Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Opportunity Everywhere You Look

"Everywhere you look, there's an opportunity to collect more data and then apply a statistical or mathematical approach to understanding what's happening," says Chris Kemp, chief executive officer of Nebula.

This quote comes from a recent two-part series on NPR’s Morning Edition about what they call "Big Data." It’s what we call our raw material, or more aptly, our bread and butter. And it’s everywhere.

It looks like this picture will stay just as rosy for quantitative specialists for at least the next ten years to come. What a wonderful position to be in to start the New Year!

We’re feeling pretty lucky to be part of an industry that is enjoying such stability and growth, able to weather the ups and downs of what is likely to continue to be a volatile economy. We rejoice in each of your successes, and encourage you to hone your skills, stay hands-on (even at senior levels), and learn everything you can. Make plans now to attend an industry conference (or two) next year and continue to network at every opportunity.

Wishing you and your family all the best over the holidays and in the New Year to come.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Holiday Job Hunting

The holidays are a busy time for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you should put your job search on hold. In fact, Thanksgiving through New Year's presents many unique advantages that aren’t available at any other time of year.

For 15 years, ever since I read “You Might Be Able to Get a New Job for Christmas” in the Wall Street Journal, I’ve been trying to debunk the myth that job hunting is futile after Thanksgiving. As the article notes, “In reality, job hunting can be easier during the holidays.”

Though the job market has changed during that decade and a half, holiday job-hunting realities have not. Just last December, when the economy was in the early stages of recovery, US News and World Report called the holidays “primo networking time” and a “golden opportunity”. This is especially true for quantitative candidates. Here’s why:

You’re in demand — Our clients have openings and are hungry for the best quantitative candidates, and that hunger does not let up over the holidays.

Candidate volume is lower — Because most people erroneously believe that the holidays are a bad time to job hunt, they put their resumes away until after the New Year. Fewer inappropriate resumes flooding decision makers’ desks mean that yours is more likely to get the attention it deserves.

Hiring managers are under pressure to be fully staffed by year end — Often, departmental budgets that have made room for new hires will evaporate at the end of the calendar year, so hiring managers feel pressure to use it or lose it.

Companies want key players in place to jump-start the New Year — Most of the strategic planning has been done for the next 12 months, and department heads want their teams set and ready to implement those initiatives in January.

A general business slow down means more time — for you and for hiring mangers. Fewer work pressures mean that hiring managers can concentrate on you. A more lax schedule means more time for you to arrange interviews discretely, without interfering with deadlines.

Offices tend to be more casual and welcoming — People are generally in a happier, more generous mood at this time of year. Take advantage of the holiday spirit.

Perhaps the most important reason to start now is that the job boards and HR inboxes will be flooded with resumes after the first of the year. Don’t squander six weeks of prime interviewing time only to have your job hunt buried in a tsunami of New Year's resolve. Use this joyful time of the year to your advantage. And if we can help you plan your holiday strategy, please let us know.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Little Different Point of View

I see things a bit differently than the rest. I spend hours on the phone every day, talking with my candidates, clients, and industry leaders. My thoughts on the quantitative market are unique, as I'm removed enough from the thick of things to gain an overview. I wanted to share my most recent observations...

The year has been busy, and shows no sign of slowing down.

  • The number of quantitative positions open due to churn in the market is now matched by the number of new roles being created by new companies in new verticals. At Burtch Works, we are seeing growth in many service, technology, and consulting organizations. Companies are either adding to their analytics staffs, or creating new analytics groups in order to meet the increasing demand for data insights.

The Corporate Hold

  • It seems as though the only groups not hiring are large corporations (with the exception of retailers). Especially in the CPG and Pharmaceutical industries, corporations are tending to sit on the sidelines rather than add to their quantitative staffs. Corporations are historically not successful in developing a long-term career path for the quantitative professional. They tend to be more inclined to leverage suppliers and consultants.

The Consulting Option

  • Many quantitative professionals are finding the consulting option to be attractive. In the last two years, consulting firms of all sizes have rapidly expanded. The challenge is that these positions generally require high levels of travel. Later stage professionals are generally more open to considering this move, while people with young families (in their mid-career stage) are often unable to make the commitment.

Retail is Hiring

  • As mentioned, retailers are agressively building analytics staffs. Shopper Insights has become integral to decision making, and retailers have embraced customer centric marketing. This trend is partially driven by dunnhumby, and their decade long quest to lasso loyalty data. New groups are emerging, and are eager to build their teams.

Salaries are Changing

  • This year it has been very challenging to recruit quantitative candidates with one to five years experience. The recession severely restricted entry-level hiring from 2008 through most of 2010, resulting in a dearth of early career talent. So when early career professionals with solid experience come on the market, they have many options. At Burtch Works, we often see a 20% plus increase in their base salaries. Mid to late career professionals do not have the same negotiating power, and are seeing more typical bumps (10%).

