Big data is a term that covers a lot of ground involving the application of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. If you’re interested in big data in Boston, you’ve chosen the right place, as the city ranks among the leading technology hubs in the country.

Big data is less a career field than a series of tools and techniques used to extract valuable information from vast data sets that is used in many different careers and industries. As noted by Boston College MS in Applied Economics faculty Esin Sile, “The term ‘big data’ is somewhat abstract in that there is no formal definition of the field. However, there are several data careers that fall under this umbrella.”

One of those is applied economics. The Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College offers a Master of Science in Applied Economics that combines the technical skills needed to use big data as well as the soft skills needed to succeed in a leadership position.

Big Data in Boston

The integrated circuit may have first been invented in Dallas, and Silicon Valley has become the center of the tech industry, but Boston ranks among the top tech cities in the country. It has a rich history, with the Route 128 area becoming the home to early tech companies that worked hand-in-hand with the many research universities in the Boston area. Boston ranks among the Top 10 metropolitan areas for jobs in “computer and information technology research,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Matt Bentley, founder and chief scientist at Growth AI and CanIRank, said that “when it comes to these big data jobs, the current demand drastically exceeds the supply.” He said that those with the right skills and experience will have their pick of job opportunities for both established, large companies and startups in the Boston area.

But what skills are needed to succeed in big data in Boston?

Technical Skills

The curriculum for Boston College’s Master of Science in Applied Economics program offers insight into the skills needed to work in big data in Boston. The program emphasizes both a high-level of technical skills as well as refinement of soft skills that allow students to advance.

In a recent webinar hosted by Boston College’s Woods College of Advancing Studies on the issue of working with big data and AI, two industry experts who also actively contribute to  Boston College’s MS in Applied program said that the right skill mix is very important. On the technical side, Razvan Veliche, director of data science at Analysis Group and faculty in the program, said that “it’s sometimes the case that people have skills in business analysis but not necessarily data science or AI.” He said it’s helpful to know coding and computer platforms, but the most important aspect is “how to think around data and literally think of data as a Playdoh.”

John Arabadjis, former managing director at State Street, and a member of the program’s Advisory Board, also participated in the webinar. He said those who plan to leverage big data need a “grounding in statistics,” adding that people can have a sound foundation in coding and scripting “but without a good statistical basis, you could be led astray.” Arabadjis also said experience is important, noting that “data in the real world is filled with holes and mistakes” and that graduates must learn how to handle those situations.

Soft Skills and Experience

When it comes to skills beyond the technical, a graduate degree program can set a student on the right path by teaching them soft skills. This is an area that is constantly being improved on as graduates move into the working world and gain experience.

In the webinar, both participants emphasized the need to be able to translate often complex ideas to professionals (including executives and board members) with no background in big data, math, or coding. “Probably the most important skill to have outside of technical skills is the ability to communicate,” Arabadjis said. He added that many graduates and those with some experience will have spent time working on technical skills but “maybe not a lot of time writing or speaking.”

Both also expressed that being good at collaboration is key, as no project is done solo. Veliche said managers need to create an environment where project team members and employees feel they can freely express the pros and cons of any idea.

It’s a challenging set of skills but highly sought after, especially in the Boston area. Those who want to use big data in Boston can take a smart first step by entering a graduate degree program that teaches both the technical and soft skills needed to succeed.