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Summary:  Someone had to say it.  In my opinion R is not the best way to learn data science and not the best way to practice it either.  More and more large employers agree.


Someone had to say it.  I know this will be controversial and I welcome your comments but in my opinion R is not the best way to learn data science and not the best way to practice it either.


Why Should We Care What Language You Use For Data Science

Here’s why this rises to the top of my thoughts.  Recently my local Meetup had a very well attended hackathon to walk people through the Titanic dataset using R.  The turnout was much higher than I expected which was gratifying.  The result, not so much.

Not everyone in the audience was a beginner and many were folks who had probably been exposed to R at some point but were just out of practice.  What struck me was how everyone was getting caught up in the syntax of each command, which is reasonably complex, and how many commands were necessary for example, to run the simplest decision tree.

Worse, it was as though they were learning a programming language and not the data science.  There was little or no conversation or questioning around cleansing, prep, transforms, feature engineering, feature selection, model selection, and absolutely none about about hyperparameter tuning.  In short, I am convinced that group left thinking that data science is about a programming language whose syntax they had to master, and not about the underlying major issues in preparing a worthwhile model.


Personal Experience

I have been a practicing data scientist with an emphasis on predictive modeling for about 16 years.  I know enough R to be dangerous but when I want to build a model I reach for my SAS Enterprise Miner (could just as easily be SPSS, Rapid Miner or one of the other complete platforms). 

The key issue is that I can clean, prep, transform, engineer features, select features, and run 10 or more model types simultaneously in less than 60 minutes (sometimes a lot less) and get back a nice display of the most accurate and robust model along with exportable code in my selection of languages.

The reason I can do that is because these advanced platforms now all have drag-and-drop visual workspaces into which I deploy and rapidly adjust each major element of the modeling process without ever touching a line of code.


Some Perspective

Through the 90’s (and actually well before) up through the early-2000’s if you studied data science in school you learned it on SAS or SPSS and in the base code for those packages that actually looks a lot like R.  R wasn’t around then and for decades, SAS and SPSS recognized that the way to earn market share was to basically give away your product to colleges which used it to train.  Those graduates would gravitate back to what they knew when they got out into the paying world.

In the mid-2000s these two platforms probably had at least an 80% market share and even today they have 36% and 17% respectively.  This doesn’t even begin to reflect how dominant they are among the largest companies which is probably double these numbers.

By 2000 both these providers were offering advanced drag-and-drop platforms deemphasizing code.  The major benefit, and it was huge, is that it let learners focus on the major elements of the process and understand what went on within each module or modeling technique without having to code it.

At the time, and still today, you will find SAS and SPSS purists who grew up coding who still maintain hand coding shops.  It’s what you learned on that you carry forward into commercial life.


Then Why Is R Now So Popular

It’s about the money.  R is open source and free.  Although SAS and SPSS provided very deep discounts to colleges and universities each instructor had to pay several thousand dollars for the teaching version and each student had to pay a few hundred dollars (eventually there were student web based versions that were free but the instructor still had to pay).

The first stable beta version of R was released in 2000.  If you look at the TIOBE index of software popularity you’ll see that R adoption had its first uptick when Hadoop became open source (2007) and the interest in data science began to blossom.  In 2014 it started a strong upward adoption curve along with the now exploding popularity of data science as a career and its wide ranging adoption as the teaching tool of choice.

This was an economic boon for colleges but a step back for learners who now had to drop back into code mode.  The argument is common that R’s syntax is at least easier than others but that begs the question that drag-and-drop is not only orders of magnitude easier but makes the modeling process much more logical and understandable.


Do Employers Care

Here you have to watch out for what appears to be a logical contradiction.  Among those who do the hiring, the requirement that you know R (or Python) is strong and almost a go/no go factor.  Why?  Because those doing the hiring were very likely to have been taught in R and their going-in assumption is if I had to know it then so do you.

Here’s the catch.  The largest employers, those with the most data scientists are rapidly reconsolidating on packages like SAS and SPSS with drag-and-drop.  Gartner says this trend is particularly strong in the mid-size and large companies.  You need to have at least 10 data scientists to break into this club and the average large company has more like 50. 

