Mastering Big Data

By Dave DeWitte

As the Big Data revolution continues to reverbrate through the economy, Corridor students and professionals are finding a growing number of educational options to prepare for the boom in data wrangling jobs.

Demand for data-oriented professionals has been climbing steadily the last few years, and skyrocketed in 2019, according to a February report from Dice, the job site for tech professionals that has major operations in Urbandale. Data scientists saw the fastest-growing demand of any career, with 50% more jobs advertised; other high-demand positions include senior data scientists and back-end developers, both up more than 30%.

The money’s good, too. ZipRecruiter reports that the average salary for data analyst positions is $67,121 nationally, and $63,920 in Cedar Rapids. For data engineers, the U.S. average is $112,133, while the Cedar Rapids average is $83,617.

Programs to train the next generation of Big Data professionals are being ramped up at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, both of which have added masters degree programs in business analytics in recent years. The UI already offered certificate programs and a bachelor’s degree in business analytics, while ISU added its bachelor’s degree in January.

The explosion in Big Data may be occurring outside of mainstream consciousness, but in the corporate world, it’s a tsunami. Data is the motivation behind the loyalty cards we’re asked to sign up for at convenience and grocery stores, and the cookies that websites attach to our web browsers.

“With all the companies tracking us via loyalty cards, posts on Facebook and the like, there’s a wealth of information about us, and companies are looking for the people who know how to comb through it and create value from it,” said Patrick Johanns, who oversees the UI’s part-time Master of Business Analytics program.

Enrollment in that program has more than quadrupled since it was first offered in the summer of 2015. About 300 students, almost all of them working progressions, are now enrolled in the program, which meets one evening per week at the UI’s satellite facilities in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and the Quad Cities. The pacing of the program depends on the individual, but typically takes three or four years.

In the fall of 2018, the UI launched a full-time on-campus Master of Business Analytics.

The program takes about 16 months, with students attending for one academic year before participating in a summer internship and returning for a final fall semester.

Enrollment in that program grew from 25 students in the first year to 40 in the second. The program is expected to hit the full capacity of about 50 with the third cohort of students now being recruited.

Enrollment has been relatively steady in the Master of Business Analytics program that ISU launched in fall of 2015, with a current enrollment of 46. ISU’s program is a hybrid of full- and part-time, and  designed for working professionals. Students come to campus for a one-week intensive experience, then take classes online until the next summer.

“We talk about our business analytics students as really being the data storytellers,” said Jackie Rees Ulmer, the associate dean in ISU’s Ivy College of Business who oversees its masters data program. “They have to be able to translate the really technical, statistical and quantitative into things the everyday manager can act upon. That’s something that, when we were proposing this as a major, our dean’s advisory council thought was critical – to really be able to tell that story.”

The occupational field is closely related to another – data scientist – for which ISU offers a graduate degree program. Data science is “very technical,” Ms. Rees Ulmer explained, noting that it involves “designing new algorithms for manipulating, storing and visualizing large amounts of data.”

Many organizations dealing with large amounts of data will probably want to hire both data scientists and data analysts, she added.

What to expect

The UI’s Tippie College of Business is just starting to get placement data from its first cohort of students in the full-time Master of Business Analytics program. Close to 80% of graduates have been placed, at an average salary of about $85,000.

Businesses in all industries are grasping the need to make use of the growing amount of data they collect during customer interactions, and creating new positions to extract value from that data, according to Sam Burer, George Daly professor of business and director of the full-time business analytics program at the UI’s Tippie College of Business.

Terms like “data wrangler” popping up in some job postings suggest that companies are still trying to figure out the job titles, descriptions and where they fit in the company’s organizational chart, Mr. Burer said.

Early graduates of the full-time data analytics program have landed positions with a variety of companies, from traditional consultancies like PwC to the parent company of Orkin pest control. Most students in the part-time program already have positions, typically in mid- or lower-level management, and are looking for additional skills for advancement or higher income roles, according to Mr. Johanns.

The programs are far from cheap, but getting an employer to pay for it may be less difficult than many other degrees. Mr. Johanns said many students in the part-time program have their tuition paid by their employers. The full-time Master of Business analytics programs is designated as a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which broadens the possibilities for STEM-specific scholarships, grants and financial assistance.

Capstone courses in the ISU and UI programs give some idea of what students can do with their newfound analytical skills.

One group of UI students is analyzing data generated from about 5,000 patients treated at UI Hospitals and Clinics in order to determine what categories of patients are at greatest risk of complications after surgery. Another group is analyzing data to determine what markets would make the best places for a self-storage company to invest in building new facilities.

Anyone who wants a degree in data analytics should like – or at least be able to tolerate – some heavy number crunching and programming.

Mr. Johanns says the UI’s classes include a probability and statistics course called Data Decisions, a data mining course called Data Science, and a higher level of the Data Decisions course called Advanced Analytics. Students take a programming course, where they can choose whether to program in R language or Python. They also take a course focused on Structured Query Language (SQL) that focuses on extracting information from databases, and the use of the data display tool Tableau.

“R’s been in the past the course more heavily in demand, and Python is on the ascent,” Mr. Johanns said.

Where to go?

Deciding where to begin an education in business analytics can be a matter of choice, circumstances, finances and academic background. The options include a certificate in business analytics, a Bachelor of Business Analytics, a Master of Business Analytics, or at the UI, a combination MBA and Master of Business Analytics program.

At ISU, “students can get the same coursework if they want to be a full-time student in our Master of Science in Information Systems program that has been available since 2002,” according to Ms. Rees Ulmer. She said students in the MBA program can also elect a specialization in business analytics, or pursue a joint MBA and Master of Science in Information Systems degree.

“We have a lot of flavors, but it’s really the same ice cream at heart,” she noted.

One of the reasons enrollment in ISU’s hybrid Master of Business Analytics program hasn’t exploded may be the admissions requirements, which remain strict. Applicants need a 3.0 undergraduate grade point average, and must have “significant experience with statistics and math coming in,” Ms. Rees Ulmer said.

Tuition for the full-time MBA program at the UI costs about $31,000 in tuition and fees for a typical in-state student. While employment opportunities are plentiful for students who pursue a bachelor’s degree in business analytics, the higher average starting salaries that come with a master’s degree in data often justify the additional investment, Mr. Burer said.

Most of the students in the full-time Master of Data Analytics program come from non-business undergraduate programs, such as engineering and math. The program doesn’t provide as much of a business background as an MBA, “but it’s a good grounding in business for a corporate job,” he explained.

One topic the Master of Data Analytics programs haven’t developed a curriculum for yet is data privacy, an area of increased legislative activity and growing public awareness.

“If things are going to cause the whole [Big Data] area to cool … it will be issues like privacy,” acknowledged Mr. Burer, who is aware of the use of facial recognition software and other data capture techniques that many view as intrusive.

The Master of Business Analytics program leadership has already had discussions with the UI College of Law faculty about how to approach it, Mr. Burer said – perhaps through a course on data law in the College of Law.

Nevertheless, Mr. Burer tends to think that Big Data and the need for data wranglers isn’t going away anytime soon.

“I think this will be pretty robust for another five or 10 years, and even after that I think these skills will be around,” he said. “They may cool off, but they will be around for a long time.”