Nate Silver & the Arrival of the Big Data Career

Nate Silver has a way with data. He’s known for being an innovator in interpreting, simplifying and translating complex data with accuracy. Not your classic rock star career path. Last week he made news when he announced his move from The New York Times to ESPN. The celebration of a data guy’s career move is a signal that the world is changing.  The day for a strategic and visible career in data has arrived and it’s an essential talent for any organization.

If you aren’t familiar with Nate Silver, he shook up the media’s conventional wisdom in the 2012 presidential election by using innovative analysis to interpret and predict the results with astounding accuracy. He plans to take his award winning website,, from The New York Times to ESPN so he can expand his analysis into the sports world, where his career started, and extend into other trends as well.

Nate Silver’s projections have gotten not only political circles talking, but he was also named one TIME’s most influential people. He is known for his ability to use data and information to predict likely outcomes rather than confirm what we or he already believed to be true.

What would fans do if he had told us at the start of the season that the Texas Rangers statistically had a .5% chance of making the playoffs? (Although, sadly for us Ranger fans, this example prediction is looking much more likely than it did just a month ago.)

Nate’s career story signals the career opportunity for data paired with valuable insights. Here are a few lessons:

Share stories not spreadsheets

One of Nate Silver’s gifts is his ability to tell a story of the future based on months of data collection and analysis.  This requires both an ability to know how to gather and consider information, but, more importantly, what to make of it. Nate Silver wasn’t the only one to accurately predict the past two presidential elections, but he distinguished himself by interpreting and telling the story about the meaning of the results throughout the election season.

In business, we need people who can translate data into a meaningful story so we can make informed and wise decisions about the future. As we speed into a big data world, this ability to interpret, simplify and translate is a highly valued skill with an ever increasing demand.

Be open to another answer

In the political world, we can often predict what will be said on any partisan programming before we even hear the words. This is because the narrative isn’t always fact based; it is influenced by the beliefs or hopes of the network or the commentator. In business, we sometimes are heavily invested in decisions that the latest analysis no longer supports. Do we move ahead because of a decision a year ago or stop and reconsider based on what the trend line and analysis tells us? Information is only as good as we let it be.

A colleague recently told me about a law firm she recently advised on their growth objectives. At first, they were focused solely on this year’s personal income and individual billing with very little analysis of the overall trends of the entire firm. Meanwhile, their total business showed that desired growth categories had dropped 40-50% in two years, yet they couldn’t see it in their individual silos. They had to be convinced that if they took no action, their business would look very different in 2-3 years. You have to be open to information even if it isn’t telling you what you want to hear.

Predict v. look back

Reports that share the past are commonplace in business and needed to see results. Yet, forward looking projections are much more valuable because we can act upon them and influence the future. Predictive analysis lets us look around the corner and anticipate tomorrow based on what we know and project today. This is an essential need throughout our business, not just the marketing department. Will our strategy fit tomorrow or just address today’s needs? It takes someone who can be that translator of relevant data.

Enable a star brand within a brand

The New York Times signed on Nate Silver and they allowed him to keep his own website and brand within their very traditional umbrella. Based on early reports, it appears that he will be able to do the same at ESPN. These big brands were smart enough to give Nate Silver space to be who he is and carry on with his innovative style of analysis and interpretation. It’s important to allow your new thinkers to keep their voice and fresh ideas even in big organizations. I am sure that this was a critical factor in attracting Nate Silver even to two of the most well known brands around.

Nate’s example is a signal that the days of hiding the data team in the corner are over. This capability is essential for utilizing all of the information we have today but often don’t know what to do with it. If you don’t have a plan to develop your future data rock stars, you may be left looking in the rear-view mirror.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and can be followed @pattibjohnson or her company @people_results.