Quest to Meet High Demand for Data Science Professionals Amid the Pandemic

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How has COVID-19 changed your business dynamics?

McKinsey’s recent publication Covid-19 and the great reset mentioned that business leaders had reorganized supply chains over the past six months, set up remote operations, and made tough financial decisions.

World Economic Forum has identified How the post-COVID workplace will change business for the better due to the rapid digitalization and process automation adoption.

Catch this Interview session our Founder has with Money FM.

In Mind Your Business, Howie Lim spoke to our Founder, Ms. Sharala Axryd on our company’s quest to meet high demand for data science professionals amid the pandemic.

Established in October 2015, CADS was set up to respond to the critical need for real-world qualified data scientists and data professionals in the face of digital disruption.

Listen to the Interview

Listen to the interview session from Money FM here: https://go.thecads.com/moneyfm_interview2020

Below is the transcript of the interview session.

(The following interview has been edited for clarity and context.)

Money FM:

On Money FM, 89.3.

Howie Lim:

This is prime time on Money FM 89.3.

Now established in October, 2015, The Center of Applied Data Science (CADS) was set up to respond to the critical need for real-world qualified data scientists and data professionals in the face of digital disruption. Its aim is to nurture a new generation of data professionals who can meet and exceed the needs of today’s data disrupted world through an accelerated and rigorous program of best of class mentorship that will solve real business challenges within organizations, as well as real-world situations outside.

Today, we are chatting with the founder of CADS, Ms. Sharala Axyrd, on her quest to meet the high demand for data science professionals amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharala, thanks for joining us today.

Sharala Axyrd:

Hi, how are you? Thank you for having me.

Howie Lim: 

It’s been some time since we last spoke, I checked and it’s been like over two years, so a lot has been happening.

Howie Lim: 

Well, a lot has happened in the last six months. So you’ve now founded the CADS, how do you think the COVID-19 has accelerated the demand for data science? I imagine at a risk of over-simplification, there’s just that much more data to crunch to try and figure this out, right?

Sharala Axyrd:

Yeah. I mean, you know, with Industry 4.0, Singapore has been investing a lot in making sure that the workforce has really fought for the change and fortunately, or unfortunately, COVID-19 has just accelerated the whole process of, you know, data analytics, AI, and digitalization.

And if you look at some of the findings out there, as Gartner said, it [the pandemic] brought forward five years of digitalization plans. COVID-19 has just brought it forward in the last six months. And if you hear Microsoft’s Satya Nadella talking about Microsoft’s revenue, they say that two years’ worth of digital transformation was just done in the last two months.

Sharala Axyrd:

So this is great for a lot of businesses who think that they have all the time in the world, to make the change, to stay relevant, but just the last six months made people realize “I have to do it like yesterday. And I don’t have the time to.

Howie Lim:

For some, because of the downturn and lockdown measures, let’s say all of the people working from home there maybe is some time or not, you think Sharala? Where businesses who don’t digitalize are in danger of going under.

Sharala Axyrd:

With or without COVID-19, it was just a matter of time. So you can, see that, you know, eight out of ten Fortune 500 companies, the Top 10 list in the past 10 years, are non-existent. From the traditional businesses, now it’s all tech businesses. Yeah. So, that’s why, the Singapore government, countries around ASEAN, governments, and, companies like us are telling people that you’ve got to do this in order to stay relevant. If you continue with the way that we used to do things, based on what we know previously, which I call it Industry 3.0, you will run out of luck.

Sharala Axyrd:

It will not be relevant. You can’t find new business models and you have new companies coming in taking away your businesses. So it’s just a matter of time. And I’ll kind of use this analogy that a tsunami is coming. You’ve got to either get yourself prepared with a boat or find a highland to save yourself.

Howie Lim:

Now let’s spend some time to talk about the role of data science in now, in a pandemic-ridden world.

Sharala Axyrd:

You know, people think that data science…and many are making this assumption, where a lot of people think that it’s a role. They think, you know, it’s someone that comes in and kind of, you know, crunches the numbers, or solves the world hunger kind of thing. They come in and, they have magic.

Howie Lim:

Owwh, there’s that much expectation.

Sharala Axyrd:

Yes! The unicorn!

