Dubbed the sexiest job of the 21st century, data scientists are in demand globally. Meeting this demand for Africa is the Cape Town-based Explore Data Science Academy, founded by Shaun Dippnall, Aidan Helmbold and Dave Strugnell.

The academy was born out of a need to deliver digital skills to corporates and is leading the way in teaching students from across South Africa how to solve real world problems with the latest tools, algorithms and platforms.

“We are a corporate skills development training academy, not an academic programme,” says co-founder Helmbold. “We combine the skills of data science, which is the ability to gather, analyse, visualise and communicate data to solve problems in an environment that simulates real worlds. So it’s working in project teams, working on problems that have not yet been solved before and working on the process of problem solving.”

BCX is the founding sponsor of the academy and has invested ZAR50m to create 300 year-long internships over the next three years. The first cohort of 100 students commenced the course in January 2018. A call has already gone out for applications for next year.

Said BCX after the launch: “In a rapidly changing business landscape, data science has become a core skill for corporates who are looking to digitise their operations and leverage big data. Data science is integral to the future of our business and many others. For this reason we have committed, through our agreement with the Explore Data Science Academy, to sponsor a minimum of 300 interns over the next three years.”

Based at the Bandwidth Barn in Woodstock, the academy leverages the latest in data science and artificial intelligence research and focuses on practical application rather than theory.

“We are very proud of the first cohort,” says Helmbold. “We received over 8 000 applications and interviewed about 450 of them, after which we whittled it down to the top 100. The only requirement was that you needed to be between 18 and 35 years old. If you’re smart enough, you’re good enough. There was no prior qualification required, it was really about showing that you have an aptitude and ability to solve problems.”

Student Thobela Marakala, from Johannesburg, says of the course: “It’s quite challenging, but I’m learning a lot. My background is in statistics. Data science always intrigued me, and when the opportunity came I decided to take the leap. The course is very intense, you have to really enjoy mathematics and solving problems. I’m looking forward to contribute to the country’s economy when I leave here.”

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