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The CxO's Newest BFF: The Data Scientist

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 6/10/2015 Syed Hoda
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When "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" had its premiere week in early September, one of the first guests alongside such Hollywood stars and pop culture icons as George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Schumer and Stephen King was billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, a man so ultra-techie that he was once described as a "super-nerd" by his own mother. (Of course, she meant it as a compliment.)
As someone who came of age in a time when "nerd" was a pejorative term, I was struck by the choice of Musk to share the spotlight with the glamor set. It's the same feeling I get when I watch HBO's hit series "Silicon Valley" or read big data uber-guru Nate Silver's predictions about elections, baseball pennant races or the Oscars...
Wow, how far we techies have come!
And yet, some of the best and brightest nerds haven't been accorded the proper level of star status within their own companies. I'm talking about the data scientists who are at the forefront of the data-driven transformations sweeping just about every industry.
Now, obviously, companies have latched on in a big way to the notion that the blizzard of data generated as we live more and more of our lives online can be leveraged for better business decisions and outcomes. A Gartner survey found that investment in big data technologies continues to grow, with 73 percent of respondents saying they have invested or plan to invest in big data over the next two years.
Companies, not just in Silicon Valley but organizations of all kinds around the world, have been on a hiring spree for data brainiacs: chief data officers, chief analytics officers, data scientists and other analytics experts. It's no surprise that data science is now one of the hottest majors at Stanford, M.I.T. and other top universities.
The US government even has a Chief Data Scientist now -- Silicon Valley veteran DJ Patil, who was named to the new post by President Obama in February. A few years ago, Patil co-authored a Harvard Business Review article that characterized the data scientist as the "sexiest job of the 21st century."
I agree with that assessment. However, there are still many CxOs who either have yet to beef up their roster of data talent or are relegating these amazing folks to the trenches, at middle-manager level. These days, every business leader should be looking for his or her own in-house "Nate Silver" and giving that person a seat much closer to the C-suite.
Thinking of your data analyst as just another geek in a cube is so 2011. Data science has gone mainstream and is reshaping the very notion of data from a bunch of numbers in reports to a dynamic engine of business intelligence.
With the amount of data - unprecedented in human history -- flowing from mobile devices, sensors and social media, companies don't even know where much of their data is, what it is and what it means.
Data scientists know how to bring it all together and help companies unlock the true value in their data, the connections that can be made, the questions that should be asked, the questions no one has thought of yet. Data science helps us know what we don't know.
It is now the CxOs' obligation to infuse the concept and execution of data science in the corporate culture. To do that, they should remove or bypass management layers and start connecting themselves and other top leaders with the data experts.
And they should get creative to make that happen. Reverse mentoring is one tactic that could prove effective in spreading the data science gospel.
Reverse mentoring was embraced by then-General Electric CEO Jack Welch in the late '90s to help older GE executives enter the Internet age. He ordered 500 senior executives to reach out to younger, junior people in the corporate hierarchy to learn how to leverage the Internet.
As better data science offers companies what is perhaps their most potent opportunity for competitive advantage in the digital age, reverse mentoring could break down any ignorance, confusion and organizational cultural barriers about the value and power of data.
Make no mistake: Pockets of cultural resistance to data science still linger in some companies. The situation reminds me of "Moneyball," the 2003 book by Michael Lewis and later movie about Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane and his embrace of statistical analysis to build a winning team despite salary constraints. Beane's methods drew antagonism from long-time baseball men accustomed to relying on scouting and instinct to evaluate players. That tension between the new old and ways exists in baseball to this day.
It's the same in some companies, where leaders may favor traditional business acumen and instinct as the main ingredients in running a business.
Obviously, it doesn't have to be one or the other. Data science can't replace vision. Look at Steve Jobs - he didn't have a data scientist but managed to change the world over and over with inventions like the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Clearly, both the heart and the brain remain our most important assets.
But we live in a time when imponderable and incalculable increases in data are fueling the ultimate "Revenge of the Nerds": A crying need for super-geeks with the gift of knowing how to make sense of all this information.
If your title begins with a "c," you have no choice but to hold these experts very close and consider them among your most important advisers and leaders. If you've already embraced the capabilities of your data scientists and improved the use of analytics at the most senior levels of your company, congratulations! On the other hand, if you don't know who your data scientists are...good luck, you're going to need it!

Syed Hoda is chief marketing officer at ParStream, the industry's leading analytics platform for the Internet of Things

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