We’re talking about the largest banks, mortgage lenders, insurance companies, retailers, brokerages, telecoms, utilities, manufacturers, transportation, and largest B2C services companies.  Probably where you’d like to work unless you’re in Silicon Valley.

Once you have this many data scientists to manage you rapidly become concerned about efficiency and effectiveness.  That’s a huge investment in high priced talent that needs to show a good ROI.  Also, in this environment it’s likely that you have from several hundred to thousands of models that direct core business functions to develop and maintain. 

It’s easy to see that if everyone is freelancing in R (or Python) that managing for consistency of approach and quality of outcome, not to mention the ability for collaboration around a single project is almost impossible.  This is what’s driving the largest companies to literally force their data science staffs (I’m sure in a nice way) onto common platforms with drag-and-drop consistency and efficiency.


Gartner Won’t Even Rate You Unless You Have Drag-and-Drop

Gartner’s ‘Magic Quadrant for Advanced Analytic Platforms’ and Forrester’s report on ‘Enterprise Insight Platform Suites’ are both well regarded ratings of comprehensive data science platforms.  The difference is that Gartner won’t even include you in their ranking unless you have a Visual Composition Framework (drag-and-drop). 

As a result Tibco, which ranks second in the 2016 Forrester chart was not even considered by Gartner because it lacks this particular feature.  Tibco users must work directly in code.  Salford Systems was also rejected by Gartner for the same reason.

Gartner is very explicit that working in code is incompatible with the large organization need for quality, consistency, collaboration, speed, and ease of use.  Large groups of data scientists freelancing in R and Python are very difficult to manage for these characteristics and that’s no longer acceptable.

Yes essentially all of these platforms do allow highly skilled data scientists to insert their own R or Python code into the modeling process.  The fact is however that the need for algorithms not already embedded in the platform is rapidly declining.  If you absolutely need something as exotic as XGboost you can import it.  But only if that level of effort is warranted by a need for an unusually high level of accuracy.  It’s now about efficiency and productivity.


Should You Be Giving Up R

If you are an established data scientist who learned in R then my hat’s off to you, don’t change a thing.  If you’re in a smaller company with only a few colleagues you may be able to continue that way.  If you move up into a larger company that wants you to use a standardized platform you shouldn’t have any trouble picking it up.

If you’re an early learner you are probably destined to use whatever tools your instructor demands.  Increasingly that’s R.  It’s not likely that you have a choice.  It’s just that in the commercial world the need to actually code models in R is diminishing and your road map to a deep understanding of predictive modeling is probably more complex than it needs to be.


A Quick Note About Deep Learning

A quick note about deep learning.  Most programming in Tensorflow is occuring in Python and if you know R you shouldn’t have a problem picking it up.  Right now, to the best of my knowledge, there are no drag-and-drops for deep learning.  For one thing, deep learning is still expensive to execute in terms of manpower, computing resource, and data acquisition.  The need for those skills here in 2017 are still pretty limited, albeit likely to grow rapidly.  Like core predictive modeling, when things are difficult I’m sure there’s someone out there focusing on making it easier and I bet that drag-and-drop is not far behind.



About the author:  Bill Vorhies is Editorial Director for Data Science Central and has practiced as a data scientist and commercial predictive modeler since 2001.  He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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Comment by Con Menictas on May 17, 2017 at 3:12pm

One of the things I like about R is that anyone can do a few online MOOC courses with absolutely no formal statistical training whatsoever and start estimating models !!!

I was thinking of doing a few online MOOC courses myself on human behavior and start practicing as a clinical psychologist. Anyone have any objections to that?

Comment by Shantanu Karve on May 17, 2017 at 3:09pm

 After that hackathon that Bill mentioned, that Titanic problem interested me enough to look harder at it. by the next day I'd got my team's rank to 14th of 6955 , a  score  of .99522. The other 13 ahead of me had a perfect score. a score of 1.0.

How ?

I bet by doing what I did. They and I understand the epistemology, the philosophical underpinnings of Data Science I expect. and we remembered a key learning -  "Look for more data" :-) . Now to teach that aspect - you don't need R or Python but you also don't need a high priced software package like SAS or SPSS or Statistica. 

