New programme to fix dearth of SA data scientists

South Africa is facing a shortage of data scientists — a new breed of analytical data experts with the technical skills to solve complex problems. They’re part mathematician, part computer scientist and part trend spotter. And because they straddle both the business and IT worlds, they’re highly sought-after and well paid.

The demand for data scientists is being driven by the emergence of big data — that unwieldy mass of unstructured information that can no longer be ignored and forgotten. It’s a potential gold mine for companies — as long as there’s someone who can dig in and unearth the business insights that no one thought to look for before.

South African universities like Wits and UCT have introduced data science degrees at the master’s level, but this is producing about 40 data scientists a year, far short of the number that the country’s banks, insurers, retailers, health companies and telecommunications providers, among others, require.

So three actuaries, Shaun Dippnall, Aidan Helmbold and Dave Strugnell, have come together to solve the problem in the way that actuaries do — by finding an innovative solution.

“South Africa is facing an enormous unemployment problem at the same time as the world is heading at breakneck speed towards the fourth Industrial Revolution,” says Dippnall.

The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity and access to knowledge, are unlimited, he says. These possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing — even in South Africa.

“This means that more jobs will be mechanised at a time that we desperately need to be creating jobs or reskilling people.”

So together the founders created an academy, the Explore Data Science Academy, that will create data scientists at velocity; that has no qualifications for entry; and that does not teach using the traditional classroom “sit still and listen to me” approach.

Progressing well

The academy is in its fourth month and most of the 100 students that joined in February are progressing well. Thus the process has begun to recruit four times the number of students for the 2019 intake and find the companies willing to sponsor them.

“The recruitment process is non-traditional in that we require no prior qualifications; instead we do a number of tests that measure natural raw aptitude — specifically the ability to program, solve problems and work with numbers,” Dippnall says. “We also look for the ‘light in their eyes’.” This, he says, refers to a hunger to learn and curiosity about the world around them.

About 10 000 people between the ages of 18 and 35 applied to join the course, 250 were interviewed and 100 were selected. Of these, 25 have no prior learning — just matric with maths and science. “There are so many talented people out there — and these were not kids from former model-C schools. It proves the point that all our kids lack is opportunity.”

On day one, the students are thrown into the first of a series of “sprints”. In each sprint, students are grouped into teams of five and are given a problem to solve — for example, “predict someone’s personality profile using just their Facebook posts”. They have three weeks to build the algorithms that would complete the task.

A full-time team of 14 academics (including statisticians, engineers, actuaries and physicists) teach the mathematical, statistical and computer science fundamentals required. They also provide students with the latest machine-learning techniques and data science tools (Python, SQL, Power Bi). “In this approach the problem is primary, while the theory is secondary,” he says.

The course is comprised of six months made up of the three-week sprints described, a three-month project and a three-month internship. In this, the founding year of the Academy, IT company BCX has provided R50m in sponsorship and intends taking on all 100 candidates for their internships. It may also employ some once the course is complete. The sponsorship is spread over three years and covers the cost of study for 100 students each year, as well as a small stipend for financially needy students.

For BCX, the advantage of the programme is that it increases the flow of data science skills into the business and executives are exposed to a pool of talent that have developed practical problem-solving skills that businesses need.

In addition, the course is an accredited skills programme, which means that it can claim broad-based black economic empowerment points from the spend.

  • This article was originally published on Moneyweb and is used here with permission