While It’s Compiling: Skills Matter interviews Rob Witoff

For an insight into this week’s Big Data eXchange at Skills Matter, we caught up with keynote speaker Rob Witoff. Until recently the first ever Data Scientist at NASA, Witoff recently took on a new position as Head of Data Science at Coinbase in San Francisco, the biggest Bitcoin company in the world. Passionate about finding new ways of looking at the world through the data generated today, Rob Witoff told us about working with technology world-leaders at NASA, the story-telling abilities that are vital for his job, and his excitement about being part of today’s fast-moving Bitcoin space.

Rob Witoff

Some might feel overwhelmed by the amounts of data that you have to analyse and understand for your job. What is it you love about it?

What I love about this job is that there’s a surplus of information that has been collected all around the world, and I think in that information is a lot of truth. There’s a lot that you can empirically understand and take a look at, sometimes for the first time, by being the first or helping other people to be the first to explore all this information that we’ve collected. So I love the ability to find new insights and new ways to look at the world around us.

Can you list the obvious reasons why mining insight out of the data we produce is so important?

It’s important for a few reasons. Initially, because we want to be able to learn from the mistakes and the exploration we’ve done in the past…And the data that we’ve collected comes in many forms. A lot of information that was previously meaningless for us, we can now take a look at again with more modern tools and we can learn something from what we’ve already uncovered. It’s really important in my job today at a startup because we are building a tool for consumers, and having millions of them, its hard for any one of us to really know what’s happening out there. So by taking a look at the data and empowering all the experts here to quantify their assertions, lets us run more effectively as a company.

When did the importance of bridging the gap between data and insight become clear? When did people start understanding its value?

I think that value is found individually. There’s nothing new on the surface about analysing the data we’ve been collecting. I don’t think there’s a professional business or person who hasn’t been actively looking at some part of their data for the last several decades. I think what’s new today is when people can see information they’ve already looked at be presented in a new way. That usually has some visualisation element to it, but it often is merging multiple data sets that are personally related to either you or your career or your job or your interests. And when you see those new connections start to form and say “Now that I’ve learned that from my data, I can really change the way I’m doing something or I can work more efficiently”, that’s when it starts to hit. I think that journey typically will start with some kind of data visualisation that you can immediately connect with.

What are the skills a good data scientists needs?

You need to be creative, you need to have a wide breadth of technical skills, and you need to be good at telling a story. It’s not just the data that we’re looking at – we’ve been looking at data for a long time – but its your ability to look at that in a new way, combine it with new insights and help convey it to someone in a way that they’ve never seen before.

As the first IT data scientist ever to be hired at NASA, why did they hire you and what did you do there?

The IT data science programme started when our chief technology officer at the time, Tom Soderstrom, was taking a look at what’s new in technology, what’s coming next. He noticed this trend of a lot of information that we had been collecting – and I think that NASA has one of the most interesting treasure troves of data anywhere in the world – and he then saw this new influx of technology that’s coming from startups, from an open source community and from other companies that are being built solely around data today. And he realised that there’s this opportunity to take the data that we already have, take these tools that are becoming available and bring them together to provide a new service to all of the experts around NASA. Walking around (at NASA), you come to appreciate that almost everyone you meet is a world leader, an expert, or far skilled in something that is hard for anyone outside of their domain to really appreciate. And so when we were able to provide more data, more interesting data, different kinds of data to these experts, along with the tools to really drive insights from it, there was a tremendous opportunity and I really think we provided a lot of value. It wasn’t about one individual problem or one individual technology, it was about bridging that gap between all the data we had and all the expertise that we had inside the organisation.

Why did you make the switch to Coinbase after less than 2 years?

I’ve always been quick to point out that working at NASA was absolutely a dream job for me. The ability to work around such expertise on such large problems but still to be able to work with a team that could really have an impact there, was absolutely phenomenal and I’m really proud of everything we did there. But looking at my background before I joined NASA, I was in startups. I had started a company in Silicon Valley and was really interested in what we could create from scratch. We brought a lot of that startup feel into NASA, really valuing the ability to work fast and work with agility. And in this space, I started to see a new trend of entire industries being built upon the data that was now being shared with the world. And I think Bitcoin was one example of one entire ecosystem that’s really built upon an open data system, and so with my background in startups, being able to move towards an entire industry that’s being built around open data and working with a fast paced Silicon Valley team (at Coinbase), let me work in a more fast paced environment, in a completely brand new field. So its still to be determined where the Bitcoin space directs itself, but I’m excited to be a part of that direction.

While It’s Compiling is a continuing series of interviews with experts across a range of bleeding-edge technologies and practices, exclusive to Skills Matter. Be sure to subscribe to this blog for future interviews, or follow us on Twitter.

Find out who we’ll be interviewing next, and get a chance to put your questions forward with the hashtag #whileitscompiling.


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