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Data scientists: IT's new rock stars

These days, just showing up to work as a data scientist will get you attention.

The evolution of the data scientist role is making even those who are successful in IT wish they could go back.

In an interview with Network World last month, Robert Stroud, a member of ISACA’s Strategic Advisory council and vice president of innovation and strategy at CA Technologies, called the data scientist a “hard sought-after role” and compelled those entering the technology job market target that field.

"If I were starting my career again, I’d be going into this space," Stroud says.

The hype for data scientists was given some weight in American Journalism Review’s recent profile of Buzzfeed’s director of data science, Ky Harlin. Buzzfeed's growth has been massive in the past few years, reaching an average of 55.2 million uniquely visitors, according to September 2013 numbers from Quantcast. That's more than Craigslist and AOL, and within reach of Yahoo and Amazon.com. Essentially, Buzzfeed has made a business out of viral content, and Harlin is responsible for sustaining that.

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According to the AJR profile, Harlin created his own algorithms that identify when and why specific pieces of web content will go viral.

"There are many variables we look at, both quantitative and descriptive,” Harlin told AJR. “Quantitative factors are things like the amount of times something’s been shared on Facebook, while descriptive factors are things like what’s contained in the text of the article. We employ machine learning algorithms that help us map out the relationship between those variables and shareability."

What's more interesting is where Harlin developed those skills – a medical imaging company. According to AJR, Buzzfeed's founder and CEO Jonah Peretti sought out Harlin while he was working in the medical imaging field, and brought him in for an interview about what data science could do for his media company. In the interview, Peretti found just how versatile data science skills can be.

"There are actually a lot of similarities between medical imaging and content publishing on a purely mathematical level," Peretti told AJR. "Both fields are looking for patterns in vast data sets. And during the interview, [Harlin] was clearly more interesting in understanding how content spreads than medical imaging, so I knew he would be good."

The rest of the details on Harlin's role and how he became the company's "secret weapon," as AJR described him, are available in that article, which is an interesting peak behind the curtains at the fastest-growing media company in the world.

However, the mere fact that a technology employee would be the center of a lengthy profile in the American Journalism Review should be an eye-opener. The kind of attention it’s been gathering has sent experts in the field out to start spread the word. In a June 2012 interview with Network World, Laura Kelley, Houston vice president for IT staffing and consulting firm Modis, advised those with MBAs to seek out certifications for statistical software programs, and those with computer science degrees to pursue an MBA. Facebook and Google have both been looking to bring on data scientists for years. In October 2012, the Harvard Business Review called data scientist “the sexiest job of the 21st century.” Data scientists like Harlin can go from work in the medical imaging field to a high-profile job at a media startup, and even though, like most tech workers, his day-to-day job rarely changes, they'll get press coverage. It seems the Harvard Business Review was right.

It all makes sense. Data scientists represent the new age of IT, where employees will not only contribute to a company’s business goals, but help identify them in the first place.

"This is where you add real business value," he says. "Where an IT person is not just running machines anymore, but fundamentally taking good information and helping the business make true business decisions so that they can adjust the business in real time based on this information. If used well, you’ll be able to spot trends and opportunities far faster than you could in the past."

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