Comment by Michele Chambers on May 17, 2017 at 2:50pm

There is no "one size fits all" approach to data science. In my work over the last 20 years in analytics then data science and now DL/AI, I have found that folks (analysts, statisticians, data miners, data scientists, data engineers, developers) want flexibility to use the right tool(s) for the problems that they work on.

Open source by it's very nature provides that type of flexibility but proprietary tools such as SAS, SPSS and others also provide a limited "openness" via APIs and connectors. Each has it's pros and cons but arguments for or against any language or tool misses the point since there are situations when each are appropriate and inappropriate. 

In my experience, SAS users as well as data scientists prefer to use a language approach (using base SAS, Python, R, Scala, etc.) rather than a drag and drop approach as they can develop faster. Gartner argues that you have to have a GUI approach so that analytics/data science can be "democratized for the masses" (aka: business analysts). However, there is a major flaw in that thinking as all the GUI tools (including sexy new tools such as IBM Data Science Experience and MS Azure ML) are designed for systems thinkers and the typical business analyst is NOT a systems thinker. So only the most seasoned/advanced business analysts tend to use GUI/data mining tools.

While SAS shops can/do use SAS Enterprise Miner they are often using it to generate scoring code for production from models that were created in base SAS. However, there are folks that prefer to develop their models with an IDE (ie: R Studio, Jupyter Notebooks, JupyterLab, etc.) or an Analytic Development Environment (aka ADE) (ie: SAS Enterprise Miner, Knime, RapidMiner, DataIku, Orange Data Mining, etc.) and yet others prefer automated ML tools such as DataRobot. All are valid tools based on your approach (statistical, data mining, exploratory data analysis, programming). In an ideal open data science world, these languages and tools are open so that an individual or team can leverage the right tool and approach for the problem at hand today and use a different set of tools, libraries, approaches for a different problem tomorrow. So rather than dismiss any of the technology (heck, we're still using Fortran because it's amazing at numerical processing!), we should be promoting and demanding openness in our tools so that we can solve increasing complex problems rather than plowing over the same old use cases with old tools/methods/data/approaches. The only way for us to solve the complex, messy problems that face us in business and in the world, is to build on the shoulders of giants that came before us and contribute to building a new generation of more advanced algorithms, models, apps that can make the world a better place. 

Comment by Vincent Granville on May 17, 2017 at 1:32pm

R has been changing a lot recently, with new libraries added all the time, the ability to process big data, integration with other platforms, and so on. It is no longer the little, limited tool that one uses to produce neat graphs or for one-time ad-hoc analyses - it has become much more than that. The GUI is more than enough for me. There are different types of data scientists: some using heavily dashboards, and some who don't. I don't think that having or not having a great GUI should be a criterion.

In my case, I use R for a number of things (even to create data videos) but also use many other tools including all-purposes programming languages to design new machine learning techniques. While I am used to designing systems that work entirely in batch mode or for machine-to-machine communications, using Perl or Python, I can see that such systems could benefit from having some components or some calls to some R functions. 

Comment by James David Holland on May 17, 2017 at 12:36pm

Its funny how things change.  When I was in Grad school, the stats department insisted on using SAS and they complained about SPSS's GUI making it too easy to just plug and play some crap.

That said, I'm not sure what companies really care about having drag and drop.  Most places you better knows your command line and coding because nobody is dragging and dropping Hadoop development (in Java), or SQL, or building APIs that can access your MI model.

And as someone who uses SPSS everyday, its badly outdated.  Most of the more advanced things it can do (in the base package) is built with Python scripting (Propensity Score matching, dummy variable creation).  I'll take R or Python where I can run and Exploratory Factor Analysis with modern tools such as Parallel Analysis.

And this doesn't get to the fact only now did IBM finally update SPSS outdated graphics (nevermind that being some of the nastiest coding ever).

SPSS and SAS are hanging on by their legacy market share, but the growth is in Python or R.

