How IBM Is Schooling Tomorrow's Data Scientists

Head of Global Academic Programs on Building Data Degrees From the Ground Up

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Rich Rodts, IBM
Rich Rodts, IBM

IBM is one of many corporations in constant need of smart data scientists. But unlike most firms, IBM has the ability to nurture their development before they enter the workforce. IBM partners with academic programs across the globe, and often designs initiatives in conjunction with clients, such as GM, who also in need of analytics and data staff.

Rich Rodts, IBM's manager-solution specialists and global academic programs at IBM, guides that process.

"If we need to grow these skills, if we need to build this bench so to speak, we need to work with academia to create those individuals who are going to be the next generation of data scientists," said Mr. Rodts.

Mr. Rodts has overseen an IBM integration with GM at Michigan State University on a program in which IBM assisted in implementing technology and business coaching. Such programs, managed by IBM, usually last around eight weeks. Another IBM collaboration with GlaxoSmithKline at Yale led to jobs at the pharma giant for two students from the Ivy League institution.

"It provides a very unique experience for the student where the student is gaining that knowledge but also learning to engage the client," said Mr. Rodts, noting that the programs often involve students interviewing business clients and discussing their data needs. "It literally does become a consulting project."

These initiatives are intended to foster real-world experience for students, rather than mere experimentation in an academic vacuum. For Glaxo, students worked with the firm's proprietary data. "It has to be real data and it can't be looked at as an experiment," said Mr. Rodts.

The programs also serve as valuable networking opportunities for students. "Students are creating those touches, if you will, with executives they wouldn't otherwise know or meet."

Ad Age: Are attitudes towards academic-corporate partnerships shifting, and if so, how?

Mr. Rodts: Yes, but not in the context of one side or the other changing their sentiment. The shift we're seeing is more about a natural evolution of the marketplace. Due to the sheer volume of data that's being generated now, the market need has grown for analytics professionals who can derive insights from that data. Those needs are driving a symbiotic relationship between the academic and corporate worlds, in which it's not just about a business' need or a university's need; it's really an economic need. Both sides are asking the question: How do we fill the skills gap so organizations are no longer deluged by data, but rather, using that data to make crucial decisions? So with that shared perspective, IBM works with university faculty and leadership to develop courses and degrees that offer what employers really need.

Ad Age: There seems to be a steady stream of new data science academic programs. In your experience are some of them merely repurposed programs with a trendy new label?

Mr. Rodts: In our experience, we are not seeing that. But what we are seeing are universities that work with industry partners to map out specific needs from the very beginning, so they fully understand what skills are required to ensure students are distinctive job candidates. For IBM, that means working with our university partners to build curriculum and entire degrees from the ground up, taking into account the most current trends, technologies and business challenges.

I would also add that creating new curriculum from scratch and implementing it in the classroom is a complex endeavor. The emergence of analytics degree programs, specialization tracks and coursework is really testament to an urgent need for a skilled workforce and the agility of the academic ecosystem to meet those needs.

Ad Age: What are some of the key elements that drive innovative programs that universities are offering?

Mr. Rodts: To be ready to contribute from day one in an analytics job, students need a multifaceted approach to curriculum that really reflects the unique blend of skills today's data-intensive industries demand. This includes technical training, so students are well prepared to use analytics techniques such as building predictive models which, among many uses, can help brands fine-tune their marketing and sales strategies. It also includes coursework that teaches students how big data and analytics fit into the broader picture within a business, a healthcare organization, a manufacturing plant or even a sports team's front office. That type of context is essential.

Now of course, there are some skills you need to develop outside of the classroom. This includes experiential learning opportunities that challenge students to learn about an organization's goals and challenges, analyze data relevant to that organization, and then build strategic recommendations based on their data-driven findings. And it doesn't have to stop there. IBM offers activities, such as the SMART program, that allow students to present their recommendations to actual business decision makers, and be ready to answer some tough questions. This is real-world analytics experience and it gives students the chance to develop back-and-forth communications skills and a strategic mindset, so when the time comes, they are able to influence big decisions within their future employers' organizations.

Ad Age: Sometimes IBM partners with a brand client in conjunction with an academic program. How do those relationships usually come together?

Mr. Rodts: In some cases this type of partnership begins with a business that sees what a university is doing with regard to forming analytics curriculum with IBM, sees what the students are learning, and in turn wants to collaborate on a hands-on project that puts the students' newfound expertise into practice. This type of partnership is very important for the students. As mentioned before, while it's essential for students to engage in classes that give them the technical knowledge to crunch data for insights, there is only so much a student can learn in the classroom. You also need experiential learning opportunities that challenge students to build strategic recommendations with their big data findings and discuss those ideas with senior decision makers. This type of interactive learning experience holds benefits for all parties involved.

Ad Age: What can academia and corporate partners do to foster greater diversity -- more women, African-Americans and Hispanics, for example -- among data science students?

Mr. Rodts: I can tell you about a program we're especially proud of. In 2011, IBM spearheaded an initiative called P-Tech -- Pathways in Technology Early College High School -- where we worked with New York City to open a school for students from historically underserved backgrounds. The school prepares these students to compete for jobs in STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, math. They enter at ninth grade and receive an associate degree at no cost within six years. The first school opened in Brooklyn and we've expanded to Chicago, and now Microsoft and SAP just announced three schools in New York City that will follow IBM's model. P-Tech is reinventing STEM education in America, and President Obama even praised it as a model of innovation in his State of the Union address in February.

IBM has always recognized that it has a role to play in inspiring future scientists and technology leaders of all stripes. In addition to P-Tech, we also do this by providing activities designed to show the wide range of possible technology careers, as well as how rewarding and exciting they can be. This includes classroom activities for Engineers Week, camps at IBM facilities (in July, IBM partnered with Southern Methodist University to host an analytics summer camp for Dallas high school students), and creating useful tools for teachers that help improve the instruction of science.

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