Guest Column: January 2021
“WHAT DO I DO WITH ALL THIS DATA?”
If that’s your question, the first thing to do is call ACDS
EVERY BUSINESS HAS data, but relatively few companies are truly harnessing its power. How about you and your business?
As ACDS works with employers throughout our state, we hear lots of questions about data. “Is my data accurate?” “Do I have the ‘right’ data?” “What do I do with all this data?” “What story does my data tell?” The relatively new term data science means different things to different people, and this lack of common understanding creates confusion and challenges for company leaders and decision-makers. Even those who want to leverage their data may not know where to start.
ACDS was created to be a catalyst for building the state’s data science capacity, and in that mission, education is a critical component. This was the driving force behind a new program that ACDS is just rolling out and that I’m spearheading—“Data Science as a Service,” or DSaaS for short. The idea is to help more and more Arkansas employers learn about the value of their data and how it can be leveraged to help their businesses grow.
When we designed DSaaS, we asked ourselves: How do we educate employers about the value of data science and data services, while also building their own internal capacity? This is critical, because companies that can truly leverage their data will become more profitable, in turn creating jobs and more demand for tech talent. And if we can help employers build that capacity internally, then it becomes systemic and sustainable, which maximizes returns and minimizes long-term costs.
So, step one was educating employers as a means of boosting the need for data science workers. Then we decided to take it one step further: Instead of burdening employers with the job of finding, hiring, and training their own data employees, we said, “Why don’t we provide data analyst apprentices as part of the process?” That way the apprentices are learning at the same time the employers are. And while the apprentices are getting paid to learn about the company and the skill sets required, the employer is also receiving immediate contributions from these employees-in-training. So at the end of everyone’s learning and growing together, the hand-off from ACDS will be seamless.
ONCE WE CAME up with the concept of DSaaS, we had to figure out how to effectively implement it. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to employers, either in their understanding or their needs, so we knew we had to be flexible. We viewed the first few ACDS DSaaS clients as our “pilot” phase, and we went into this process prepared to learn, adapt, and change based on what the companies need.
What we came up with is a multi-phased process, starting with the “Discover and Assess” phase. During this period, we meet with key stakeholders at the client company to learn about the business, understand the current environment, and identify key challenges. It’s a lot of listening, followed by some back-and-forth dialogue to drill deeper into key areas of interest.
In phase two, we identify several small projects, or experiments, that will allow us to tangibly demonstrate the impact of data science on the business. It’s a form of “show and tell”—we use data science to address a real issue in the business, providing real impact. This helps stakeholders begin to realize the power of their data and how it can shape the business going forward.
And now we enter the third phase, the Data Management Plan or “road map phase.” We work with the client company to set goals, and the road map outlines the necessary projects over the next 12, 18, or 24 months in order to achieve those goals. Once we’ve identified those particular data projects, we can better articulate the impact of the business, along with the resources needed: “Based on these projects we’ve outlined, your data team will need to consist of these particular data resources.” It will likely be a combination of data scientist, data engineer, and data analyst support.
Once we’ve settled on the data resource team the client company needs, we then work with them on capacity, or resource, planning. This may include cross training current employees, hiring new ones, or a combination of the two. For data analyst roles, ACDS will be able to provide talent through the data analyst apprenticeship program.
But we also have a plan for more senior level talent. Data scientists and data engineers are in extremely high demand, are hard to find, and are often more expensive than what a company may be ready to hire. In these cases, ACDS will provide “fractional data SME support.” This allows the client company to “hire” members of our data science team on an as-needed basis—a few hours a week, say, to lead, mentor, and guide the company’s in-house resources or projects. This allows the company to build its capacity from the ground up without requiring a large investment right out of the gate. And yet it can still leverage the needed subject matter expertise throughout the process.
SO WHAT COMPANIES is this new data science service aimed at? Clearly, we’re not going to be working with the Walmarts of the world. Those big companies in Northwest Arkansas—Walmart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt—not only understand data science, they already have the teams in place to maximize the value of their data. We’re also probably not going to be helping the really small guys, the three- and four-people shops. We believe the sweet spot will be those small to medium-size companies who have enough volume to see that “pop” from integrating data science into their processes.
Since last fall, we’ve been meeting with manufacturing companies, defense contractors, commercial builders, healthcare providers—in general, companies that aren’t tech companies but nevertheless generate a lot of data in what they do. They’re just trying to get their head (and hands) around how they consume it and how they can leverage it. There are a lot of those kinds of companies in Arkansas.
Our vision is for ACDS to become a go-to provider of data science support services in the state. We’re not going to be competing with Acxiom and the like. We’re all about building capacity within Arkansas-based companies, helping them do what they do better. When they have a data need and they’re not sure where to turn, we want them to turn to ACDS for guidance—because with us they know they can get talent, subject matter expertise, and support for as little or as long as they need.
In 2021, we expect to begin working with six to 12 new companies. And our goal with each one is to work ourselves out of a job—to help these companies become so tech- and data savvy that they don’t need us anymore. And what about the apprentices that we integrate into their systems? Once the companies are ready to do this on their own, we see those apprentices staying within those organizations, growing, and ultimately leading their companies’ data functions.
From an economic development perspective, we see DSaaS as an important program to help Arkansas-based companies grow. Through data, companies can become more efficient, produce better results, and increase profits, leading to new tech jobs in the state. And since talent is king, we also believe this program will help attract new companies to the state. Our goal is create an ever-flowing pipeline of tech talent all across Arkansas. And we’re off to a great start.