Why So Many ‘Fake’ Data Scientists?

Have you noticed how many people are suddenly calling themselves data scientists? Your neighbour, that gal you met at a cocktail party — even your accountant has had his business cards changed!


There are so many people out there that suddenly call themselves ‘data scientists’ because it is the latest fad. The Harvard Business Review even called it the sexiest job of the 21st century! But in fact, many calling themselves data scientists are lacking the full skill set I would expect were I in charge of hiring a data scientist.

What I see is many business analysts that haven’t even got any understanding of big data technology or programming languages call themselves data scientists. Then there are programmers from the IT function who understand programming but lack the business skills, analytics skills or creativity needed to be a true data scientist.

Part of the problem here is simple supply and demand economics: There simply aren’t enough true data scientists out there to fill the need, and so less qualified (or not qualified at all!) candidates make it into the ranks.

Second is that the role of a data scientist is often ill-defined within the field and even within a single company.  People throw the term around to mean everything from a data engineer (the person responsible for creating the software “plumbing” that collects and stores the data) to statisticians who merely crunch the numbers.

A true data scientist is so much more. In my experience, a data scientist is:

  • multidisciplinary. I have seen many companies try to narrow their recruiting by searching for only candidates who have a Phd in mathematics, but in truth, a good data scientist could come from a variety of backgrounds — and may not necessarily have an advanced degree in any of them.
  • business savvy.  If a candidate does not have much business experience, the company must compensate by pairing him or her with someone who does.
  • analytical. A good data scientist must be naturally analytical and have a strong ability to spot patterns.
  • good at visual communications. Anyone can make a chart or graph; it takes someone who understands visual communications to create a representation of data that tells the story the audience needs to hear.
  • versed in computer science. Professionals who are familiar with Hadoop, Java, Python, etc. are in high demand. If your candidate is not expert in these tools, he or she should be paired with a data engineer who is.
  • creative. Creativity is vital for a data scientist, who needs to be able to look beyond a particular set of numbers, beyond even the company’s data sets to discover answers to questions — and perhaps even pose new questions.
  • able to add significant value to data. If someone only presents the data, he or she is a statistician, not a data scientist. Data scientists offer great additional value over data through insights and analysis.
  • a storyteller. In the end, data is useless without context. It is the data scientist’s job to provide that context, to tell a story with the data that provides value to the company.

If you can find a candidate with all of these traits — or most of them with the ability and desire to grow — then you’ve found someone who can deliver incredible value to your company, your systems, and your field.

But skimp on any of these traits, and you run the risk of hiring an imposter, someone just hoping to ride the data sciences bubble until it bursts.

What would you add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

About : Bernard Marr is a globally recognized expert in analytics and big data. He helps companies manage, measure, analyze and improve performance using data.

His new book is: Big Data: Using Smart Big Data, Analytics and Metrics To Make Better Decisions and Improve Performance You can read a free sample chapter here

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Comment by Bernard Marr on June 29, 2015 at 9:57am

Thank you for your comments Kirk, Vincent, Guilherme and Vlad!

Comment by Vincent Granville on June 29, 2015 at 9:55am

Real data scientists often don't call themselves data scientists. It's a senior role that requires a number of skills not taught in school. In my case, it's a passion, even a mission. I enjoy creating significant, measurable added value for clients. Sometimes it does not involve any analysis, but "smelling" insights from data, gut feelings, and vision.  And my revenue - even though I am not on any payroll - is far larger than that of a well paid senior Google developer. 

Comment by Vlad Gutkovsky on June 29, 2015 at 7:11am

"A good data scientist must be naturally analytical and have a strong ability to spot patterns." >> I agree, but I'd also add that a good data scientist is one who understands that correlation does not equal causation. To put this more broadly, not every pattern is valid and an understanding of statistical relevant and significant is essential to find patterns that are meaningful.

Comment by Guilherme D N Maia on June 28, 2015 at 7:52pm

Excellent post. 

Comment by Kirk Borne on June 28, 2015 at 2:08pm

@Bernard, Great article. Thank you for sharing it. I have talked with recruiters who are now becoming very wary of anyone they interview for data scientist positions. I put "Creative, Curious, Communicative, and relentlessly Courageous" at the top of my list of aptitudes(!) (not skills) that characterize a real data scientist.

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