Statistical Data Analysis

Rant: Re-Booting Boot Camp

In the UK, Rackspace and Hortonworks, among others, are supporting a Science to Data Science (S2DS) boot camp.

It’s a five-week course, aimed at PhD students with science and mathematics backgrounds. The idea is that they’ll be put through their paces by drill sergeants and emerge as hardened data science commandos. Once they’ve earned their green beret they can go into any silo of information, no matter how unfamiliar the terrain or dangerous the platform, and liberate the insights being held hostage there.

Those of us familiar with boot camps — or at least with the documentaries about boot camps — might be puzzled by this form of training. If the film makers are to be believed then boot camps look pretty grim establishments for learning. There seems to be lots of shouting and swearing and endless inspections of your living quarters.

The instructors on these shows always say they have to break down the recruits, in order to build them up again. So they’ll regularly burst into your room at five in the morning and inspect your belongings before finding some minor fault and flinging all your personal items across the room and calling you all kinds of horrible names they’d never get away with in an office environment. Is that what you want, data scientists? I can’t hear you! I said, IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT???

Boot camp often involves running 20 miles with a full pack on your backs. Presumably this would be the entire range of Data Analytics instruction manuals that have come on the market in the last 12 months. If you could get them all into your rucksack it would probably weigh about 20 kilograms. Take it from someone who has attempted to read them – the best use you’ll ever get from some of these doorstep-sized cut-and-paste jobs is to use them as ballast in your rucksack. Or for doing step-ups.

Of course, not everyone will be up to such a grueling yomp, so there will inevitably be a high dropout rate. There always is at boot camp. Some get injured, some demoralised, some just realise they can’t stand the pointless bullying. So when you start the course, a group picture will be taken. And as each person drops out, their face will be blacked out from the portrait.

That seems a funny way to go about teaching people analytical skills. It would be alright if data analysts regularly had to kill people and needed to be toughened up – mentally and physically — for mortal combat. But I’m not sure the office politics are that bad in most research departments. Have you ever had to slot anyone in the course of data analysis? Oh, sorry, I forgot, we’re not supposed to ask you data squaddies that question.

Why is everyone mad about boot camps all of a sudden? There doesn’t seem to be any crossover between the military and analysis of data. A few years ago, people were being sent on SAS-style outward-bound courses, in order to prove their management skills. If there were any similarities at all between office management and Special Forces, surely there would be a quid pro quo, and Andy McNab and co. would be spending a week in accounts, to pick up valuable skills. But they don’t, do they?

The reason why boot camps are popular at the moment is that a series of documentaries have brought the process of basic military training to the public eye. There’s a documentary on Channel 4 running at the moment, Royal Marines Commando School, which follows candidates through the selection process for this crack squad of amphibious troops.

This is just the latest of many. As soon as any format is on TV, everyone seems to want to copy it as a means of ‘engaging’ students.

Dragons’ Den, where entrepreneurs show off their ideas in an attempt to raise backing, has had a terrible effect on the IT industry. There was a time when no public gathering of IT industry people could take place, without someone organising a Dragons’ Den style embarrassment. It was usually as buttock-clenchingly awful as that moment when someone gets their guitar out at a party. Sometimes it was as bad as the original programme.

Which awful TV-inspired trends will the IT industry copy next? The X Factor? Big Brother? The Eurovision Song Contest?

Actually, it’s already happened. Microsoft UK has run a channel partnership training scheme based on a Saturday night TV format. The theme? Strictly Come Dancing. Well, it takes two to tango I suppose.

I said it takes two to tango! You horrible little man! Now give me 20 press-ups!


Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology.


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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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