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Make your numbers dance

Opportunities in statistical analysis are almost countless. Training Advisor hed: dek: by Molly Joss

Some people love numbers. I like them, and I’ve always been good at math. I can appreciate the elegant practicality of arithmetic and geometry, but never saw the beauty in calculus that some of my fellow college classmates did. I guess that’s why I ended up working with computers. They supply the mathematical muscle and I get to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

If you love numbers and would like to embark on a lucrative career in the computer industry, consider statistical analysis. Now, before you yawn and turn the page, let me assure you that this segment of the IT working world is not what you think it is, and it’s definitely much bigger than you think it is. In fact, computer-related statistical analysis is a quiet giant in the field of IT careers.

Computers do a wonderful job of collecting and storing data, including numbers of all kinds. Results from chemical analysis, survey results, and even statistics from insurance claims are just a few examples of the kinds of data that can reside comfortably inside a computer.

The problem comes when you have to make sense of the mathematical information. The solution is statistical analysis programming (SAP), which boils down to a human being writing a computer program to tell a computer what to do with the numbers it holds inside.

Pick any industry or profession in which you find lots of data, and you will also find a significant need for programmers who can make computers spill the numerical beans. Start with any company on the Fortune 500 list and keep going: pharmaceutical, insurance, financial, and telecommunications companies are all on the list of companies in need of good SAP folks.

Two languages, two companies

Decades ago, before the first PC had been sold and when mainframes ruled the land, there were two special-use programming languages that anyone who wanted to use computerized data had to know about: Statistical Analysis Systems (SAS) and SPSS.

A lot has changed in a few decades. Today, big corporations live on a steady diet of numbers and SAP is hot, hot, hot. Two companies: the SAS Institute and SPSS Inc., dominate the SAP market. You’ve probably never heard of them, but they are worth learning more about. The SAS Institute is the largest privately held software company in the world, and it’s on the Fortune Year 2000 list of the 100 best companies to work for in America. It has more than 90 percent of the Fortune 500 companies on its customer list.

SPSS Inc. is not as large a company as the SAS Institute, but it has some impressive credentials all its own. The company made the top 100 section of the Forbes 1999 list of the 200 best small companies, and is consistently one of the most profitable companies on Nasdaq. It has been ranked by several publications (including Soft-letter and Software Magazine) as one of the best software companies in the world.

If you are interested in learning more about the topic of SAP, particularly about potential employment opportunities in the field, a good place to start is at the Web sites for these two companies. Both sites have job opening sections and links to other SAP Web sites.

Training and certification

You have to enjoy working with numbers if you want to learn how to work at any level of statistical or numerical analysis programming. If you don’t, even the most challenging programming assignments in this IT niche will bore you to tears. That said, if you feel you have the right stuff, you don’t need to have a master’s degree in statistics to get a rewarding SAP job. There are some jobs where it definitely helps to have one, but you can get started without anything other than a bachelor’s degree.

The SAS Institute has several training options and a certification program. Since this column is about (mostly) IT certifications, I’ll give you the run-down on the certification program. All of the basic information about the training and certification program is available on the company’s Web site.

The SAS Certified Professional program has two segments: core and specialized. Once you obtain one of the two core certifications, you can take the exam for one or more of the four specialty certifications. The two core certifications are in the older version of the program (version 6) or the latest version of the program (version 8). The four specialty certifications are Data Management, Business Intelligence, Application Development and Developer.

Fair warning: These are not the kind of exams you can pass by buying a prep book and cramming for a few days. Programming novices might find it tough going without a lot of instructor-led training. Even seasoned programmers in other languages will need to spend some time learning the language and time writing programs in SAS to get enough experience to pass. Don’t believe me? Check out the sample questions for the exams on the SAS Web site.

The good news is that you don’t have to travel any farther away than your own computer to take classes. The company offers instructor-based classroom training, but also offers Web- and computer-based training. Some of the larger colleges and universities offer SAS classes, but you may run into some prerequisites such as classes in statistics.

SAS certification training is a popular item for online IT training centers, so you are not limited to the training options offered by SAS or your local larger center of higher learning. Find out before you sign up for a course whether it’s proctored or not and whether the proctor is SAS-certified. You may pay more to take a proctored class, but having a human being (a proctor) to whom you can turn when you can’t figure something out greatly increases your chance of learning enough to pass a certification exam or two.

If you are interested in SAS, check out the SPSS training options before you decide on which SAP language to learn. You may want to start one and then plan to add the other one to your IT skill set later on. If you can’t decide, take a training course in both before making your final decision. You may find one language is easier for you to learn than another.

SPSS Inc. offers extensive training courses for its language, but does not have a certification program. It offers instructor-based classroom training and distance learning opportunities. You can find details on all these options on the company’s Web site. You can also find third-party sources of SPSS training just as you can for SAS.

Bottom line

If you’re interesting in a programming career or any kind of technical and information analysis job, do yourself a favor and look into the kinds of jobs related to statistical and numerical analysis. You can opt to learn how to create SAS or SPSS programs or you can help companies analyze the data these programs generate. Either way, you will have a lucrative, steady, and interesting job in a field that is going to remain hot for a long time.

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