#DataYou: Joe Gonnella

Looking for a degree that would combine his love for statistics with practical data skills, Joe Gonnella was part of the first cohort of undergraduate students to undertake Napier University’s BSc in Data Science. As part of the #Data You series, DDI Skills Gateway spoke to Joe about why a degree in data science will equip him with the data skills he needs for the future world of work.

Having developed a passion for statistics at school, Joe Gonnella initially tried studying a pure science – such as physics – at university. But he quickly realised that it wasn’t for him and after a break from full-time education, he started looking for another degree again.

Whilst researching the career paths associated with a statistics degree, Joe noticed that job advertisements for data scientist roles kept on reappearing.

“I didn’t know what a data scientist was and so I looked into it. It’s a very good blend of statistics, which I already love and practical skills like computing, which is really useful and would make me employable.

I immediately thought, this is made for me!” explains Joe.

With Scotland emerging as a world-leading technology and data hotspot, the demand for workers with good data skills has never been greater. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) estimates that there are currently up to 234,000 potential data roles that need to be filled. Yet the DCMS also reports that 46% of businesses have struggled to fill roles that require data skills.

In order to equip students with the data skills and knowledge that organisations and companies are increasingly coming to value, the Data Skills in Universities programme – a strand of the DDI Skills Gateway – is working with Scottish universities to design new data centric degree courses and embed data skills into existing courses.

With that in mind, Edinburgh Napier University has introduced a BSc in Data Science to its curriculum, with the first cohort of undergraduate students starting in the 2020-2021 academic year.

Attracted by the unique combination of theoretical and practical learning, Joe was part of that first group of students to take the degree:

“The degree itself is a halfway house between a vocational degree and a pure science degree. You do a lot of practical learning but some of what you’re learning is very theoretical” he says.

In the first year of the degree, Joe explains that students are taught the foundations of data science. Alongside courses in low level programming, Joe did a maths course for software engineering and a human computer interaction course.

As the four-year degree progresses, the courses will become more specialised with a particular focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Whilst Joe’s love of statistics continues to endure, the programming elements of the degree have proved to be more challenging.

“I’m slightly different from most data scientists because I didn’t have much prior knowledge or experience of programming. I had done some coding before the degree but not a lot. I therefore found the low-level programming hard to grasp initially” he explained.

But the focus on cementing foundational data skills before more advanced topics are introduced, means that computing and programming backgrounds aren’t essential for the degree.

“The first courses are the basics, so some students found that quite difficult because it was slow at the start. But then it ramps up very quickly, especially the programming courses. But if I can manage it, then anyone can – I had no IT experience at all” Joe adds.

As well as equipping students with theoretical data knowledge and practical data skills, the variety of courses that students undertake reflects the interdisciplinary nature of data science.

Joe explains that in the past, companies might have employed four people to do what one data scientist now can.

“Traditionally companies had a computer scientist, a statistician, a software engineer and a business executive. But data science really combines all of those roles into one.

Data scientists need to have business knowledge, knowledge about what to do with the data, how to analyse and collect the data and a lot of programming knowledge. So it really is an amalgamation of different fields” Joe says.

Looking to the future and using his data skills in the world of work, Joe emphasises the opportunities that Edinburgh’s thriving technology ecosystem presents for individuals with good data skills.

“Edinburgh has a lot of employment opportunities for people like me with data skills and knowledge because of organisations like Skyscanner or Blockchain Technology Partners. There are also huge global companies like Amazon and Deliveroo who are advertising data roles based in Edinburgh” Joe says.

In the past, with undergraduate data science degrees hard to find, companies used to prioritise candidates with postgraduate data science degrees. But with Edinburgh Napier University’s new undergraduate BSc in Data Science providing Joe with advanced and interdisciplinary data skills, he hopes it would be possible to move straight into a job. The course also integrates work by finding paid placements with local employers, including an optional one-year sandwich placement.

“The course is great because I enjoy learning about lots of different things. So if you are like me and you don’t want to box yourself into something too early before you know if you like it… then definitely do a degree in data science” Joe says.

“You will find something you like, and you will learn fantastic data skills – there is no downside to doing this degree!”



Data you Jo Gonnella

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