishing it on my iPad is that I don’t have the right peripherals to do it comfortably, like a proper dock. I would probably get over that, though, if I had to write while I was travelling.

I brought the iPad on a recent vacation, and it served as a pretty decent laptop replacement for personal use.  I kept up with email and social media, posted photos, got directions, looked up restaurants and museum exhibits, even bought tickets to a water park (though I did need to print them out to use them, the only time I really needed a desktop. Fortunately, the office manager for the cabin where we were staying obliged me).

With the right apps and infrastructure, I can imagine using a tablet for all my work, too. None of what I do is very computing intensive. And I don’t have lots of legacy applications or data that would be hard to migrate. I might, however, need to find alternatives to some of my applications, and at least a few don’t have the same functionality on the iPad. Changing platforms completely now would be a nuisance, and I don’t really want to spend the time on it.

On the other hand, I don’t really want to be forced into it, which I might be if this middle-aged laptop of mine kicks the bucket. Guess I need a migration strategy, too. What’s yours?

What’s in a Name

Call me old-fashioned. I think the name of a company ought to tell you something about it: either who runs it, what they care about, where it is, or what it does. Retailers know this. So do lawyers. When companies choose made-up words or deliberately misspell real ones, I often conclude either a) they’re doing a poor job of trying to show how clever they are, or b) no one ever put it on a big poster board and asked strangers to read it aloud.

Tech companies are especially prone to contriving names. A list on the American Express Open Forum site of how 16 well-known companies got their names includes a few that work. You can guess at what they’re supposed to mean, plus there’s a good story about their origins. And who doesn’t like a good story?

Here’s mine:

When it was time to name my company, Cochituate Media wasn’t my first choice. The internet domain for the name I wanted was already taken.  I brainstormed a bit, and put the decision off until I had my first client.

I knew I wanted a name that evoked some physical object or space, to counterbalance the fact that my work is almost completely virtual. Cochituate (pronounced “coh-CHI-choo-it” ) was, and is, a place. An Algonquin word, it means “torrent,” “place of rushing water,” or “rapid stream”–the outfall, according to Natick, Mass. business owner and activist A. Richard Miller, of a lake located within a colonial-era Indian village that is now part of nearby Wayland. The name Cochituate endures, as the name of the suburban village, and of the lake, a state park on that lake, a brook and a major roadway that I use nearly every day.

There’s more local history, too. In the mid-19th century, the lake became part of a set of reservoirs and an aqueduct system that brought fresh water to Boston for more than 100 years. (If you’re interested in the history, check out Miller’s brief history of Cochituate, and this short piece about the Cochituate Aqueduct)

The lake shore is a short walk from where I live. When my kids were younger, we used to stand in the water and practice skipping rocks. The backyards and woods surrounding the lake present a lovely fall foliage show.  Once in a while, we’ll put in a canoe and paddle around.

It’s a name that connects my work with my life.

Watch This Space

According to the Kauffman Foundation, which reports every March on entrepreneurship trends in the United States, new businesses were started at a higher rate in 2009 and 2010 than at any time in the previous 15 years. As I launch Cochituate Media, my editorial consulting business, being part of a trend–even if it’s a trend founded at least in part upon economic woe–makes self-employment slightly less terrifying. Though I made a choice to do this (I left a job as executive editor of CIO magazine earlier this month), not everyone who started a company in the past four years, including some close friends and colleagues, planned on it.

Starting a business feels a bit like I imagine it would to jump out of an airplane (which I have no plans to do, ever). Exhilarating, provided the parachute opens and you don’t land on sharp rocks. It helps to have role models. Mine include my grandmother, who, when she needed money to support her family, started cooking meals for fellow tenants in her apartment building, and ended up running her own bakery until she retired. Also my great-aunt, a talented milliner with her own shop. And my grandfather-in-law. He wired homes to the power grid during the Great Depression, then sold his customers washers, dryers and refrigerators. The appliance business he built endured 70 years.

And so, here I go.

For now, I’ll use this blog to share what I’m learning about being self-employed, let you know what I’m up to and to think out loud about what I’m reading about or working on. I’m certain it will evolve along with my business, and I look forward to it becoming a place for conversation.

If you don’t know me yet, please take a look at my bio, or read my work.