Data science for human beings

Someone just emailed me to ask me about getting into data science. They knew all the usual stuff, linear algebra, Python, all that stuff, so I thought I’d talk about the other side of data science. It’s all stuff I say whenever I talk about data science, but I’ve never written it down so I thought I may as well blog it.

There are three things that are probably harder to learn that will make you stand out at interview and be a better data scientist.

First. Understand your data. I work in healthcare. Some of the data I work with is inaccurate, or out of date, or missing, or misspelled, or just plain wrong. It’s my job to understand these processes. There’s a saying in healthcare, that goes something like “60-80% of apparent differences in healthcare providers are related to different practices with data”

Second. You work in a team. With other data scientists, and with the wider organisation. Don’t be a hero coder, go off to your bunker and write this piece of genius that nobody understands and nobody wants. Work agile. Get buy in as you go. Mentor people. Be humble. Listen to what people want. Don’t do analysis because it’s flashy and cool. Build what your users want. Get to know them. Understand UX and UI. There’s a saying I like that goes “We’re all smart. Distinguish yourself by being kind”. Be a team player. Share the glory, and the blame.

Third. Have an opinion. Don’t just learn every method going and apply them according to whatever posts are saying this month. Scan the horizon. Find new stuff. Dig out old stuff. Think critically about the work that you and others are doing. And sometimes, when you can, go in large. So far in my career I’ve bet large on Shiny and text mining, and they’ve both paid off for the organisation I work for and for me. My latest pick is {golem}. I think it’s going to be massive and I want to be near the front of the pack if and when it is. Trust yourself. It’s your job to support your organisation with their priorities, but it’s your job to know stuff they don’t know and to push your organisation along a bit. I’ve never done anything really significant in my career that somebody asked me to do. I’ve pitched all my really significant projects, although obviously I spend most of my time building stuff people want and ask for (see point two).

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