Sharala Axyrd:

And I think data again has always been there. So what is new and sexy about data science is about the insights. So having a huge amount of data, having the skills, but not being able to get the insights that are relevant for your business or your organization, is becoming really an issue now. So that’s what I would talk about data science now: is getting the right insights for your organization, and that’s what people should be looking for.

Howie Lim:

So how could one be trained to do that? It’s not just about science skills, mathematics skills, nor about the technical skills.

Sharala Axyrd:

Absolutely.

Howie Lim:

It’s competent thinking, or critical thinking skills.

Sharala Axyrd:

What I always emphasized about data scientists, data analysts, data professionals is that they are highly trained to see things in a certain manner. And what happens is I always tell businesses, so upskilling is not enough. Don’t get me wrong, upskilling is really, really important, but upskilling alone is not enough.

Sharala Axyrd:

Businesses need to involve these people, need to give them a seat at the table to understand where the business is coming from and where they need to go. This is so that the technical guys or the data scientists can go back and crunch the numbers and to look at things differently. But CEOs, the CFOs, or you call them the CXOs need to be involved with the data science team to get those results. So you cannot leave it by itself and then get them to come back with great information, which might not relevant to us. Many moments that I sit down with my, the whole, you know, data science team, and I have this ‘So what’ moment, you know, and they’re so proud of their dashboard, they’re so proud of the algorithm. And then I have this, so what? How does this help?

Howie Lim:

Oh, how can we utilize what you’ve come up with, is it at all appropriate even, right?

Sharala Axyrd:

Yes.

Howie Lim:

Oh man.

Sharala Axyrd:

Becauses they just look at data and then they form a pattern, but you know the business, you know the trends, that’s what you bring to the table. So you make a decision with data, insights, and what you have as an expert to run a business. So yeah, it has to be a combination of all those.

Howie Lim:

We’re speaking with the founder of The Center of Applied Data Science or CADS, Ms. Sharala Axyrd. So then how can one prepare to have that kind of data-driven strategy? You’ve got to let the data scientists, you said, have a seat at the table, work closely with C-suite obviously. And then how do we come up with that data-driven strategy?

Sharala Axyrd:

So over the years, we were heavily involved in upskilling and shedding out as many data professionals as possible because that’s what the country needs, the region needs, and the world needs.

Sharala Axyrd:

But we realized over the years that having all these people and if the businesses don’t know what to do with them, it’s useless.

Sharala Axyrd:

And a lot of businesses are afraid to upskill cause they are going lose this person to another company. So we have realized that they need to put in a strategy in place and we’ve created a patented model called data-driven organization. So we talk about six pillars that all organizations need to look at. And this will be cost saving.

You will know exactly what are the check lists that you need to have and where you want to go. So when I talk about the six pillars and why every organization needs to have; one of it is the strategy pillar, and the other one is the talent pillar. And I will explain little bit when I talk about this, right?

Sharala Axyrd:

So when you talk about strategy, they need to know as a company, it is always driven by C-suites when it comes to data science, you know, digitalization, Industry 4.0, etc.

They need to know exactly what are the few things that they need to do, where they want to be. It doesn’t have to be a problem statement. It could be, I want to be introduced to a billion dollar company or I want to optimize my business, or drop it down to 40%. You know, a statement that acts as a strategy the company wants to look at within the next two to three years.

Howie Lim: 

So you are saying it fundamentally changes the value or mission of an organization from say, profit-driven organization to data-driven. Something’s got to give too, right.

Sharala Axyrd:

Exactly. Right. And let’s say by doing these, I will have tripled the profit that I have last year, but I’m going to take a deeper look. Yeah. So this all has to be a strategy in place, not just get someone to drive these and then hope for the best.

Sharala Axyrd:

Okay. Three to four years ago, I would have been happy if people were just doing something about it. But now they have enough data to say that let’s not look for the best. Let’s put a plan and then you’ll have your whole talent group that you need to look at. And again, in a time that you cannot hire and fire people and you want to save as many jobs as possible, it’s more apt to talk about it that you upskill your own talent.

World Economic Forum talks about a marker, the percentage is about 54%, that you look within your team and they come with your domain expert. So why wait for the unicorn? Why not invest in your own people? Amazingly Singapore is doing that and what some of the other countries are doing. That’s really important to look at.

