Tales of data mining

By Mary Brandel, Computerworld |  Software

In other projects, such as a direct-marketing campaign, the analysts know upfront what they're trying to predict. Then they develop predictive models to identify likely customers.

Either way, James says, data mining requires a varied background. "It's not just a computer science or marketing or statistics discipline," he says.

On any given data mining project, James says, you would want a staff that has a familiarity with statistical concepts; a thorough understanding of the business objectives; project management skills, especially in rapid development or research and development; and experience in large databases, data warehouses, online analytical processing and business intelligence systems.

"Sometimes, you're looking for all this in one person," James says. Other requisite skills include fluency with database access tools such as SQL, and programming experience with a data mining tool.

National City Bank uses several such tools, including SPSS Inc.'s Clementine, SAS Institute Inc.'s Enterprise Miner and Group 1 Software Inc.'s Model 1.

Salaries for data miners can range from $80,000 to $150,000. Higher salaries are typically reserved for people skilled in a hot tool or application, or with Web mining skills. Consulting fees for people with Web mining skills can be as high as $200 per hour.

For those with a graphical background, there will be a growing data visualization component to data mining. With the increasing amount of data available, it will become more important to display complex patterns in an easily comprehensible way.

But of all the skills that data miners should have, the most important ones are data analysis and business knowledge. "You really are flying blind if you don't know what you're trying to achieve for the business," James says.

Win Fuller, director of marketing analysis at Framingham, Mass.-based Staples Inc., a leading office superstore chain, agrees. "You need to know data mining techniques and how to use the tools," he says. "But it's more important to be able to distill that information into something that management can use."

Fuller, who has a doctorate in econometrics and seven years' management consulting experience, works with a system that contains purchase histories for 15 million customers. Another nontechnical part of the job, he says, is translating general requests from business managers into productive information, using his knowledge of the data available and mining techniques.

"Most people in upper management don't have a clue how you work," Fuller says. "Sometimes, you have to push back and diplomatically say, 'Yes, we can do that, but it will take 10 years,' or 'It doesn't make sense to do that.' "

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