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A view from the chief analytics officer

The chief analytics officer is the newest data-focused executive. One financial company's CAO sizes up the state of analytics.

For Joe DeCosmo, analytics is no longer fit for IT. The chief analytics officer at online financial services company Enova says analytics is about way more than technology, which is IT's traditional domain.

"Data has historically been more of a technology function and existed in the IT area," he said. "Most companies are realizing that management and collection of data needs to be joined together with the analytics and handled and managed as one group."

At Enova, DeCosmo leads a team of 40 analysts and BI workers. The team, which was recently reorganized out of IT into its own unit, has responsibility for internal reporting as well as developing data analysis engines that determine, for instance, how loans should be structured given customers' characteristics.

Because Enova is an entirely virtual company dealing with data as one of its main products, it is well positioned to lead the charge toward a modern analytics structure. There is plenty of debate about which area of a business should have ownership of analytics, but for DeCosmo, there's no question. In order to innovate, analytics needs to stand on its own.

One area where DeCosmo and his team are pushing the envelope is in their use of open source tools. DeCosmo said they use SAS and Wolfram quite a bit, primarily for developing the framework of their main analytics engine. But a lot of the heavy statistical lifting is based on or performed in open source tools. Most of the algorithms developed are initially written in the R programming language and a large number of recurring jobs run in Python. Enova uses applications developed in the Ruby on Rails framework.

Joe DeCosmoJoe DeCosmo

DeCosmo said it's important today for the company to be building around open source tools because they offer plenty of functionality and will be even more prominent in the future.

"The interesting thing is that as we hire more people coming out of school, more and more of them are skilled in the open source technologies," DeCosmo said.

But finding the right people is always a challenge. There has never been greater demand for workers with quantitative skills. There is considered to be a shortage of skilled workers just as more and more businesses are trying to rely more heavily on analytics. DeCosmo said this can be a problem.

"The competition for analytics talent has never been greater at any time in my career," he said. "The truth is by the time we talk to a candidate they probably have conversations with three or four other potential employers. People looking at us are also looking at the Googles and the Facebooks and the Amazons."

DeCosmo said the way Enova solves this problem is by promising candidates the prospect of contributing meaningful work. At the larger tech companies he mentioned, a data scientist may have to put in years before they are allowed to work on mission-critical projects from the start. But DeCosmo said he tells candidates they will be contributing on day one.

Even faced with that ongoing challenge, DeCosmo said he relishes the position he's in as chief analytics officer. It gives him a chance to do more than if he were in the more traditional chief data officer role, which he said is more of a technology-focused job. He also is happy to be working for a company that is forward-looking when it comes to analytics.

"I'm fortunate because Enova's a place where data and analytics have been at the executive table from the beginning," he said.

Ed Burns is site editor of SearchBusinessAnalytics. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @EdBurnsTT.

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