Big data drives big expectations what the universities can offer and the industry should be ready to provide

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By Tong-Ming Lim- PhD at UM Multimedia Unit

Big data applications have created a lot of opportunity to the universities as the demand from the industry rises rapidly. The article “India’s high demand for big data workers contrasts with the scarcity of skilled talent” published by TechRepublic, reported that the demand for talent in big data analytics has grown to an all-time high, but talent in big data is very insufficient. In an interview by the Computer world, – SAS MD Mr. Andrew Tan pointed out that big data’s growth has jumped a 29% in the last twelve months. Several key questions that are answered, include, what are the skills and knowledge that a big data scientist should have, what are the requirements a big data scientist should have so that the industry is happy to employ and how to entice more young talent to be interested in big data analytics. The expectations of the industry include analytical and technical big data analytics skill, domain knowledge and strong people and communication skill. However, these answers and expectations are not easy to achieve because without the close collaboration between the universities and the industry, good talent will fail to reach from the university to the industry. A recent dialog between the Institute of Higher Learnings (IHLs) and the industry represented by the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDec) was a good platform where experts from both IHLs and industry exchanged their thoughts and expectations. To fulfil the expectations of the industry, there were a few key points shared by some of the participants in this meeting which the IHLs have extended to the industry. They include opening up data to share with the universities so that projects and domain knowledge are not hypothetical and trivial, close involvement of academics from the universities with the industry using cross learning approach on the industry’s expectations and university’s needs, and guest lecturing by the industry domain experts with the academics in the IHLs. In addition, practitioners from the industry must invest time with the course designers in the IHLs to contribute to the content of the subjects taught with the desired knowledge and skills embedded in the syllabus to ensure that students are able to deliver what is needed to the industry.

It is clear that graduates from the universities with analytics skills and knowledge have not been able to meet the level of proficiency dictated or expected by the industry. Expectations from both the IHLs and the industry must be met and fulfilled in order to yield what is intended. Matt Keep, product manager at database firm MongoDB reiterated that “Big data analysis requires three core skills – computer science, analytics and statistics – as well as domain knowledge, blended with strong communication skills. Often these skills exist across different staff members, so you need to bring them together as a team.” Both the academics and the industry acknowledge that hard skill is crucial whether it is analytical or technical, however, soft skill such as presentation, communication and documentation are equally important. It is recognized that the universities are able to offer the fundamentals required by graduates such as knowledge on statistics, programming and machine learning whereas the industry must be ready to provide sample real world datasets, domain knowledge and problems to be solved to the courses in the IHLs. The issue of skills gap faced by universities and industries seems to have resolved in the dialog session at MDec.

Implementation of such alignment is a challenging one. MDec is ready and happy to take it up as the coordination party to nurture the big data analytics in Malaysia. The outcome of the university-industry alignment allows the nurturing of talented professional to fill the talent issue faced by the industry. MDec will undertake the implementation of the needs of the universities and industries in the very near future to kick start the new big analytics talent alignment. However, several key challenges still persist. Firstly, how fast and willing is the industry is ready to do what is needed remain unanswered. Secondly, MDec, being a governmental body, always faced with the issue of slow in implementation of plans, has to speed up the implementation pace to keep the momentum going. Lastly, universities are always faced with syllabus approval bottleneck with the academics quality agency where in many occasions any major overhaul on the programme would take up to more than 3-6 months before implementation detail can be planned and executed at the IHLs. These are the challenges that lie ahead of the implementation journey.

Big data analytics talent shortage is also quite a serious issue faced in the recruitment of academics staff in IHLs. Talent with PhD qualification prefer to work in the industry. The Industry always pays very well and this has attracted analytics talent to stay with the industry. Overseas academics in the area of analytics are not easy to come by too. One of the challenges is the high expatriate salary package and the other is their short-term contract. Most of them prefer to teach-and-visit a particular IHL for short-term period. This doesn’t help the development of analytics talent in Malaysia even though this is a good and viable transitional solution while Malaysia is developing and implementing its system and policy in this area. We hope the collaboration between IHLS and the industry can grow at a faster rate with the help of MDec to cope with the Big Data analytics needs of the various markets in the not so distant future.

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