Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Practical Statistician-A Toolkit

I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of statisticians, mathematicians, data miners and econometricians (let's call them PEMD-persons extracting meaning from data, for ease) in my career. An observation I have often made is that while all of them know the tools of their trade, only a few eventually go on to become excellent practitioners or as I call them 'practical statisticians' in the industry. What is it that these experts have that gets them far ahead in their trade? A toolkit that helps them survive the real world journey. Here is the list of items in that toolkit:

Item #1: Pen and notebook (a thick one)-they carry this around at all times even to bed. This helps them make copious notes when others are talking and think aloud when they are structuring their thoughts, attacking problems and analyzing outputs. They guard this notebook zealously and get visibly upset if it ever gets lost or misplaced. They recognize that in order to streamline loads of work, manage their time well, analyze the problem fully and present the output lucidly without going insane they must structure their thoughts. Written matter is the key.

Item #2: Three books for reference and speed reading skills-one is usually about the software they are using, the other two are the best applied texts on most used techniques in their field and new emerging areas(which no one else has a clue about). They read many more research articles than other people (and yes they usually do that during their breaks or in their leisure time). If they don’t understand an article the first time round, they absolutely have to read it again and again till they do.

Item #3: Data dirty fingers-they execute projects no matter how high they rank in the corporate hierarchy. They recognize that leading from the front means ability to do the work at the back end especially when all hell breaks lose.

Item #4: Non-technical speak-they are able to communicate their ideas and statistical methods to a wide audience without using statistical jargon.

Item #5: Graphs-they like to graph data and get a sense of numbers visually. This ability to look at both numbers and graphs helps them get a finer sense of the data and what they don’t know and must find out from it.

Item #6: A good dose of imagination, critical thinking and skepticism-they function like detectives and for them most business problems present cases to be cracked. After the project starts they devote all effort in cracking the case oblivious to everything and everyone else.

Item #7: Mentoring and training calendar-unless they pass on their wisdom and how they put the problem, method and experience together, they know they will continue to do the same work over and over again.

Item #8: A broad view of their role -they define their role rather than let client's, coworkers and organizations peg them. They like their roles to be larger and ‘more whole’ not constrained by their degree and specialization.

Item #9: Practical adequate solutions-while striving for the best solution, they recognize that they may need to deliver less optimum solutions based on project constraints and client readiness.

Item #10: A passion for statistics-especially it's applications in different fields, and an understanding of what it can and cannot do.

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