Data Science Boot Camps

Business Insider recently ran an article “Here’s what you should know about those 99% job placement rates at ‘coding bootcamps’— some of which boast $100,000 exit salaries” warning readers to be cautious about the job placement rate claims of coding bootcamps. The article noted that the Department of Education has started a pilot program for student loans for coding bootcamps, which frequently charge $10-20,000 for intensive coding programs lasting a few months. This article discusses data science boot camps, a particular variety of coding bootcamp that claim to prepare students for a lucrative career in the hot new field of “data science.”

What is data science?

In many respects, data science is what used to be known as statistical data analysis. This is nothing particularly new. The insurance industry, for example, has had actuaries to analyze risk data for centuries.

The proliferation of the Internet, smartphone apps, and a range of cheap sensors including accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers (compasses), image and video cameras, gene sequencing machines, and many other types of sensors has produced an explosion of data to analyze. Both established companies and venture capital firms have funded large numbers of projects and companies to analyze data seeking new ways to make money and creating thousands of new “data scientist” and similar positions.

Is there a shortage of data scientists?

The management consulting firm of McKinsey and Company, amongst others, has reported a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with analytical expertise and 1.5 million managers and analysts with the skills to understand and make decisions based on the analysis of big data. Nor is McKinsey alone in these claims. The Bloomberg article Help Wanted: Black Belts in Data (June 4, 2015) echoed the McKinsey claims.

However, these statistical data analysis skills are widely taught in various forms in many different Ph.D., post-doctoral, and academic research programs including physics, biology, medicine, electrical engineering, statistics, actuarial science 🙂 , and other scientific and engineering fields. Most of these fields produce far more Ph.D.’s than there are permanent positions in the field. Consequently, there is a large supply of highly qualified people for data science positions and the competition for these positions is fierce.

Waiter to Data Scientist in Three Months

A few months ago the New York Times published an article “As Tech Booms, Workers Turn to Coding for Career Change” by Steve Lohr (July 29, 2015). This article highlighted the case of Paul Minton: After a three-month course in computer programming and data analysis, Paul Minton, a former math major, moved up from waiting tables to a job as a data scientist, earning more than $100,000 a year. Minton graduated from a data science bootcamp at Zipfian Academy, recently acquired by Galvanize.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Minton has a B.S. in mathematics from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a GPA of 3.31. Minton also lists Relevant coursework: Probability 400, Statistical Theory 400, Applied Statistical Methods, Linear and Abstract Algebra, Analysis. At many colleges and universities in the United States, a 400 level course is an advanced undergraduate or graduate level course. A first year probability and statistics course would typically be something like Probability and Statistics 101. Paul Minton is not your typical waiter.

This strong mathematical background is representative of data science bootcamps at present. In fact, many data science bootcamps require or strongly prefer students with advanced degrees, notably Ph.D.’s in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

Many of these highly qualified bootcamp students would be strong candidates for a data scientist position without the data science bootcamp. However, there is little doubt that a good data science bootcamp can round out their education in a short three month period, providing key industry skills they may lack or that may need some improvement. There are a number of “data science” tools such as Hadoop that are popular in the nascent data science industry but largely unused in academic research programs; a bootcamp can provide quick training in these tools to students who already know how to use similar but different tools. The steep $10-20,000 price tag may be worth it for these highly qualified students.

Results May Vary

The more common waiter with only a high school diploma, GED, or even no high school diploma or equivalent at all will likely have different and poorer results than Paul Minton from a three month data science bootcamp. For example, ending up $10-20,000 in debt from student loans with no high paying job and no reasonable prospects for a high paying job that could pay off the student loans. The United States has largely eliminated the bankruptcy protections available for student loans since 2005 raising the specter of a debt peonage system theoretically forbidden by the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Conclusion

Job seekers considering a data science bootcamp should carefully evaluate the qualifications and background of bootcamp graduates who secure high paying positions as well as their own qualifications. The value of a $10-20,000 bootcamp session lasting a few months for students who are not already well qualified is doubtful.

© 2015 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at jmcgowan11@earthlink.net.

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