The third wave data scientist – a useful point of view

diagram that shows "business mindset" in the middle, surrounded by three segments: "soft skills" "statistics toolbox" and "software engineering craftsmanship"

In 2019, it’s hard to find a data-related blogger who doesn’t write about the essence and the future of data science as a profession. Most of these posts (like this one for example) are mostly useless both for existing data scientists who think about their professional plans and for people who consider data science as their career.

Today I saw yet another post which I find very useful. In this post, Dominik Haitz identifies a “third wave data scientist.” In Dominik’s opinion, a successful data scientist has to combine four features: (1) Business mindset (2) Software engineering craftsmanship (3) Statistics and algorithmic toolbox, and (4) Soft skills. In Dominik’s classification, the business mindset is not “another skill” but the central pillar.

The professional challenges that I have been facing during the past eighteen months or so, made me realize the importance of points 1, 2, and 3 from Dominik’s list (number 4 was already very important on my personal list). However, it took reading his post to put the puzzle parts in place.

Dominik’s additional contribution to the discussion is ditching the famous data science Venn Diagram in favor of another, “business-oriented” visual which I used as the “featured image” to this post.

Painting: sailors in a wavy sea
A fragment from an 1850 painting by the Russian Armenian marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky named “The Ninth Wave.” I wonder what the “ninth wave data scientist” will be.

To specialize, or not to specialize, that is the data scientists’ question

In my last post on data science career, I heavily promoted the idea that a data scientist needs to find his or her specialization. I back my opinion with my experience and by citing other people opinions. However, keep in mind that I am not a career advisor, I never surveyed the job market, and I might not know what I’m talking about. Moreover, despite the fact that I advocate for specialization, I think that I am more of a generalist.

Since I published the last post, I was pointed to some other posts and articles that either support or contradict my point of view. The most interesting ones are: “Why you shouldn’t be a data science generalist” and “Why Data Science Teams Need Generalists, Not Specialists“, both are very recent and very articulated but promote different points of view. Go figure

The featured image is based on a photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash

The data science umbrella or should you study data science as a career move (the 2019 edition)?

Illustration: photo of people under umbrellas

TL/DR: Studying data science is OK as long as you know that it’s only a starting point.

Almost two years ago, I wrote a post titled “Don’t study data science as a career move.” Even today, this post is the most visited post on my blog. I was reminded about this post a couple of days ago during a team meeting in which we discussed what does a “data scientist” mean today. I re-read my original post, and I think that I was generally right, but there is a but…

The term “data science” was born as an umbrella term that meant to describe people who know programming, statistics, and business logic. We all saw those numerous Venn diagrams that tried to describe the perfect data scientist. Since its beginning, the field of “data science” has finally matured. There are more and more people that question the mere definition of data science.

Here’s what an entrepreneur Chuck Russel has to say:

Now don’t get me wrong — some of these folks are legit Data Scientists but the majority is not. I guess I’m a purist –calling yourself a scientist indicates that you practice science following a scientific method. You create hypotheses, test the hypothesis with experimental results and after proving or disproving the conjecture move on or iterate.

Screenshot of a Google image search showing many Venn diagrams
There can’t be enough Venn diagrams

Now, “create and test hypotheses” is a very vague requirement. After all, any A/B test is a process of “creating and testing hypotheses” using data. Is anyone who performs A/B tests a data scientist? I think not.
Moreover, a couple of years ago, if you wanted to run an A/B test, perform a regression analysis, build a classifier, you would have to write numerous lines of code, debug and tune it. This tedious and intriguing process certainly felt very “sciency,” and if it worked, you would have been very proud of our job. Today, on the other hand, we are lucky to have general-purpose tools that require less and less coding. I don’t remember the last time I had to implement an analysis or an algorithm from the first principles. With the vast amount of verified tools and libraries, writing an algorithm from scratch feels like a huge waste of time.
On the other hand, I spend more and more time trying to understand the “business logic” that I try to improve: why has this test fail? Who will use this algorithm and what will make them like the results? Does effort justify the potential improvement?

I (a data scientist) have all this extra time to think of a business logic thanks to the huge arsenal of generalized tools to choose from. These tools were created mostly by those data scientists whose primary job is to implement, verify, and tune algorithms. My job and the job of these data scientists is different and requires different sets of skills.

There is another ever-growing group of professionals who work hard to make sure someone can apply all those algorithms to any amount of data they feel suitable. These people know that any model is at most as good as the data it is based on. Therefore, they build systems that deliver the right information on time, distribute the data among computation nodes, and make sure no crazy “scientist” sends a production server to a non-responsive state due to a bad choice of parameters. We already have a term for professionals whose job is to build fail-proof systems. We call them engineers, or “data engineers” in this case.

The bottom line

Up till now, I mentioned three major activities that used to be covered by the data science umbrella: building new algorithms, applying algorithms to business logic, and engineering reliable data systems. I’m sure there are other areas under that umbrella that I forgot. In 2019, we reached the point where one has to decide what field of data science does one want to practice. If you consider stying data science think of it as studying medicine. The vast majority of physicians don’t end up general practitioners but rather invest at least five more years of their lives professionalize. Treat your data science studies as an entry ticket into the life-long learning process, and you’ll be OK. Otherwise, (I’m citing myself here): You might end up a mediocre Python or R programmer who can fiddle with the parameters of various machine learning libraries, one of the many. Sometimes it’s good enough. Frequently, it’s not.

PS. Here’s a one-week-old article on Forbes.com with very similar theses: link.

