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Big Data & Analytics

Understanding Today’s Chief Data Scientist

Subscribe to Big Data & Analytics 9/29/2014 Joshua M. Clarke and Eoin O'Neill
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In their October 2012 Harvard Business Review article, Tom Davenport and D.J. Patil called Data Scientist, “The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.” The subject is clearly part of the zeitgeist: academics, industry analysts, consultants and executives all have debated issues such as the required experiences, need for academic training programs, the shortage (or not) of qualified data science talent, and the best way to structure data science teams.

As Heidrick & Struggles’ Big Data & Analytics Practice has continued to expand globally (more than 125 searches in the past 24 months), we have repeatedly been asked about this subject—with an added focus on Data Science leadership from both executives and companies looking to hire such executives. Data Scientists are asking us:

  • What academic and commercial credentials will make me a more viable candidate in the market?
  • Where should Data Science be positioned within a company for success?

Our clients want to know:

  • What qualifications should we expect to find in the market?
  • Where will we find the best talent with the highest likelihood of success?

To better answer questions such as these, we examined publicly available data on a sample of 100 U.S.-based companies—large, medium and small, across several different industries—that employ Chief Data Scientists (CDS). We viewed the results through the lens of our extensive leadership search and advisory experience, paying close attention to company size, the education credentials of those in the CDS position, their past commercial experience, and their leadership roles.

We learned that those in the CDS position most likely have advanced degrees (primarily in computer science or engineering). They average nearly 15 years of post-degree commercial (PDC) experience. However, except for small companies, the CDS is not likely to be on the top management team.

Before looking more closely at our research results, let’s be clear about the positions we are discussing. A CDS is more than a number cruncher. The role calls for expertise in statistics, programming, database technology and data visualization—all while requiring industry knowledge and business savvy. The most successful are energized by applied data science rather than “blue sky” research and are able to engage with a non-technical audience to communicate the value proposition of their work. In our view, these are not individual-contributor roles, these are the most senior data-science positions within a firm, whether they carry the Chief Data Scientist designation or not.


Joshua M. Clarke Partner +1 617 7376300
Eoin O'Neill Principal +1 617 7376300

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