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Big data helps drive math Ph.D.s to IBM

A broader range of companies seeking people with math skills

February 16, 2012 03:57 PM ET

Computerworld - Big data, and the need to analyze the information that's collected from every interface and sensor imaginable, is increasing employer demand for people with backgrounds in statistics and mathematics.

The range of companies hiring people with math skills is on the rise, and that trend prompted a top IBM official this week to boast about that company's record of hiring mathematicians.

"We are the largest employer of Ph.D. mathematicians of any company in the world," said Steve Mills, a senior vice president at IBM and the company's group executive for software and hardware.

Mills made that claim on Wednesday while delivering a presentation at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference, which focused on big data and other IT trends. His talk was primarily about the need to harness the torrent of big data and turn it into valuable information.

Whether IBM is truly the largest private employer of Ph.D.s is not something that Richard Cleary, a professor of mathematics at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., can easily verify. He's an author of the "Annual Survey of Mathematical Sciences in the U.S." (download PDF), which looks at the employment status of mathematics graduates. It's a project undertaken by four mathematics groups, including the American Mathematical Society.

But Cleary said "the demand for [people with big data analytics skills] has certainly made a huge difference," in the employment market for people with mathematical skills, particularly those who have backgrounds in statistics.

At the Goldman Sachs conference, Mills explained IBM's approach to real-time data analytics. It begins with a proof of concept -- an example might be a study that reveals patterns in maintenance work at a power utility and shows how changes in preventative maintenance could deliver a return on investment in months.

But a proof of concept can take months, and Mills said one proof of concept that IBM put together for an oil company took two years. "Two years of persistence," he said, "and we are now doing 44 oil platforms in the North Sea as a result of proving that we could do it on one."

Mills said if IBM can do analytics for a power grid, it could do analytics for a water supply company or a transportation system. They all intersect, he said, adding, "we build a knowledge base one on top another."

IBM is investing in areas such as astrophysics, weather forecasting and genomics "because of the intersections and overlaps with our core business," Mills said.

"In many cases, it is the same math; it's not like someone has invented new fields of mathematics," he said.

At one time, the major employers of mathematicians were insurance and pharmaceutical companies, Cleary said. But there is a growing range of companies that are hiring people with mathematical training, including marketing firms and companies that use CRM tools.

"I've seen people being hired by grocery chains," Cleary said. "That didn't used to happen."

Mathematicians who are in especially high demand are those who have expertise in business, computer science or other disciplines in addition to their quantitative skills, Cleary said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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