Robin Huggins: Managing data key to commercial progress

Last weekend, I flew to Dublin with my 15-year-old son and his friend to attend CoderDojo where the boys were presenting a game they have developed '“ Asteroid Dodge '“ to an international audience gathered to compare notes on coding software.

'We have a university sector renowned for its data science capabilities,' says Robin Huggins of MBN Solutions. Picture: John Devlin

In 2017, the world of data reaches into almost every aspect of our lives and data skills are increasingly important for every business. Importantly, how companies manage data now drives commercial success more than ever before.

The companies which achieve most success will be supported by data scientists who combine a deep understanding of data analytics with related business skills. We are terming this super candidate “data scientist 2.0”.

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He or she is a new, updated version of what has gone before – a mix of technical know-how and the softer business skills that can underpin an organisation’s path to digital transformation. Across the globe, a convergence is taking place whereby the skills being taught by academic institutions are closer to what is required by businesses and this virtuous process is producing higher quality candidates.

In Scotland, we have a university sector renowned for its data science capabilities and a corporate sector – from start-ups to SMEs and multinationals – who are employing and deploying data scientists as they strive to become more competitive in target markets.

Industry research indicates the prize for Scottish Plc could be huge, up to more than £20 billion by 2020. That’s such a big number that it distracts from the building blocks that need to be put in place for that kind of return to become a reality.

A recent project at MBN is one of the building blocks that will help to unlock the potential of data for our most ambitious companies. In partnership with The Data Lab, the Scottish Government-funded innovation centre, we have placed nearly 50 data scientist students across Scotland’s commercial and public sectors.

The 10-12 week placements have seen data scientists from The Data Lab’s pioneering MSc, taught across seven universities in Scotland, join organisations ranging from the NHS, the Scottish Government, VisitScotland, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Aggreko, STV, Aquila Insight, deltaDNA and snap40, to name just a few.

The placements give exposure to the commercial data science challenges for Scottish-based organisations operating on the data coalface in 2017. We ensured that the 50 data scientists placed had a great match with host organisations, adding value to the teams they joined while getting the best chance to develop the soft business skills that enhance their employability chances. There is work to do on the employers’ side, too, and organisations seeking data scientists need to better articulate the data science skills they need.

To build a modern business, time and resource must be applied to how the jigsaw is pieced together. The structure you put in place for data science staff after they have joined the organisation is also important. We are working with clients to identify the data scientist 2.0s that can help them up their game.

Many companies are having success with candidates who have had exposure to the arts and humanities, engendering creative communications skills – skills that may be most important when the coding and data science tasks we think of today are automated by way of artificial intelligence. We also advise being open minded to social and cultural background, as this approach can offer a wider gene pool of talented, diverse candidates.

Competitions, hackathons and trial data model builds can sometimes be used to find the best candidates. Expect the competition to be hot as, because as I now know from personal experience, even 15-year-olds are getting international experience in early.

• Robin Huggins is head of business development at MBN Solutions