The quantitative job market continues to evolve and grow. Churn continues to plague organizations, but conversely, it creates opportunity for candidates to expand their experience and advance their careers. Startups are back, new groups are being created, and layoffs have (for the most part) abated--all making for a very robust market for the analytics professionals.

As always, I welcome your comments and insights. Thanks for keeping in touch.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Fix Our Math Education

Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford think they know How to Fix Our Math Education (NYT, 8/24 Op Ed): "The truth is that different sets of math skills are useful for different careers, and our math education should be changed to reflect this fact." I think they miss half the point.

Here's the other half: jobs. Even with an unemployment rate of over 9%, there are plenty of jobs available. My clients are begging for talented candidates with strong math backgrounds. Enhancing math education with practical tools is fine--as far as it goes--but a rigorous math foundation through high school is vital for continued study in the quantitative sciences, and should be encouraged because this is where the jobs are.

Fixing math education must begin in elementary school. Inspiring, motivated primary teachers who also love math will foster that love in their students right from the start. There is a history of math phobia that gets passed among students (and teachers). At the high school level, many students take only the math required to graduate or get into their college of choice--treating it as something to get through that they will never use in "real" life.

These scare tactics steer students away from math, assume abstract thinking is irrelevant and perhaps most detrimentally, teach students to avoid anything that seems difficult. Our real world is filled with complicated problems--problems that will only be solved by those prepared to tackle the hard stuff, to persevere, and to work to understand the unknown.

Maybe the problem starts with how we teach our teachers and the minimal level of math mastery required of our early educators. For example, University of Illinois School of Education offers an undergraduate degree in preliminary education that requires only seven credit hours (of 125) in math education.

The current assumption is that basic math is boring and that you can always use a calculator. It's not enough to know how to calculate a mortgage or to buy or lease a car. If students don't have math facts down cold, they won't advance in math. It's interesting to note that our Japanese exchange student, a high school junior who excelled in math, had never been allowed to use a calculator in Japan.

According to Garfunkel and Mumford, "It is through real-life applications that mathematics emerged in the past, has flourished for centuries, and connects to our culture now."

Real life--life where even college graduates are having trouble finding jobs--requires us to prepare our students for the careers that will be available to them in the foreseeable future. In real life, nearly everyone who studies math or its related disciplines such as statistics, operations research, economics, engineering, and computer science will find jobs after college. This is not necessarily true of English majors.

We need to embrace math, to challenge our students to relish the ability to solve difficult problems. Requiring our primary teachers to pursue a strong education in math would boost their own confidence in teaching and inspiring young minds. Most students choose not to continue in math because they lack the foundation, passion, confidence, and interest. This is our failure. Instead of telling our children "you'll never need math", we should be telling them that this is where the jobs are.

Math is our future.

Monday, June 13, 2011

As you have likely heard, LinkedIn's shares more than doubled in their first day of trading. Business growth may be sluggish in other arenas, but it is booming for today's social networking sites. LinkedIn alone has more than 100 million members, and has revolutionized the way people communicate--especially when it comes to networking. It has transformed the market for job seekers and employers alike, turning casual "keep-in-touch" requests into full-blown networking opportunities. Gone are the days of grabbing your trusty highlighter, and sitting down at the kitchen table to circle jobs in your local newspaper. Also fading in popularity (and effectiveness) is the act of searching the job boards for your next opportunity. Today's career search has evolved into something far more public.

Many people may be hesitant to join social networking sites, fearing over-exposure, unprofessionalism, etc. I understand those hesitations and sympathize. LinkedIn however, serves a different purpose, and has a decidedly different social agenda. It is a burgeoning source of information. The site structures its profiles like resumes and attracts the attention of job seekers (and companies looking to hire), spurring the market (which is already inclined towards attrition) to change.

LinkedIn's biggest attribute is its transparency. It offers many channels with which one can leverage contacts and inspire opportunity. What makes LinkedIn such a valuable tool is its ability to connect you not only with the contacts you already have, but more importantly, with the people you need to know. The site provides a rundown of employees currently working at any given company, listing by degrees of separation, who knows whom. It even gives the seeker the option to request an introduction from colleagues more directly connected to the person he/she is looking to meet. This gives an additional layer of credibility to the average request. In short, LinkedIn is your Rolodex-- in hyper speed.

The site's usability goes far beyond the job search, however. Your profile can be used not only to network, but to new avenue for communication overall. LinkedIn is a forum for exchanging ideas, and asking questions. By joining the site's groups, you are instantly connected with a faction of (assumedly informed) professionals in any given field. If used to it's potential, LinkedIn becomes a new professional community.

Your responsibility in "linking in" is to do so considerately. Keep your profile current. Join groups, find colleagues, and reconnect with past contacts. Be careful, however, not to abuse its capabilities. It can be a fine line between capitalizing on LinkedIn's functions, and over-saturating the site.