Sharala Axyrd:

That becomes expensive. That becomes time consuming. And that becomes challenging too, for a lot of organizations, that’s really big, but it’s so necessary to look at that. How do you plan this talent transition to data analytics and what becomes the biggest hurdle in a company is what I call the third pillar. That’s the organization itself, which is the culture part.

When you and I’ve been using paper and pen, exactly, we’re Asians. I always talk about, you know, if you come from a family where you are always told to become a doctor and you study to become a doctor and you say, I would die if I need to talk to our accountant and I will not, you know, I will not switch careers halfway. It’s not known to do that. The Asians are not known to do that. Um, and this is why it’s so important when a company has to drive that culture.

Sharala Axyrd:

And I talk about it. I used to say teachers could lose their job because a computer can do a better job. We’ve made these happen so fast during COVID-19, as you know, online learning without teachers. As all of you know, a lot of them are doing that.

Doctors could lose their jobs because the machines can have a better precision and accurate diagnostic about your illness, but now I’ve changed my mantra. Now I would say that, the teachers who don’t work with technology would lose their jobs.

Howie Lim: 

They will become obsolete.

Sharala Axyrd:

Exactly. Doctors who don’t work with technology, or finance people who don’t work with technology will lose their job. So I think that’s very important. The biggest hurdle that companies have is organization. And that’s a pillar that we talk about. Now, the other three pillars are analytics, data, and technology. And I’m not undermining those, but those are technologies that are since four years ago, people were worried about: should be, or should we not go with cloud.

Sharala Axyrd:

How do I cleanse data and how do I centralize data? But those pillars are equally important. The technology now it’s a little bit more matured now.

Howie Lim:

So, and it’s also has become a necessity now.

Sharala Axyrd: 

Absolutely.

Howie Lim: 

You can’t just, Oh, should I or shouldn’t I any more.

Sharala Axyrd:

Exactly. So technology is really available and you just need to figure out which one suits you best. This is important. The reason I talk about the technology, although it’s a mature part of this, a lot of companies that could and did, could afford it, did a very early investment to be the first in the game to have data analytics platform in the company.

But you know, a fast forward in three, four years, very soon it dawned upon them that, “Oh my God, I need people, data talent, I need the whole company to be able to use it and walk the talk”.

Howie Lim:

Yeah.

Sharala Axyrd:

And that is why these six pillars are so important. Now you asked me one question, right? You said, you know, how do you start? First, knowing the six pillars. How about journey to it? And why do we talk about this?

Because when you look at the maturity of this beehive model, you need to know where you stand as part of the maturity. But being, being a media company, you don’t need to have maturity of a tech company, correct?

Definitely you don’t need to be like Amazon. But you need to get into the journey to somewhere close that you can actually try using technology and digitalization to do your job better. And what happens with the beehive data maturity model, you can actually look at no, I call it getting an elephant to fly, especially a larger organization.

When you are just getting started, you need to know whether you’re analytically impaired or you have localized analytics, and then figure out what you aspire to be.

Sharala Axyrd:

From a selfish standpoint, Sharala, how then can someone become a data professional, just in case? These are tough times right now.

Sharala Axyrd:

I think everybody, um, you see the, the myth is a data scientist is that you would call it it’s hard and difficult.

Howie Lim:

It’s typically a specialized thing, but actually we all work with data every day, right? Absolutely.

Sharala Axyrd:

For all in university, we are influencing that, the you know, faculty of economics that have analytics in it, faculty of, you know, um, uh, finance, uh, social studies need to have analytics in it. Then you need to break this myth because it’s called science is only for people from the Science stream. This, this has to go away and you know, everybody can be a data professional. You don’t necessarily have to become a data scientist.

Um, you know, how we, you, yourself, the journalists, uh, could do data storytelling, could do visualization. Uh, if you, if you, you know, my, my favorite, um, uh, data visualization, Hulu is Hans Rosling, who does it at BBC. He’s a medical doctor, and he does amazing storytelling using data. And that’s what companies need.

You know, you don’t need a million data scientists, but everybody needs to use data either to make decisions; to tell a story; to create a report. And I think that’s very important.

Howie Lim:

Thanks so much to Sharala Axyrd, who is the founder of The Center of Applied Data Science. Sharala, thanks for your time and stay safe.

Sharala Axyrd:

Thank you, Howie. And you too.

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