Chișinău Jewish cemetery

Two years ago I visited Chișinău (Kishinev), the city in Moldova where I was born and where I grew up until the age of fifteen. Today I saw a post with photos from the ancient Chișinău Jewish cemetery and recalled that I too, took many pictures from that sad place. Less than half of the original cemetery survived to these days. The bigger part of it was demolished in the 1960s in favor of a park and a residential area. If you scroll through the pictures below, you will be able to see how they used tombstones to build the park walls.

Another notable feature of many Jewish cemeteries is memorial plates in memoriam of the relatives who don’t have their own graves — the relatives who were murdered over the course of the Jewish history.

On procrastination, or why too good can be bad

Illustration: a plastic gun and letters that say "bang"

I’m a terrible procrastinator. A couple of years ago, I installed RescueTime to fight this procrastination. The idea behind RescueTime is simple — it tracks the sites you visit and the application you use and classifies them according to how productive you are. Using this information, RescueTime provides a regular report of your productivity. You can also trigger the productivity mode, in which RescueTime will block all the distractive sites such as Facebook, Twitter, news sites, etc. You can also configure RescueTime to trigger this mode according to different settings. This sounded like a killer feature for me and was the main reason behind my decision to purchase a RescueTime subscription. Yesterday, I realized how wrong I was.

RescueTime logo

When I installed RescueTime, I was full of good intentions. That is why I configured it to block all the distractive sites for one hour every time I accumulate more than 10 minutes of surfing such sites. However, from time to time, I managed to find a good excuse to procrastinate. Although RescueTime allows you to open a “bad” site after a certain delay, I found this delay annoying and ended up killing the RescueTime process (killing a process is faster than temporary disabling a filter). As a result, most of my workday stayed untracked, unmonitored, and unfiltered.

So, I decided to end this absurd situation. As of today, RescueTime will never block any sites. Instead of blocking, I configured it to show a reminder and to open my RescueTime dashboard, as a reminder to behave myself. I don’t know whether this non-intrusive reminder will be effective or not but at least I will have correct information about my day.

Against A/B tests

Traditional A/B testsing rests on a fundamentally flawed premise. Most of the time, version A will be better for some subgroups, and version B will be better for others. Choosing either A or B is inherentlyinferior to choosing a targeted mix of A and B.

Michael Kaminsky locallyoptimistic.com

The quote above is from a post by Michael Kaminsky “Against A/B tests“. I’m still not fully convinced by Michael’s thesis but it is very interesting and thought-provoking. 

Useful redundancy — when using colors is not completely useless

The maximum data-ink ratio principle implies that one should not use colors in their graphs if the graph is understandable without the colors. The fact that you can do something, such as adding colors, doesn’t mean you should do it. I know it. I even have a dedicated tag on this blog for that. Sometimes, however, consistent use of colors serves as a useful navigation tool in a long discussion. Keep reading to learn about the justified use of colors.

Pew Research Center is a “is a nonpartisan American fact tank based in Washington, D.C. It provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends shaping the United States and the world.” Recently, I read a report prepared by the Pew Center on the religious divide in the Israeli society. This is a fascinating report. I recommend reading without any connection to data visualization.

But this post does not deal with the Isreali society but with graphs and colors.

Look at the first chart in that report. You may see a tidy pie chart with several colored segments. 

Pie chart: Religious composition of Israeli society. The chart uses several colored segments

Aha! Can’t they use a single color without losing the details? Of course the can! A monochrome pie chart would contain the same information:

Pie chart: Religious composition of Israeli society. The chart uses monochrome segments

In most of the cases, such a transformation would make a perfect sense. In most of the cases, but not in this report. This report is a multipage research document packed with many facts and analyses. The pie chart above is the first graph in that report that provides a broad overview of the Israeli society. The remaining of this report is dedicated to the relationships between and within the groups represented by the colorful segments in that pie chart. To help the reader navigating through this long report, its authors use a consistent color scheme that anchors every subsequent graph to the relevant sections of the original pie chart.

All these graphs and tables will be readable without the use of colors. Despite the fact that the colors here are redundant, this is a useful redundancy. By using the colors, the authors provided additional information layers that make the navigation within the document easier. I learned about the concept of useful redundancy from “Trees, Maps, and Theorems” by Jean-luc Dumout. If you can only read one book about data communication, it should be this book.

Microtext Line Charts

Why adding text labels to graph lines, when you can build graph lines using text labels? On microtext lines

richardbrath

Tangled Lines

Line charts are a staple of data visualization. They’ve existed at least since William Playfair and possibly earlier. Like many charts, they can be very powerful and also have their limitations. One limitation is the number of lines that can be displayed. One line works well: you can see trend, volatility, highs, lows, reversals. Two lines provides opportunity for comparison. 5 lines might be getting crowded. 10 lines and you’re starting to run out of colors. But what if the task is to compare across a peer group of 30 or 40 items? Lines get jumbled, there aren’t enough discrete colors, legends can’t clearly distinguish between them. Consider this example looking at unemployment across 37 countries from the OECD: which country had the lowest unemployment in 2010?

unemployment_plain

Tooltips are an obvious way to solve this, but tooltips have problems – they are much slower than just shifing visual attention…

View original post 1,323 more words

On the importance of perspective

Stalin was a relatively short man, his height was 1.65 m. Khrushchev was even shorter, his height was 1.60. It seems that the difference wasn’t enough for the official Soviet propaganda of that time. Take a look at this photo. We can clearly see that Stalin is taller than Khrushchev.

stalin.png

Do you notice something strange? Take a look at the windows in the background. I added horizontal and vertical guides for your convenience.

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 8.38.08

Now, look what happens when we fix the horizontal and vertical lines

Screen Shot 2018-11-05 at 8.39.03

Now, Khrushchev is still shorter than Stalin but not by that much.