Schafer: Go west? Big data fits nicely right here

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2013 - 8:49 PM

Fair Isaac Corp., the company known as FICO, recently described its motivation in moving its headquarters from Minnesota to San Jose, Calif., as a desire to get closer to the technical talent base of what is called big data.

But is it really necessary to move to the heart of Silicon Valley to participate in this white-hot field?

"When I saw [FICO's announcement], I thought, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" said Dan Atkins, an Edina consultant and a leader of the nonprofit group MinneAnalytics.

Atkins acknowledges that Silicon Valley has an edge in venture-capital-backed start-ups, but said "if you are talking about data science and technical skill and business culture, it's not really competition."

The term "big data" refers to the challenges of managing data sets so large that the conventional tools no longer work. Even smaller organizations have huge and growing data sets, with many more sources of data pouring in, from Twitter posts to sensors embedded in a fast-food drive-through lane.

As the data are expanding, executives' expectations for the kind of predictive information that it's becoming possible to extract are growing.

This is not a technology or concept confined to the start-up world of Silicon Valley. Every company of consequence in every region will need expertise to manage bigger data sets and come up with analytical tools to get at hard-to-extract information. And big companies in our region like Target Corp. are well down the road in managing big data.

Matthew Dornquast, the co-founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based Code 42 Software, made the point that moving to Silicon Valley wouldn't do much to alleviate any hiring headaches.

He said via e-mail that he had just spent two weeks there meeting with senior executives from big-data firms such as Lookout Inc., Dropbox and LinkedIn.

"One theme that immediately presented itself and persevered throughout those weeks was a severe shortage of big-data engineering talent," he said. "Demand for talent is at an all-time high. The relative supply is low. Competition is fierce.

"Code 42 has not experienced anything remotely similar to the challenges they face," he continued. "The talent pool is smaller. I would argue the relative available supply is actually better here."

Ping Li is one of the partners managing the Big Data Fund of Accel Partners, a global venture firm best known for its early investment in Facebook. He works from offices near Stanford University and admires the entrepreneurial culture of the Silicon Valley region. But Li said that his search for good investment ideas in big data is global.

That includes Minneapolis, where in early 2012 Accel made the first major investment from its Big Data Fund into Code 42, which backs up and protects data for consumers up to global enterprises.

Thanks to open-source software, cheaply available cloud computing capability and inexpensive hardware, "people are smarter in more places," Li said.

Interest in big data and data analytics is so intense right now, pretty much anywhere, that the Boston-based consulting firm NewVantage Partners recently reported that 94 percent of the large organizations it surveyed nationally thought that recruiting for a data scientist was either somewhat challenging, challenging or very difficult.

Six percent said it was impossible.

It's to the point that the Harvard Business Review last fall published a piece called "Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century."

Atkins is among those who would argue that the Twin Cities region is well represented in the field. He is a co-chair of a conference next Monday at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management called "#BigDataMN: Minnesota's Field Guide to Analytics." It has more than 840 registered participants and a growing waiting list.

Conference registrations reflect the interest in big data of some big local headquarters companies.

At last check, Medtronic was planning to send about two dozen people, UnitedHealth Group had about three dozen registered and Target had more than 50.

The demand for big data talent has the Carlson School proposing a new master's program in business analytics and data science, one of a number of educational initiatives to train students for good jobs in big data here, not in Northern California.

"It's not as if they're not going to be doing interesting things," said Ravi Bapna a Carlson School professor and the founding academic director of the University of Minnesota's Social Media and Business Analytics Collaborative. "That's the cool thing about our base out here. They will have access to the same set of challenges and opportunities."

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302

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