Big data means big IT job opportunities -- for the right people

A slew of new jobs is expected to open up in big data, but not everyone in IT will qualify. Here's what employers will be looking for.

As big data gathers momentum, it's helping to create big career opportunities for IT professionals -- if they have the right qualifications.

According to a report published in 2011 by McKinsey & Co., the U.S. could face a shortage by 2018 of 140,000 to 190,000 people with "deep analytical talent" and of 1.5 million people capable of analyzing data in ways that enable business decisions.

Companies are, and will continue to be, looking for employees with a complex set of skills to tap big data's promise of competitive advantage, market watchers say. "There's no question that the No. 1 requirement [for] enterprises that are serious about gaining a competitive advantage using data and analytics is going to be the talent to run that program," says Jack Phillips, CEO of the International Institute for Analytics (IIA), a research firm.

But what exactly constitutes "big data talent"? What are these jobs, and what skills do they require? What kind of background qualifies a person for a big data job? Computerworld took the pulse of some prominent players in the emerging field to determine an IT worker's place -- if any -- in the big data universe. Here's what they had to say.

Buckets of Skills

"There is no monolithic 'big data profession,' " says Sandeep Sacheti, former head of business risk and analytics at UBS Wealth Management, who now holds the newly created position of vice president of customer insights and operational excellence at Wolters Kluwer Corporate Legal Services.

Sacheti's new job is all about big data: using analytics to understand customers, develop new products and cut operational costs. In one project, the Wolters division that sells electronic billing services to law firms is using analytics to mine data it gathers from its customers (with their permission) to create new products, including the Real Rate Report, which benchmarks law firm rates around the country.

Sacheti is now both hiring from the outside and training internal staffers for big data work. He thinks of big data jobs in terms of four "buckets of skill sets": data scientist, data architect, data visualizer and data change agent.

But there are no standard titles -- other employers likely use different buckets and value different skills. What one company calls a data analyst, for example, might be called something different elsewhere, says John Reed, senior executive director at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. And, as Sacheti's title demonstrates, some big data jobs contain neither the word big nor the word data.

Some companies come to the IIA for help recruiting big-data talent, Phillips says. First they ask where to look for candidates. "Then they stop in their tracks and say, 'Wait, how do I know what I'm looking for?' " he adds.

"Everybody's asking, 'How do you identify these people? What skills do you look for? What is their degree?' " says Greta Roberts, CEO of Talent Analytics, which makes software designed to help employers correlate employees' skills and innate characteristics to business performance.

Roberts, Phillips and other experts say the skills most often mentioned in connection with big data jobs include math, statistics, data analysis, business analytics and even natural language processing. And although titles aren't always consistent from employer to employer, some, such as data scientist and data architect, are becoming more common.

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