LinkedIn is an exceptional resource, both as a tool for seeking new employment, and simply as a new channel for everyday interactions. My advice is to use it wisely-- network, post, and dig. Get your nose out of the paper, and your name on LinkedIn.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Buried Under Data

There are times in my life when my “to-do” list trumps my “done” list so completely that being “overwhelmed” doesn’t begin to describe the situation. I’m forced to explore other options:

1. Find a twin to split the duties?
2. Consider cloning?
3. Wave a white flag, and take a nap?

So far I’ve opted to simply buckle down and tough it out (it’s only my email inbox, after all), but I don’t know what I would be tempted to try if I found myself in the situation The New York Times shed light on with their recent article, New Ways to "Exploit Raw Data May Bring Surge of Innovation, a Study Says."

Due to the integration of sophisticated computer tracking systems by businesses across the industry spectrum, the data pool is deeper than ever. The information collected is greater in not only numbers, but complexity, breadth, and influence. It is exciting to think of the potential advancements and innovations on the horizon once this data is analyzed. The actual process of getting the job done, however, is what’s daunting.

As it turns out, there just aren't enough analytically-minded individuals capable of handling the heaps of data harvested. One estimate given is that the amount of business data doubles every 1.2 years. The good news for statisticians is, their pipeline is guaranteed. The bad news for those of you looking to employ these individuals is that there is a large gap in the amount of work to be done, and the number of statisticians with the "deep analytical skills" necessary to do it. The article quotes that the US will require 140,000 to 190,000 more capable people to adequately handle the amount of data that will need to be analyzed. I don’t know where these savvy people are going to come from—the quantitative work force simply isn’t there.

The quantitative market is already so tight (it always has been). This rise in raw data is going to cause that pressure to build tremendously. As encouraging as it is on one hand to see the industry advance, it’s more than a little overwhelming (and ominous, frankly) to know that there simply aren’t enough people to satisfy the need.

No easy answer for this one.

More information from The New York Times can be found here:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The more detailed data you have to draw from, the more informed your business decisions can be, and the more profitable your business can become. Old news, I know, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded that analytics are relevant-- vital even, to the success of commerce.

A recent article in The New York Times claims that companies who implement "data-driven decision making" are five to six percent more profitable than those that rely on other factors (even those who choose to invest in technology). A five percent lead may sound minimal, but it's significant in today's market.

It takes a bit of time for the data to reduce down from meaningful patterns to actionable insights. The benefits of analytical input are only visible after the company has had time to adopt the new methods realized through analysis. It takes time then, to analyze the analysis, and what we're left with are visible results, a decade in the making. Regardless of the time frame, the reaction is worth it. Companies across the industry spectrum are investing in analytics, creating a noticeable boost in the number of positions available for statisticians and their cohorts.

Statistics are a key to growth. You may have known it all along, but it's good to see the masses do the math.

To read more about data-driven decision making, check out this New York Times article.

Monday, March 28, 2011

2011's Number One Game - Musical Chairs

Forces are building rapidly that will result in this year being one of the biggest for employee turnover in decades. Historically, there is a significant and natural increase in employees leaving current employers as the economy gains momentum and more job opportunities open up. After years of job insecurity, reduced or no bonuses, salary freezes or cuts, benefit reductions, and budget squeezes, employees are once again in the driver's seat - and they are on the move.

Itchy feet are natural during the course of a long career. People want to broaden their skills, take on bigger challenges, and be able to cultivate their professional networks. They crave an environment that will provide those opportunities. We are now on the upside of a V-shaped recovery for quantitative employment and, in addition to a significant increase in new jobs, we are seeing a tremendous increase in natural churn. This presents an enormous challenge for staffing in our quantitative specialty, as well as in all technically-based professions.

What can quantitative managers and human resources people do to stem this flow? Some ideas:
  • Money isn't everything - but let's face it, it's important, especially early in a career where personal demands of a new marriage, home purchase, and growing family push all the financial buttons. If you froze compensation during the recession, reverse or reinstate salary increases and bonuses and get things (at least) back to normal.
  • Make your employees more marketable - counterintuitive, right? Quantitative professionals hunger for opportunities to use the best tools and to stay abreast of the latest research in their fields. It's essential to promote these opportunites continuously to your staff, or risk losing them to more attractive experiences.
  • Feedback, especially constructive criticism, is welcomed. Yes, really. People always want to be recognized for what they are doing well, but they also want to know how they can be and do better. Quantitative managers can be wonderful bosses, but sometimes are not the best at delivering helpful criticism. Get over it - it's essential for growing and developing your staff.
Shifting economic tides require flexibility, vigilance, and the ability to look ahead. But you don't need a crystal ball to plan as the economy rights itself. All you really need is a little common sense. Attrition is a natural consequence of an upswing, but you won't lose all your best players as long as you consider what they need to stay happy, challenged, and motivated.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Math Education + Quantitative Job = Career Satisfaction

Few individuals in this world aspire to earn the title “geek”, but that may be soon to change given the Wall Street Journal’s listings of Best Jobs of 2011. As it turns out, analytically-minded individuals are thriving in their positions as Actuaries, Accountants, Statisticians, and Mathematicians. In fact, they very well may be the most satisfied working professionals out there.

