Business
11:01 pm
Tue November 29, 2011

The Search For Analysts To Make Sense Of 'Big Data'

Originally published on Mon December 5, 2011 10:45 am

Second in a two-part series

Businesses keep vast troves of data about things like online shopping behavior, or millions of changes in weather patterns, or trillions of financial transactions — information that goes by the generic name of big data.

Now, more companies are trying to make sense of what the data can tell them about how to do business better. That, in turn, is fueling demand for people who can make sense of the information — mathematicians — and creating something of a recruiting war.

DJ Patil, with venture capital firm Greylock Partners, is on a perpetual manhunt, looking for a rare breed: someone with a brain for math, finesse with computers, the eyes of an artist and more.

"There's one common element across all these people that stands out above everything, and that's curiosity," Patil says. "It's an intense curiosity to understand what's behind the data."

He compares raw data to clay: shapeless until molded by a gifted mathematician. A good mathematician can write algorithms that can churn through billions or trillions of data points and show where patterns emerge.

For example, patterns indicated early on that mothers were heavy users of social networks, which in turn led to the creation of social circles. Patil says a good mathematician can figure out what matters and what doesn't in a huge trove of data.

"Everybody's looking for these people, because they know these individuals can move the needle by themselves. They're that impactful," he says.

Firms are going beyond offering piles of cash and equity to get these people. The chief executive officer at TellApart, a company that helps online marketers profile its customers, invited one math recruit to dinner with other tech luminaries to sell him on the company. Another California firm, Cataphora, which helps firms monitor employee behavior, opened a satellite office in Ann Arbor, Mich., so it could recruit from the University of Michigan's math department.

Often, executives say it's not just about money; they have to appeal to an ideal.

David Friedberg says his company does that by touting the power of risk management to change agriculture. Friedberg, chief executive officer of The Climate Corp., says crop insurance is basically nonexistent in large parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. He says the ability to better model changing climate patterns means his company can provide insurance to small farmers who otherwise might not take on the risk of farming more land.

"We can actually encourage agricultural development and provide a sustainable living for them," Friedberg says. "And that's one of the long-term missions of our organization."

The type of people drawn to this work aren't necessarily what you might expect. Greylock Partners' Patil says his successful recruits have included an oceanographer and a neurosurgeon, as well as people who barely graduated from high school but were brilliant at math. He approaches math majors the way baseball scouts look for young stars.

"I have a list that I track. There's one student who I think is phenomenal; I've been tracking him since he was 16," Patil says.

That student is Dylan Field, now 19 and a junior at Brown University. He remembers that the summer of first grade, he found an algebra book and dug into it. Now, he says math and statistics are the sexiest skills around, and his early aptitude and interest in math have become, literally, his meal ticket.

"The joke is that so many companies come to recruit these days, that you don't need to be on the meal plan, you can just go to their recruiting events and get food there," he says.

Field says it's a happy coincidence the market wants what he loves to do.

"You can understand something that is much bigger than yourself, and I think that is the most interesting property of creating a big data application," he says.

Field plans to spend much of next year working at a big data startup called Flipboard. His ultimate goal, he says, is to start his own big data company.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a sector of the economy that's growing: data mining. Businesses accumulate much information about you and the world around you - online consumer behavior, millions of records of tiny changes in weather patterns, trillions of financial transactions. It all falls under the name Big Data. More companies are trying to use that information, and that is fueling demand for people who can make sense of the data - mathematicians. In the second of our stories about Big Data, NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on the recruitment war for math talent.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: DJ Patil is on a perpetual manhunt - and he's looking for a rare breed: someone with a brain for math, finesse with computers, the eyes of an artist, and more.

DJ PATIL: There's one common element across all these people that stands out above everything. And that's curiosity. It's an intense curiosity to understand what's behind the data.

NOGUCHI: Patil works for a venture capital firm called Greylock Partners. He compares raw data to clay; it's shapeless until it's molded by a gifted mathematician. A good mathematician can write algorithms that can churn through billions or trillions of data points and show where patterns emerge, patterns that indicated early on that moms were heavy users of online social networks, for example, which in turn led to the creation of social circles. DJ Patil says a good mathematician can figure out what matters and what doesn't in a huge trove of data.

PATIL: Everybody's looking for these people. 'Cause they know these individuals can move the needle all by themselves. They are that impactful.

NOGUCHI: Firms are going beyond offering piles of cash and equity to get these people. The CEO at TellApart, a company that helps online marketers profile its customers, invited one math recruit to dinner with other tech luminaries to sell him on the company. Another California firm, Cataphora, which helps firms monitor employee behavior, opened a satellite office in Ann Arbor so it could recruit from the University of Michigan's math department. Often, executives say, it's not just about money. They have to appeal to an ideal. David Friedberg says his company does that by touting the power of risk management to change agriculture. Friedberg is CEO of the Climate Corporation and he says crop insurance is basically non-existent in Africa and Southeast Asia. The ability to model changing climate patterns better, he says, means his company will be able to provide insurance to small farmers who otherwise might not take on the risk of farming more land.

DAVID FRIEDBERG: We can actually encourage agricultural development and provide a sustainable living for them. And that's one of the long-term missions of our organization.

NOGUCHI: The type of people drawn to this work aren't necessarily what you might expect. Greylock Partners' DJ Patil says his successful recruits have included an oceanographer, a neurosurgeon, as well as people who barely graduated high school but were brilliant at math. He approaches math majors the way baseball scouts for young stars.

PATIL: I have a list that I track. There's one student who I think is phenomenal I've been tracking since he was 16.

NOGUCHI: Seriously?

PATIL: Yeah.

NOGUCHI: That student is Dylan Field, now 19 and a junior at Brown University.

DYLAN FIELD: The summer of first grade, I found an algebra book and kind of dug into it, and that was really exciting for me.

NOGUCHI: Field says math and statistics are now the sexiest skills around. And his early aptitude and interest in math has become, literally, his meal ticket.

FIELD: The joke is that so many companies come to recruit these days that you don't have to be on the meal plan, you can just go to their recruiting events and get food there.

NOGUCHI: He says it's a happy coincidence the market wants what he loves to do.

FIELD: You can understand something that is much bigger than yourself, and I think that is the most interesting property of creating a big data application.

NOGUCHI: Field plans to spend much of next year working at a big data startup called Flipboard. His ultimate goal, he says, is to start his own big data company. Yuki Noguchi NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.