That there is a growing need for trained data scientists and other people with analytics skills is not a matter of debate. An important question is how to fill the need.
Since the educational system can respond slowly to skills needs in the technology workforce, training existing workers is emerging as a key option. Many corporations have taken it upon themselves to teach people data analytics skills.
No corporation is as ambitious in this regard as IBM. In March 2011, Big Blue launched a series of big data “boot camps” at various universities as well as IBM innovation centers and online. Five months later, IBM went all in, launching Big Data University (BDU) with help from partners such as Amazon, Jaspersoft, Rightscale, SciSpike and growing list of other companies in the field.
Big Data University offers free online classes and certifications to all comers under the premise that teaching as many people as possible about big data and analytics could help not just businesses, but society.
“One of the things we were seeing was that the use cases now possible with big data can actually have an impact on human life,” explains IBM Big Data VP Anjul Bhambhri. “In health care we’ve seen big data be leveraged to predict the onset of an infection in a newborn baby 24 hours in advance, to be able to diagnose if there are symptoms that could lead to brain hemorrhage. When you see these kinds of possibilities, you don’t want people not adopting this technology and solving these problems for lack of education.”
A Global Classroom
So far more than 42,000 students from around the world have registered for the cloud-hosted classes for IBM’s program. Bhambhri says the largest numbers of students come from North America, India, China, Japan, Russia and Europe, even though classes are now offered only in English.
The courses are devised and run by volunteer members of the Hadoop, big data and database global communities who are employed by IBM and some of its BDU business partners. The classes fall into three basic categories: big data-related topics, database (DB2) related topics and miscellaneous topics.
The curriculum at BDU is flexible, with no prerequisites for courses. But there is a “suggested path” for students. For example, under the big data category, BDU lays out the following suggested course sequence:
1. Big data analytics demos (an overview of what big data is, why is matters, and its characteristics)
2. Hadoop Fundamentals I
3. Hadoop and the Amazon Cloud
4. Hadoop and the IBM Smartcloud Enterprise
5. Hadoop Fundamentals II
Students more interested in the analytics aspect of BDU are advised to start with No. 1 above before proceeding to:
2. Spreadsheet-like analytics
3. Text analytics essentials
4. Query languages for Hadoop
Each BDU course includes a test students can take following their studies. Students who pass can print out a certificate of completion.
How long a student takes to complete a course is pretty much up to them, as BDU emphasizes a “learn at your own pace” philosophy, though much depends on a student’s familiarity and experience with the topic matter, says Bhambhri.
“People who have a background in data mining or analytics, even though they may have done data mining and analytics for structured data, for them to expand their knowledge into the big data world would be fairly easy,” she says. Those people should be able to go through the curriculum in “a few weeks,” Bhambhri says.
Someone with “no background in data mining and analytics” might take at least a couple of months to absorb all the information in a curriculum category, she says.
However, some individual courses can be completed in as little as one day, Bhambhri says.
BDU may never have a football team, but it has growing body of students and a mandate to spread knowledge that will help fill a daunting gap between the possibilities of big data technology and the necessary skills to leverage it.
As Bhambhri says, “The shortage of data scientists will never be overcome but by education.”