You heard it here first – Google and Harvard are wrong; the sexiest job of the 21st century will in fact be the Data Artist – not the Data Scientist.
Bear with me…
Most reading this blog post, will I’m sure have heard Google’s chief economist Hal Varian prediction in January 2009 that the next sexy job in the next 10 years would be statisticians. More recently, in October 2012, Harvard Business Review published an article explaining that data scientists are already working at both start-ups and well-established companies, and why the role will take on even more importance as companies attempt to capitalise and make sense of the data they’ve amassed.
The Prozone analysts had a wry smile and a spring in their step that week in the office, as the authors of the HBR piece suggested that “perhaps it’s becoming clear that the word ‘scientist’ fits this emerging role”.
I’m not so sure. At least not in football.
As football continues to drag itself into this 21st century, tradition still largely pervades (quite right too by the way for a game steeped in history, passion and culture). Some clubs are still coming to terms with the role of the performance analyst, let alone a data scientist. So is it really wise for football’s budding quants to use this in vogue title as they seek to make an impact in the industry?
Last year I spoke to the Head of Sports Science from one the Premier League’s top clubs who told me that he believes sports science has failed in football. When I pressed him further he explained that the industry is still not having the impact that it should when it comes to affecting the decisions. He subsequently offered the term ‘coaching science’ as an alternative, and a recommendation that sports science needs to repackage itself if it’s to have a greater influence on football’s decision makers.
Similarly Raymond Verheijen has been spotted on twitter (@raymondverheije) challenging the current use of terminology:
“Why do certain people use ‘science & football’ and not ‘football & science’? Why do they take science as a starting point and not football?.. Why do certain people in football call themselves ‘sports scientist’ and not football scientist?”
For some, job titles are meaningless. But the naming of things does matter. Considering the subtle yet significant effect of ‘art and science’, over ‘art versus science’. With the former, we’re a team – in the latter, it’s ‘us verses them’.
So considering the need to get on a level with the coach, perhaps using ‘data artist’ makes more sense?
To be clear, I’m not saying just conform. While it’s vital that the data artist understand’s the team’s philosophy and the organisation’s business goals in order to stay relevant, it’s equal important to be bold and challenge the status quo. A good one can help coaches find insights in vast quantities of disparate data – often important relationships that coaches would not have gotten in any other way. Let’s not forget that coaches can typically only remember 60% of critical incidents in matches. Any organisation that is using data to merely confirm the coaches intuition is effectively practising in confirmation bias. Curiosity is the number one trait of a data artist. Closely followed by the ability to communicate what they’ve discovered.
In his latest masterpiece The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin challenges our perception of what an artist actually is. Far from the eccentric painter cliché we’ve come to associate these supposed right-brain folks, Godin offers the following definition:
“An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status quo”.
Reading this definition had a really profound effect on me – representing a real paradigm shift from how I’ve grown to differentiate and internalise the stereotype of an artist.
Coming back to Hal Varian, in fairness the less-publicised part of his interview clarifies that by ‘statisticians’ he was actually referring more generally to someone who is able to extract information from large datasets and then present something of use to non-data experts. Similarly, the HBR goes on to define the ‘data scientist’ as a “data hacker, analyst, communicator, and trusted adviser”.
So, in fact, we’re all essentially saying the same thing – you can have the best data scientist in the world, but this capability is futile without the emotional intelligence, boldness and artistry to deliver a meaningful insight that helps organisations to win.
As a relatively seasoned pro in what is still a very embryonic industry, there’s something really inspiring about seeing the new tribe of data scientists emerging, connecting and creating an analytical groundswell in football. Some do it just for fun, others are trying to make an impact at an elite level of the game. Whatever the drivers are, the age of big data and analytics in football is undoubtedly upon us and those who can model, munge and visually communicate data are hot property.
I’m not saying that football’s subculture of data scientists should all rebrand themselves as data artists – good luck walking into ‘Arry’s office and explaining that one. The reality is that – like in most businesses – power is taken not given, and titles matter less than the impact you can make from delivering your art. The most important thing is to understand your audience and communicate the information in meaningful ways that can really make a difference. That’s really sexy.