Data scientists 'driving Scotland’s fintech future'

Robin Huggins: Scotland is ahead of the game.  Picture by Stewart Attwood
Robin Huggins: Scotland is ahead of the game. Picture by Stewart Attwood
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The ‘sexiest career of the 21st century’ is attracting some of the brightest brains, and international financial institutions are tapping into Scotland’s new pipeline of talent.

From checking the energy smart meter in our home today to tomorrow’s world when we’ll drive electric vehicles which will communicate with what’s around them as they go; we think we’re just going about our day to day business, but in fact we’re fuelling the fourth industrial revolution.

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Now – and increasingly in the future – little things we do every day, whether that’s sending a text to using contactless payment, is generating information. And not just any old kind – this is data of the ‘big’ variety.

It’s been predicted that 2017 will be the year that big data booms as software starts to cope with the mass of information that flies around about every one of us, and responds to the rapid growth in AI – artificial intelligence – and the arrival of IoT, the Internet of Things.

And as more businesses and services tap into the benefits of knowing as much as they can about us – our likes and dislikes, habits and trends - the hottest job in town goes to the person who can crunch down that data, analyse it and deliver it to executives in a way that can mould future growth.

Forget Hollywood actors and catwalk models. Data scientists are the superstars of the future.

Dr Kevin Swingler, Course Director of MSc in Big Data at Stirling

Dr Kevin Swingler, Course Director of MSc in Big Data at Stirling

“It’s been called the ‘sexiest career of the 21st century,” says Josh Ryan-Saha, programme manager and innovation consultant at Data Lab, which, as well as helping to forge industry partnerships between businesses looking to make the most of its data, connects industry and public services with the rich talent that’s currently found within Scottish universities.

Josh laughs as he says it, but there’s no denying the advantage – perhaps even power - that properly analysed data science delivers. While it has the potential to transform virtually every business, from transport to energy, it’s rarely more relevant than in today’s financial services sector.

Transaction heavy, often driven by algorithms and models, with more data generated and stored than just about any other sector yet sometimes bogged down by IT systems that struggle to keep up to date with a rapidly changing landscape, financial services businesses that crack big data will be better placed to understand and predict customers and markets, make smarter decisions – from their products to loan agreements – and gain that vital competitive edge over rivals.

It makes ensuring we have people with the right data science skills vital if we are to keep today’s Scottish based financial services business happy.

“If you want to keep a competitive advantage in financial services and to move ahead, you have to have these data skills,” Josh points out.

“The best companies will be using data now to develop new products and services. They can choose anywhere in the world, so Scotland needs to have people here with the skills they need now and in the future.

“If we fall behind we run the risk of not attracting companies and not keeping those that feel they can’t grow because there aren’t the skills here to fill the places they have.

“But Scotland is in a good place,” he stresses. “There is local talent here. We can do really well.”

Of course it’s not just financial services that are seizing the opportunities that understanding big data can bring. Start-ups and SMEs which are enjoying the many benefits of working in the cloud are gathering greater insight into their customers and enhancing the experience they can give them.

Universities have risen to the technology challenge. Edinburgh’s globally respected School of Informatics attracts some of the best talent in the world – around 150 masters students alone – while the School of Statistics produces elite students whose skills also feed into the financial sector.

The University’s EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Data Science is in the process of delivering a new generation of highly skilled data scientists, comprising 50 PhDs over five years. The first cohort started the programme in September 2014.

Meanwhile Data Lab is supporting 260 students in MSc courses across seven universities over a four year period through funding from the Scottish Funding Council and the European Social Fund.

Among them is an MSc level Data Science for Business at University of Stirling, run in partnership with SAS, a global leader in business analytics, and developed in close collaboration with financial services organisation HSBC.

Dr Kevin Swingler, Course Director of MSc in Big Data at Stirling, points out: “Data and, more importantly, the new things that data allow computers to do, is disrupting almost every aspect of modern life. It is rare for a single technology to have such a wide impact and it is exciting to be part of that.

“Students can build successful careers in big companies or small start-ups, applying their skills to problems in finance, health care, charity, or even farming.

“Students and employers tell us that the mix of subjects taught on the programme matches up with their needs and expectations,” he adds. “Crucially, the programme was built in consultation with employers and recruitment agencies to ensure our students have the right experience for the in-demand jobs they will apply for at the end of the course.”

Robin Huggins, head of business development at recruitment specialists MBN Solutions, which has worked with Data Lab to find work placements for 50 of the students it helps fund, says Scotland is ideally placed to take on the challenges of big data.

“We sit in an optimal position with regards to the delivery of the next breed of data specialists,” he says.

“Data specialists come from a variety of different routes and this variety is a key strength. We have the school leavers - technology native young adults, to whom “all things data” come very naturally. Then, we have older, more experienced technologists who have touched upon data in a previous role and decided to focus on this space as it holds a larger appeal to them than other technology sectors.

“Finally, we have people from other professional walks of life who have decided to retrain. The skills they have developed in other roles often make them extremely “well rounded” data specialists and highly sought after, organisationally. “

There are prospects in a range of sectors, from health to retail. Josh points out that data scientists will need to be accompanied by specialists with other skills – such as ethics and social sciences.

The rewards, Robin adds, are huge, with data specialists are now emerging at boardroom level. “Reward and remuneration are consistently above the average for other technology disciplines, illustrating the demand for data specialisms across industry sectors,” he adds.

While he highlights a need for a co-ordinated educational strategy from primary to University level, he believes Scotland is already ahead of the game. The key is keeping going.

“We have a simple choice to make. The stable door is already open. We’re either on the horse or we’re not.”

Find out more about business opportunities in Scotland from Scottish Development International.