Big Interest in Big Data

The data is in: business analytics skills are in wide demand, and even history majors can (and should) investigate

August 15, 2019

From his perch as associate professor of clinical data sciences and operations and the academic director of Marshall's MS in Business Analytics program, Abbass Sharif can truly say big data is having its moment.
Demand for data skills is on fire. Students from across the university are registering for classes in business analytics, and the topic is in the core curriculum for both undergraduate business and MBA students.
Marshall's 18-month Master of Science in Business Analytics program has grown dramatically since it was first offered in 2014. For the incoming class, Sharif and his hardworking team, which includes staff and four other DSO faculty, sifted through more than 4,000 applications. The admissions rate? A daunting 8 percent.

"If we wanted a class of only strong numbers people with 750 GMAT scores, we could easily do that," he says. "But we've found that bringing in a diverse class yields a better outcome for everyone."
By diversity he means not only race and gender (and please note the program is 55 percent women), but also students who aren't coming from a quantitatively heavy undergraduate experience. In other words, history and psychology majors are just as welcome as engineering and econ majors.
"Data science problems are open-ended," he said. "An engineer will look at it differently than a historian. But the solution will be richer when they learn from each other. It's never a matter of who's better at math.
"It's a mix of everything, because that's the field."
Companies across industries vie for his students. Students in the MSBA degree program conduct in-class and out-of-class consulting projects for a variety of firms, including Farmers Insurance, the City of Los Angeles, NBCUniversal, USC Marshall and the LA Galaxy, to name just a few.
"We learn from the companies themselves what they are looking for in terms of skillsets," says Sharif, adding that the program has added specialty classes to address those requests. Those classes include the popular Text Analytics and Natural Language Processing (17 people on the waiting list) and Fraud Analytics.
The interest in learning to work with data is only growing. With Marshall gearing up to host DataCon LA 2019, a gathering of more than 2,000 data enthusiasts, on the USC campus for the third year, Sharif says his program's emphasis on business, statistics and computer science is a distinction in high demand.
"Companies want people who can read and interpret the data, of course," he says. "But what they really want are people who can read the data through a business lens."
Click for more information about DataCon LA, Aug. 17.