Comment by Shantanu Karve on May 17, 2017 at 12:34pm

I was there at the meetup hackathon ! In 75 minutes we went thru installation of R, Rstudio, Kaggle signon, Kaggle Submission AND Scoring - quite apart from a model build at rudiments of R.  It was a bloody miracle we got something soup to nuts done I reckon. 

So I wouldn't blame R that all those vital elements of data science - cleansing, prep, transforms, feature engineering, feature selection, model selection, hyperparameter tuning - not being covered.. I'm sure in follow up hand-on sessions we can get those covered. We should do so actually. In fact I did a follow-up session 1-1 with an attendee during the Friday work-in at Cal Lutheran and touched on elements of data imputation for "missing", on converting strings to factors and levels and using categorical variables. 

You've rightly touched on how for up-to-date stuff like TensorFlow and Theano, R ( or Python ) is your only way to go. I'd add Bayesian inference ( stan with Rstan, JAGS ) to that. R also really scores in terms of the community around it. I worked extensively in Statistica. Its GUI is a dream. but if I had something abstruse about the software that I could not figure out it was a question of "place a support call", several to-and-fro telephone and email conversation and eventually get to an answer. With R, its "just google it". 

Recording what you've done, exactly recording at that, and repeating what you've just done with slight hyperparameter, algo parameter changes is also something that GUI tools aren't good at, unless you took screen shots diligently along the way or the tool has a perfect "Record Macro" option. With R or Python since its code already then so long as you are using a versioning tool ( we ALL use code control, right  ? :-) ) you've got a great record of your activity and repeating the experimental run, iterating thru algorithm parameter variations is a breeze.

Of course the price issue is totally a given. Does the ease of use of vendor software that comes with price compensate for these other deficiencies ? For my money ( !) , nope.


Comment by Aditi R Datta on May 17, 2017 at 12:14pm

R is merely a tool to achieve data mining and modeling requirements; it is not data science itself. I have personally worked in R, SPSS, SAS, Python; and basically all of them are merely tools that let you achieve the end goal of the data scientist in action. Learning and implementing these tools, without knowing the basic concepts of data science such as cleansing, outlier detection, normalization, key feature selection etc. is futile; no matter what the tool is. I personally recommend R because of the flexibility it gives me for my modeling requirements. 

Comment by Christo Todorov on May 17, 2017 at 11:57am

Strange. I believe that Data Science is mainly mathematics and it really doesn't matter what tools you are going to use to program your things. If I create a good mathematical model with steps for data cleaning and etc. will be easy for every software engineer to implement it even in VBA for Excell. Initially, I am receiving empty looks to the white board, when putting the mats, but I learned how to convert it in algorithms understandable for software engineers. It is interesting how these day vectors are explained to software engineer btw :) Personally using Python where I have freedom for manipulating and if heavy statistics and cleaning is involved choosing R. But when model is verified, automation is needed and product is going to be used things like SAS are far more better.

Comment by Matt Sandy on May 17, 2017 at 11:37am

R's initial push may have been pricing related, but having it open source means a lot more than just a free product. It means it can be distributed in pre-configured virtual machines, docker templates, etc. The 3rd party packages that exist for R are also incredible, and the open source community tends to support open source products and expand upon them in ways that create a cascading effect. 

I also don't believe drag and drop is easier. It is immensely harder to create reproducible results for drag and drop, and if you want drag and drop for throwaway statistics, you can do that in R just fine with various packages. That brings me to writing interfaces, which is also immensely easy whether it is through Shiny, or creating your own by turning your R session into a REST API. 

Comment by Matthew R. Versaggi on May 17, 2017 at 11:35am

I think it's important to realize that although data science and machine learning have many aspects, but at it's core in the business world it is a programming profession. Rapid miner is awesome as is KNIME, but they will only get you so far, and the extent of which is R&D and analytics.

For the aspects of machine learning engineering, building embedded products, integrating classifiers and predictors into existing systems, etc ... one MUST know how to program and on top of that how to do proper software engineering. 

In those production worlds the programming languages are the bedrock of the trade, no amount of Rapid Miner or KNIME will ever suffice. In fact, in that world, if one doesn't have those skills, they really aren't taken very seriously to begin with.

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