The Jobs Rated report was developed to determine which careers offer the highest sense of gratification for the majority of workers in each profession. The ranking is determined by several criteria: work environment, physical demands, outlook, stress, and income. The best overall work situation in 2011 (meaning the highest ranking in the aforementioned categories) goes to the Software Engineer - not exactly in the statistical realm, but still reliant on a firm mathematical background. But scrolling down the list just a bit, it's important to note that Mathematician ranks number two, with an excellent hiring outlook. Actuary comes in a close third, followed by Statistician at number four. That's three of the top five rated careers belonging to math majors, each with excellent hiring outlooks.

A few years ago, I welcomed you to my dining room table for a little table talk. Back then, the conversation centered on the kids’ standing in the social hierarchy of our local high school, with my math geek son clinging to the bottom rungs of the social ladder. I was thrilled to be able to boost his self-esteem by quoting this article’s conclusions.

I’m equally thrilled to inform him once again (and you all as well!) that the mathematician’s ranking stands. Even more importantly, I’m happy to note following a career path in mathematics could very well lead to life-long fulfillment. When you find a career that offers opportunities to do what you love, work is not work. For those of you who have already chosen the quantitative path, your long-term prospects are looking good.

For more information, please click here:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Snowstorms, Snowshoes and Anecdotal Evidence

Becky, snowshoe racing in Wisconsin.
Note the hat: it's Packer spirit wear;
she'll be cheering Greenbay during
Sunday's Superbowl.
Well, it’s here — the Snowstorm of the Century has hit Chicago. I’m not quite sure how significant that is in a century that’s only 11 years old, but we’ve definitely got accumulation, with some serious shoveling and treacherous driving conditions. My kids are thrilled to have a snow day — the first in our school district in decades.

Chicago averages about 38 inches of snow a year, but for three years running we’ve topped the 50-inch mark and it looks like we’re well on our way to a fourth. Lucky for me, I thought to bring my snowshoes home from our last visit to our farm house up in Wisconsin, where we have plenty of room to practice snowshoeing.

Recently, our family has taken up snowshoe racing on during weekends up north. Snowshoes were developed in Central Asia around 6,000 years ago, but they’re still pretty new to us. We’ve been having a lot of fun. In a race a couple of weeks ago, out of a field of 140, Jay came in first overall; Becky, Jackson and Doug also medaled. I managed to finish … without falling.

Statistically, of course, the results of a single race aren’t that important, except for bragging rights around the dinner table. Four years of above average snowfall don’t really mean much statistically, either. In our industry, these results would be called anecdotes.

There are a couple of famous quotes that make the rounds about anecdotal evidence. The first is attributed to Raymond Wolfinger, professor emeritus of American Politics at the University of California, Berkeley. In response to a student’s dismissal of a simple factual statement as a “mere anecdote”, Wolfinger responded: “The plural of anecdote is data.” In the second, the quote has been bastardized and more often represented as “The plural of anecdote is not data.”

But Wolfinger was right. Anecdotes are stories. Data collection is meaningless unless you understand the story it represents. As quantitative specialists, you are the interpreters of data — you tell the stories so the data make sense to your audience. That’s your job. Here at Burtch Works, we want to help you make sense of the marketplace. That’s our job. Please let us know if we can help.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Having the Data is Not Enough

For people in our industry, numbers have a life of their own. We get excited when data show us new trends, patterns and possibilities. But most of the world does not view this information in the same way. In fact, believe it or not, most people think of statistical data as dry, unfathomable, even boring.

This presents quantitative experts with great opportunity. You are the bridge between the dense forest of information on one side and hungry consumers on the other. The better you are at translating raw data into interesting, usable, vital information, the more valuable you will be in the marketplace.

This four-minute video was part of a BBC documentary on The Joy of Stats. In it, Swedish academic "superstar" Hans Rosling (the man who said "I kid you not, statistics is now the sexiest subject on the planet"), shows his enthusiasm for bringing statistics to life. As he says: "Having the data is not enough. I have to show it in ways that people both enjoy and understand."

Now, maybe you'll never have a media team at your disposal that can help you pull off the production values of the BBC, but you can use Rosling's enthusiasm as inspiration. Everything you do to improve your communication skills and hone your ability to translate dry statistics into accessible information will add value to your resume.