What are employers looking for from data-savvy professionals? I put that question to Dr. Helmut Schneider of Louisiana State University (LSU), and he says it's all about closing the gap between business and IT.
LSU last week announced a Master of Science in Analytics (MSA) degree program that's starting this month for the 2012-2013 school year. The 10-month degree program, which already has 20 students, replaces a more business intelligence-focused masters program that had only nine graduates in 2012, according to Schneider, Chairman of the Information Systems and Decision Science Department.
The old program focused on information management topics, such as data integration and data cleansing, and business intelligence tasks including developing reports and dashboards. The new degree covers key aspects of the previous program, but it adds courses on statistics, predictive analytics, and operations research taught by LSU's Department of Experimental Statistics. There's also a focus on applied training in areas such as fraud detection, risk management, text mining and process improvement.
[ Want more on big data talent requirements? Read Big Data Development Challenges: Talent, Cost, Time. ]
LSU knew it needed to refocus on analytics, and it did so with academic guidance from the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences, an academic society. It also received free software, faculty training and financial support from analytics vendor SAS. To gain insight from the commercial world, LSU last year formed an advisory council specifically for the degree program, drawing on major businesses in the Baton Rouge area. This group favored plenty of business-focused instruction in the MSA.
"These companies are telling us that their business departments and IT departments don't understand each other," Schneider said. "They're looking for people who understand the business side but also have an understanding of what IT and statistics can do to solve business problems."
The analytics advisory board includes health care provider Amedisys, insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield, telco Century Link, and engineering and construction firm Shaw Group, among other big employers in Louisiana. LSU's Information Systems and Decision Science Department is part of the business school, so Schneider says it has the advantage of drawing professors of marketing and other business disciplines to teach in the MSA program.
In addition to donating software, analytics vendor SAS has backed LSU's new MSA program to the tune of $1 million, and it's also contributing the time of a SAS education expert who will serve on the analytics advisory board. LSU's new program closely mirrors the MSA program at North Carolina State University, which was launched four years ago with financial support from SAS.
"With all the budget cuts at state universities, we were working very slowly on developing the new degree program, but the infusion of money from SAS gave us a boost," Schneider said. Of course it's in SAS's best interest to get future analytics professionals familiar with SAS software, but Schneider says many instructors and students are also using open-source R-based analytics tools. In any case, he insists, the instruction is not about the tools.
"We only have 10 months, so we want to teach about the subject--what you're actually doing--not about the technology you happen to use," he said.
LSU's goal is to have 50 students enrolled in its MSA program within two years. Tuition for the 10-month program is $12,000.
Given interest in big data these days, I asked Schneider whether LSU is also considering a "data scientist" degree, a field that blends statistics, applied mathematics, and computer science skills to analyze large data sets. Schneider views such a degree as a better fit for a traditional computer science school. "We do cover the data-quality aspect of dealing with large data sets, which is part of analytics, but the other aspect is about writing algorithms to convert big data into usable information, and that's more of a computer science discipline," he explained.
There's been a lot of debate about what qualifies as analytics and exactly what to call it--advanced analytics, business analytics, predictive analytics, and so on. Whatever the label, the key takeaway from Schneider and would-be employers is that analytics should start with an understanding of the business need.