Simon Zhang is a former brain surgeon, but that’s literally the last thing you’ll find on his LinkedIn profile.
Until March, Zhang was LinkedIn's director of business analytics, having worked his way up through a variety of positions in data science and business analytics since joining the careers social network in 2010.
But when interviewing in 2010, Zhang removed mention of his spell working in brain surgery, removing hundreds of cancers at China’s Tianjin Medical University Cancer Hospital and Institute as irrelevant.
It turned out that this was exactly the kind of experience LinkedIn was interested in, however, and he only copped to it when pressed to account for the gap in his career. LinkedIn wanted somebody used to processing lots of data from different sources and trying to fathom meaning or insight. LinkedIn calls this gift the ability to “tell stories” – something it sees as more important than just crunching numbers.
LinkedIn has a lot of data – acquired from the merger of companies, generated by members’ updates and housed in profiles on aspects like education going back decades. Finding patterns in that for sales or to spin into new features demands more than simply the ability to crunch numbers.
He was hired as a business analytics senior data scientist Zhang – who left LinkedIn in March to form his own analytics start-up, now in stealth mode – and almost immediately set to work building tools to help sales and partners.
Zhang wasn’t a solo hire. LinkedIn recruited half a dozen or so doctors, economists, physicists, experts in bio-informatics, sociology and anthropology to fill similar roles. Why? Because of a skills shortage and pressure, due to a lack of data scientists in general, but especially in LinkedIn’s home turf of the Bay Area, home to Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter just to start with.
With new IT areas such as machine learning and Big Data gaining traction, it’s no surprise that employers are facing desperate skills shortages for niche areas. But a healthy pipeline of computer sciences graduates is doing little to allay fears about the recruitment challenges ahead and the dearth of skills – even across less niche technologies – is forcing employers to cast the recruitment net wider.
Closer to home, British Gas recently took on an ex-NASA data scientist to move its smart thermostat Hive Active Heating project towards commercialisation.