Big data helps drive math Ph.Ds to IBM

Big data , and the need to analyze data that’s collected from every interface and sensor imaginable, is increasing the demand for people with statistical and mathematics backgrounds.

The range of companies hiring people with mathematical skills of some type is on the rise, and it is a trend that prompted a top IBM official this week to boast about its hiring.

“We are the largest employer of Ph.D mathematicians of any company in the world,” said Steve Mills, senior vice president at IBM and group executive for software and hardware.

Mills was speaking at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference on Wednesday about big data and some other IT trends, but mostly he was talking about the need to create information of value out of the torrent of big data.

Whether IBM is truly the largest private employer of Ph.Ds is not something that Richard Cleary, a professor of mathematics at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., can easily verify. He’s an author of the annual survey of Mathematical Sciences in the U.S., which looks at the employment status of mathematics graduates. It is a project undertaken by four mathematical groups, including the American Mathematical Society.

But Cleary said “the demand for big data has certainly made a huge difference,” in interest for people with mathematical skills, particularly for those who have a background in statistics.

At the investors conference, Mills explained how IBM’s investment in real-time data analytics works. It begins with a proof of concept to show certain patterns in maintenance work at a power utility, for instance, and how changes in preventative maintenance could deliver a return on investment in months.

But proofs of concept can take months, and in one instance, with an oil company, it took two years. “Two years of persistence,” said Mills, “and we are now doing 44 oil platforms in the North Sea as a result of proving that we could do it on one.”

Mills said if IBM can do analytics for a power grid, it can also do them for a water supply company and transportation system. They all intersect, he said, “We build a knowledge base one on top another.”

IBM is investing in areas such as astrophysics, weather forecasting and genomics “because of the intersections and overlaps with our core business,” Mills said.

“In many cases it is the same math, it’s not like someone has invented new fields of mathematics,” he said.

At one time, the major employers of mathematicians were insurance and pharmaceutical companies, Cleary said. But there is a growing range of companies that are hiring people with mathematical training, including marketing firms and companies that use CRM tools.

“I’ve seen people being hired by grocery chains,” Cleary said. “That didn’t use to happen.”

Students who are in particular demand are those who combine some quantitative skills with business, computer science and other disciplines, Cleary said.

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