Booz Allen Hamilton

Kirk Borne

Principal Data Scientist

“Let’s roll up our sleeves and work together, and we can bring in expert people and great hardware, systems and services. But we’re here with you, doing it.”

Why did you choose Booz Allen?

I became aware of what Booz Allen is doing in the data science space about two years ago (2013), when the group here released The Field Guide to Data Science. I’d been very active in the area for quite a number of years. I said to myself, “Wow, these people really have it together—they really get it.” I’d known about the firm for many decades, but I didn’t realize they were doing this. Upon interviewing, it became obvious that the organization is passionate about this, they truly believe in it, and they’re heavily investing in it. The decision to join Booz Allen was all centered on the competencies and enthusiasm of the people. Data science is a profession here, not a job. It’s not a thing to do, it’s a way we do things.

What excites you about working in data science?

It’s all about the discovery potential. I worked at NASA as an astrophysicist for 18 years before moving to George Mason University. In the last 15 or 16 years, I transitioned from being a traditional astrophysicist to being a full-time data scientist. That transition was triggered when I realized that the volumes of data we were collecting at NASA were beginning to skyrocket by factors of thousands over previous experiments. Then I noticed the same thing was happening in other fields outside the sciences—in business, government and healthcare, national security, marketing, retail, you name it. I became enthusiastic that the skills that I learned as a scientist analyzing data could now be transferred to all these other disciplines. It was amazing that I could have a conversation with people and be able to share insights and develop solutions even though it wasn’t my field.

Discuss a career highlight.

I really started digging into data mining about 15 years ago when we were seeing this massive growth in data at NASA. I put together a website on data mining resources, and on the site I had links to a lot of other people’s work—white papers, reports, software, etc. About a month after 9/11, I got a phone call, and the person said, “Can you brief the president tomorrow morning on data mining?” The first thing out of my mouth was, “Do you mean THE president?” He did. I wondered, “Why would someone consider me an expert? I just have a website that points to other people’s work, I don’t know anything profound.” But I realized what little bit I did know was actually a lot compared to other people. For me that was a big revelation that this field was so new and so important, and yet there weren’t a whole lot of people doing it yet.

How do you help your clients be ready for what’s next?

I try to stay on top of trends in the field and where that’s taking us, and I share those insights on Twitter and my blog. I also frequently speak at conferences, where people are constantly discussing what’s next for business and government in big data. I’m being constantly exposed to this drumbeat of how, where, and why data science and analytics are changing the ways in which we conduct our business. Everyone has their individual day-to-day needs, but when you hear people talk about their big strategic needs—where they’re going in the next 10 years as a federal agency—that’s when you want to pay attention. Booz Allen wants to partner with agencies and commercial clients to meet their major strategic needs over long periods. So you really want to listen when people talk about that, so Booz Allen can step right up and say, “We can do that for you.”

What differentiates Booz Allen from other technology companies?

The focus on management consulting is a strong component of Booz Allen’s portfolio. A lot of technology companies I’ve worked with are often selling a product. Booz Allen’s product is its people and their expertise in consulting, as well as providing the services and technology to make the businesses, agencies, and organizations successful. It’s not about, “Let me install this piece of hardware for you with a three-year service agreement, goodbye and have a nice day.” Instead, it’s, “Let’s roll up our sleeves and work together, and we can bring in expert people and great hardware, systems and services. But we’re here with you, doing it.” That’s the big differentiator.

Why is Booz Allen an ideal firm for someone with expertise/skills in your field of work?

The unique thing is the investment Booz Allen has made in strategic innovation. It’s ideal because this is a world-class enclave of hundreds of data scientists. Younger people like being here because they’re rubbing shoulders with people who have many years of experience in this field, who they can look to as role models and mentors. And the more experienced folks can (and do) learn a lot of new ideas, approaches, and skills from the younger staff too. Part of my role is to be a mentor and advisor for the more junior members of the staff and provide strategic leadership. Booz Allen has a range of people who are talented in many areas, but may not have as many years’ work experience with clients. I have 30 years of work experience with clients. It all ends up being a nice mixture of talents that make Booz Allen successful.

How are you working to build the next generation of data scientists?

It’s exposing the next generation to the promise of data science. When I was advising Ph.D. candidates at George Mason, many students were already full time employees elsewhere. They were talented, skilled, successful people already. But where they were lacking was seeing where those skills could be used to solve specific societal, business, or government problems. Knowing that your work can have an impact in all these areas is what people tend to miss when they’re just taking a programming course in college. They can write cool code, but the next step they need is applying it to solve interesting problems. Bringing that forward means showing the value and impact of the problem sets that are out there that are really interesting. It’s not just the facts you’re learning; it’s what you do with those facts.

What type of skills in your field are needed to be successful at Booz Allen?

Soft skills involve the three C’s: creativity, curiosity, and communication. As a data scientist, you need to want to find solutions to problems, but also be able to communicate the result, meaning, and significance to a decision maker. Unless the person is a statistician, they’re not going to understand what P value means. The landscape of required hard skills is constantly evolving, but it includes statistics, machine learning, as well as database skills—knowing how to organize, access, and model data to make it searchable and easily retrievable. For me, it’s not about specific programming languages. Students need to have “literacy cubed”: data, computational, and statistical literacies. You need those aptitudes and talents first, and then you can go learn any programming language skill that you need to solve your problem. But there’s no point in trying to learn a language until you understand what it is you’re trying to solve, and why.