What Data Scientists Really Do According to 35 Data Scientists, What exactly, is it that data scientists do? Hugo Bowne -Anderson, the host of the Data Camp podcast Data Framed, interviewed 35 data scientists to find out.
Modern data science emerged in tech, from optimizing Google search rankings and LinkedIn recommendations to influencing the headlines Buzzfeed editors run. But it’s poised to transform all sectors, from retail, telecommunications, and agriculture to health, trucking, and the penal system. Yet the terms “data science” and “data scientist” aren’t always easily understood, and are used to describe a wide range of data-related work.
What, exactly, is it that data scientists do? As the host of the DataCamp podcast DataFramed, I have had the pleasure of speaking with over 30 data scientists across a wide array of industries and academic disciplines. Among other things, I’ve asked them about what their jobs entail.
It’s true that data science is a varied field. The data scientists I’ve interviewed approach our conversations from many angles. They describe a wide range of work, including the massive online experimental frameworks for product development at booking.com and Etsy, the methods Buzzfeed uses to implement a multi-armed bandit solution for headline optimization, and the impact machine learning has on business decisions at Airbnb. That last example came during my conversation with Airbnb data scientist Robert Chang. When Chang was at Twitter, that company was focused on growth. Now that he’s at Airbnb, Chang works on productionized machine-learning models. Data science can be used in a number of different ways, depending not just on the industry but on the business and its goals.
But despite all the variety, a number of themes have emerged from these conversations. Here’s what they are:
What data scientists do.
We now know how data science works, at least in the tech industry. First, data scientists lay a solid data foundation in order to perform robust analytics. Then they use online experiments, among other methods, to achieve sustainable growth. Finally, they build machine learning pipelines and personalized data products to better understand their business and customers and to make better decisions. In other words, in tech, data science is about infrastructure, testing, machine learning for decision making, and data products.
Great strides are being made in industries other than tech.
I spoke with Ben Skrainka, a data scientist at Convoy, about how that company is leveraging data science to revolutionize the North American trucking industry. Sandy Griffith of Flatiron Health told us about the impact data science has begun to have on cancer research. Drew Conway and I discussed his company Alluvium, which “uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to turn massive data streams produced by industrial operations into insights.” Mike Tamir, now head of self-driving at Uber, discussed working with Takt to facilitate Fortune 500 companies’ leveraging data science, including his work on Starbucks’ recommendation systems. This non-exhaustive list illustrates data-science revolutions across a multitude of verticals.
It isn’t all just the promise of self-driving cars and artificial general intelligence.
Many of my guests are skeptical not only of the fetishization of artificial general intelligence by the mainstream media (including headlines such as VentureBeat’s “An AI god will emerge by 2042 and write its own bible. Will you worship it?”), but also of the buzz around machine learning and deep learning. Sure, machine learning and deep learning are powerful techniques with important applications, but, as with all buzz terms, a healthy skepticism is in order. Nearly all of my guests understand that working data scientists make their daily bread and butter through data collection and data cleaning; building dashboards and reports; data visualization; statistical inference; communicating results to key stakeholders; and convincing decision makers of their results.
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