Data scientists vs data analysts: Why the distinction matters

As a relatively new – but already highly sought after – position, it can be hard to know where Data Analytics ends and Data Science begins. Is it science? Statistics? Programming? Analytics? Black magic? Or some strange and wonderful combination?

Luckily for us, Thomson Nguyen is here to help. In this quick 10 minute presentation – given at last year’s Extract San Francisco – the CEO and Co-founder of Framed Data clearly outlines what makes a true Data Scientist and discusses how they differ from a traditional Analyst.


Data scientists vs data analysts

Do you know the difference between a Data Scientist and a Data Analyst? To be honest, before I started doing research for this post, I’m not sure I really knew either.

Here’s what the Twittersphere thinks:

I think that’s a pretty good one, but some people were more skeptical…  

I think a lot of the ambiguity – and some of the animosity – is simply because it’s such a new term and a new field. It’s not like being a Data Analyst or a BI Analyst, we’ve had 20 years to understand those job roles.

Complicating the problem is that lots of companies have different definitions of what a data scientist is and what they do.

After doing some research I come up with a theory for what a data scientist is. One that I hope will help to disambiguate the term.

Understanding the difference

This Venn diagram (above) is a good first cut at describing how the two jobs overlap and how they differ. Data analysts are generally well versed in Sequel, they know a some Regular Expressions, they can slice and dice data, they can use analytics or BI packages – like Tableau or Pentaho or an in house analytics solution – and they can tell a story from the data. They should also have some level of scientific curiosity.

On the other end of the spectrum, a Data Scientist will have quite a bit of machine learning and engineering or programming skills and will be able to manipulate data to his or her own will.

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The T shaped skill set

Valve software – a software company in Seattle that makes computer games – has a good definition of their ideal employee. It’s this “T” shape employee who is a generalist in variety of different areas but has deep a domain experience in one vertical.

That’s how we should think of Data Scientists as well.

A Data Scientist should have a wide breadth of abilities: academic curiosity, storytelling, product sense, engineering experience and just a catch-all I call cleverness. But he or she should also have deep domain expertise in Statistical and Machine Learning Knowledge.

Let’s look at each of those areas in greater depth…

Academic curiosity

To me, academic curiosity is a desire to go beneath the surface and distill a problem into a very clear set of hypotheses that can be tested. Much like how scientists in the research lab will have a very amorphous charter of improving science, data scientists in a company, will have an amorphous charter of improving the product somehow.

He or she will use this academic curiosity to look at the available data sets and sources to figure out an experiment or a model that solves one of the company’s problems.


Storytelling is the ability to communicate your findings effectively to non technical stakeholders.

For example, Mosaic took the entire UK population and ran a machine learning model over it. Based on what they found, they were able to split the entire UK population into 61 clusters. But if you have 61 different clusters, you need a good (easy to explain way) to differentiate between each cluster.

One of those categories is called Golden Empty Nesters, which is a good title because without me explaining anything to you, it evokes some sort of image about the person who would fit into it. Specifically, they are financially secure couples, many close to retirement, living in sought after suburbs.

This ability to distill a quantitative result from a machine learning model into something (be it words, pictures, charts, etc) that everyone can understand immediately is actually a very important skill for data scientists.

Product sense

Product sense is the ability to use the story to create a new product or change an existing product in a way that improves company goals and metrics.

As a Data Scientist at, say, Amazon, it’s not enough to have built a collaborative filter to create a recommendation engine, you should also know how to mold it into a product. For example, the “customers who bought this item also bought” section is an 800 by 20 pixel box which outlines the result of this machine learning model in a way that is visually appealing to customers.

Even if you’re not the product manager – or the engineer that creates these products – as a Data Scientist, whatever you create, in code or in algorithms, will need to translate into one of these products. So having a good sense of what that might look like, will get you a long way.

Statistical and machine learning knowledge

Statistical and machine learning knowledge is the domain expertise required to acquire data from different sources, create a model, optimize its accuracy, validate its purpose and confirm its significance. This is the deep domain expertise in the T shape Data Scientist I mentioned earlier.

As a Data Scientist, if you know nothing else, you need to know how to take some data, munge it, clean it, filter it, mine it, visualize it and then validate it. It’s a very long process.

Engineering experience

Engineering Experience refers to the coding chops necessary to implement and execute statistical models.

For a lot of big companies this means knowing intense amounts of Scala, Java, Closure, ect to deploy your models into production. For startups this can be as simple as implementing a model in R.

Consequently, R is a great language for scaffolding models and visualization, but it’s not so great for writing production ready code – it breaks whenever you throw anything more than 10 megabytes in front of it.

But, it’s a great language to set up a proof of concept, and the ability to create something out of nothing and to prove that it works, is a skill that I think most data scientists ought to have.


The last skill on my list I call cleverness, or the creativity to do all these things on a deadline or on constrained resources.

The difference between research scientists in academia and Data Scientists in the real world, is that scientists in academia (given funding) have all the time in the world to figure out problems. The whole point of academia is to move the boundary of knowledge forward at all cost.

The goal of a Data Scientist in a startup or a tech company, is to move the product forward at minimal cost, yesterday.  So the ability to take on deadlines, constrained resources – even your company’s political climate – and push a product out in a reasonable amount of time is a really important skill.

A little something extra

If you want more information on what being a Data Scientist means or how to build Data Science teams, O’Reilly has three great pamphlets:

  • Analyzing the Analyzers is a meta analysis of the 21 different types of Data Scientists
  • Building Data Science Teams is a great tutorial on how to build a data science team once you’ve identified in your company that data is something you want to double down on
  • Data Jujitsu shows you how to turn data into actual products.

On a more abstract level…

  • Competing on Analytics is a general business book on exactly how data turns companies into more valuable companies

  • Data Driven covers not just Data Analytics and Data Science, but also Data Warehousing, Data Project Management and a whole host of other data related stuff


About the author

Thomson Nguyen is the founder and CEO of Framed Data, a predictive analytics product. They use machine learning to analyze your analytics and tell you which customers are about to churn and for what reasons. They are used by SAS companies, mobile apps, game developers and more to determine which of their users are at a very high risk of leaving.

What is Extract?

Extract is one full day jam-packed with data stories that will entertain, educate and inspire you. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about data, told by the people who know it best. Our speakers hail from some of the most successful and innovative companies in the business. You’ll hear data-driven talks on everything from beating the competition to creating the next unicorn. And our workshops will showcase the best of the best in data tooling. You’ll get an exclusive look at some of the latest technologies and pick up first-hand tips on implementing new strategies.


It’s understandable that many analysts want to call themselves data scientists. After all, the latter make much more money. Still, there’s a big difference between the two beyond pay grade. Nice post.

This is reminiscent of the ‘Digital Marketing’ vs ‘Growth Hacker’ debate. Because the lines are so blurred, and the pay grades are perceived to be higher, it does cause animosity. see here:

in 10+ years working in digital marketing i’ve seen job roles, titles responsibilities split and divide and new ones arise and others fall. its all a natural part of how the web is growing, and how marketing online has become more sophisticated and nuanced.

Also, as high growth, quick turn around, tech driven, startups have become trendy, and a bit more main stream because of due to a lower barrier to entry, the need for new types of roles have appeared. Growth Hacker and Data scientist seem to be just two of them.

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