How Do You Find Data’s Next Masters of the Universe?

This article was first published on 18 October in Data IQ by David Reed. Many thanks to him.

What do you do when you run a service company and sometimes find you can’t provide your clients with the service in question? If the problem is internal resources, you can always hire more staff. But what if the service in question is providing staff to clients and you simply can’t find them?

That was the position which MBN Solutions found itself in several years ago when asked by blue-chip brands to help build their data and analytics capabilities. “We got frustrated going back to clients with bad news that the skills set they wanted was difficult to find, that the right people didn’t exist, that competitors were paying more or we were just unable to find the candidates they wanted,” recalls Robin Huggins, head of business development at the people solutions, recruitment and search business.

Against the backdrop of the financial meltdown, an opportunity started to present itself out of this difficulty. With major recruiters, such as Government, banks and management consultancies, out of the market, a space opened up in which to promote the possible career paths into data and analytics.

“It became apparent that where intervention was required was at the education level. What if we could talk to undergraduates about what they were thinking of doing at the end of their courses and ask them, do you know about this industry? That could help to reduce the skills gap in the industry by finding fantastic graduates, rather than having no candidates,” says Huggins.

By coincidence, Huggins got a call from a candidate he had placed who was doing a MBA at Oxford University. Having had other industries present on career opportunities to course members, he suggested it was time they heard about data and analytics. Huggins recalled a recent conversation about just such a possibility he’d had with James Morgan, then head of business intelligence at O2, and together they gave a “tag team” presentation. “I explained from my 15 years on the frontline of recruitment about what they should and shouldn’t do in interviews, while James told them what jobs in the sector are really like. It went down really well,” he says.

Cambridge University’s employability team read a tweet about the event and promptly asked for the same thing. Huggins obliged, this time with Channel 4’s Sanjeevan Bala, and a new initiative was born – taking the data and analytics industry out on the road and in front of students with the in-demand skills.

“That was the beginning of the model and one side of what we now do,” says Huggins. Last week he presented for the second year at the University of Hertfordshire, where he spoke last year alongside Capita’s analytics director, Neil Mackin, and has also recently given a session for students at Regent’s University, London, with Adrian Kingwell, managing director of Mezzo Labs. The combination of frontline practitioner insight and expert recruiter tips has not just been a hit with students, it also plays well with the employability teams in academia. Competition for candidates in tertiary education, combined with the expectations of those students about what a degree will do for their careers, means institutions need to do more to make that connection.

Huggins notes that, “we have found that we can speak with credibility about what we do and what organisations do and don’t want when they are hiring. It also needs the data practitioner to talk about what the work actually involves.” Huggins recognises that it can be hard for those practitioners to get a day out of the office. But he believes the payback does come down the line when one of those students graduates and comes looking for a job, or via the word of mouth about having seen a great business to work at. “Visibility of the industry is a key issue because what this sector does can often not be seen from outside,” he adds.

His role now has two extra challenges – the first is to maintain the momentum of engagements with universities, keeping data and analytics high on the employability agenda; the second is keeping up the flow of practitioners willing to give up their time in order to speak to students. He argues that this end-point is in part the answer to the start-point of struggling to find job candidates.

“One of the questions I ask clients is, what are the universities in their catchment area and who are the course leaders? Often, they haven’t spoken to them – that represents a major opportunity,” he says. If recruiters benefit by getting good staff, the benefit to MBN is a simple commercial one from making placements out of an expanded prospect pool. But Huggins says the effort he is making to build bridges between commerce and academia also has a bigger purpose: “It creates a community and puts data and analytics on the map.”

Further evidence of academia’s new understanding of the potential market for skilled analysts can be seen in the expansion of The Data Lab’s MSc to 90 places, from 40 last year. MBN has been appointed to find the industry partners where masters students will undertake placements to gain real-world experience. Scottish universities are also introducing a growing number of relevant courses, such as the big data and data science for business masters at University of Stirling.

Huggins believes England is playing catch-up in this respect because there is no centrally co-ordinating body like The Data Lab working to make it happen. “My next challenge is to take this model to places where there are a lot of data-driven businesses located near university centres, like Bristol, London and Leeds-Bradford,” he says. It is a big task, but one he believes is both possible and necessary. In any case, Huggins recalls, the task has got easier: “The first couple were the hardest – now we have set a benchmark and that draws in heavyweights who want to take part.”

Robin Huggins