At a Starbucks. Banging away for 12 hours at computer code.
No, I wasn’t trying to hack into some high-security government site, and it’s not for work.
It’s for a one-month Coursera course on R Programming, part of a larger Data Science specialisation that I’m taking. This particular piece of code was for a homework question that was probably only worth about 10 points.
So why did I spend 12 hours of my annual leave on a stupid homework question?
First, because it’s fun. Really. It’s an INCREDIBLE feeling to press “Enter” and have the computer do what you tell it to do:
Second, because I think data science is a super valuable skill to learn for the future. Allow me to explain.
Why Big Data Will Rule The World
I watched an episode of Silicon Valley recently. (If you haven’t seen it, go watch it – it’s geekily hilarious). In that episode, Gavin Belson, CEO of the fictional Hooli (an obvious parody of real-life Google) said,
“Data creation is exploding. With all the selfies and useless files people refuse to delete on the cloud, 92% of the world’s data was created in the last two years alone.“
But it’s not just limited to dumb selfies. Everything we do generates data: The purchases we make, the sites we visit, the Facebook pages we like, the apps we download, the places we go, the machines we use, everything.
Let’s say you search for last-minute flights to Hong Kong on Expedia, and close the tab without buying anything. Tomorrow, when you go to the Straits Times homepage, you might see a banner advertising cheap flights to Hong Kong. That’s called re-targeting.
Whenever you like a Facebook page, there are computer models that predict how intelligent you are – even if that page is dedicated to seemingly innocuous topics such as “curly fries”. That sounds like good, harmless fun – until you realise that there are companies who actually use this data to decide whether they should hire you or not.
Retailing giant Target famously figured out that a girl was pregnant before her father did. Based on her purchasing patterns, Target’s algorithms could predict which stage of pregnancy she was in – and sent her coupons for baby products.
So What Can We Do About It?
It’s cool to sit back and go, “Wow. This data thing is pretty cool. (And a little bit creepy).”
But think of the implications:
- As technology becomes cheaper, everyone will be scrambling to jump on the big data bandwagon
- Corporations (and the government) may soon know us better than we know ourselves – and make a lot of money in the process
- Skilled people will be needed to sort through the noise and make good, accurate predictions
Which brings me back to my programming assignment. It’s not enough to know Excel anymore – nowadays, people who deal with data use programming and new infrastructure to efficiently handle large datasets.
However, programmers are in short supply. Hardi Partovi, founder of non-profit Code.org, predicts that in the next decade, 1.4 million programming jobs will be needed, compared to just 400,000 graduates in the field. Demand will soon exceed supply.
Personally, I’m just a beginner. But everyone has to start somewhere, right?
Even if I never become an expert, some fundamental knowledge could still be useful in a career or in future projects. (Think about how a working knowledge of e-commerce was insanely valuable in the early 2000s, even for CEOs who weren’t directly involved in the programming).
Matching Your Skills To Trends
Maybe Big Data isn’t your thing. That’s cool.
The point of this post is to encourage you to ask yourself two questions:
- What big trends are coming our way?
- Do you have the skills to take advantage of them?
James Altucher wrote an excellent chapter on big trends in his new book. He hangs out with people like Peter Thiel and Mark Cuban so I’m pretty sure he knows way more than I do. A couple of other trends that he sees coming:
- Biotech / Healthcare (people are getting older but sicker)
- Robotics (robots already fight our wars – and will do even more for us in the future)
- Financial technology (think cashless payments, or the next version of bitcoin)
- The temp workforce / the sharing economy (think Uber and Airbnb)
Here’s my point: it might not be enough to learn general “business skills” anymore. Since it’s not hard to learn them (and many functions will soon be automated anyway), I’m guessing that the wages for generalists will soon be squeezed downwards. We’re already seeing that happening.
Instead, the people who will do well over the next decade are those who have the specialised skills to match the coming big trends.
But here’s the good news: It’s never been easier to learn a new skill. Sites like Coursera, Udemy, Code.org, and Khan Academy all make it possible for anyone to learn for free or at very, very low cost.
Big Trends are coming, whether we like it or not.
What can you do today to prepare for them?
Image credit: ricardo_ferreria
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