Here is an interview with Stephen Baker, the author of the famous and remarkable book The Numerati. Stephen is the senior editor at Businessweek and his remarkable book made the world sit up and pay attention because for the first time, anyone wrote of the increasingly quant driven lives we lead thanks to the internet and the analytical brains that power the stimulus, design and targeting of it. Increasing amounts of data is collected about consumers than at any previous point of time in human history and the number crunchers or the quant jocks are the ones who increasingly help with decision making and decision management. Steve calls these people “The Numerati” or the new math people who help shape our lives.
There will always be lawyers and financiers who make loads of money. But they will have quantitative experts on their teams- Stephen L Baker
Ajay- Describe your career journey from high school to a technology writer to author of The Numerati.
Steve- I was always interested in history and in literature, and in college I fell in love with Spanish. So after college, I moved to Ecuador, taught English, and wrote fiction. I saw early on that I wasn’t going to be able to make a living with fiction. So I went into journalism. My goal was to become a correspondent in Latin America. Through my 20s, I worked in Vermont, Madrid, Argentina, Venezuela, Washington DC, and El Paso, Texas. And I finally got the job I was looking for, bureau chief for the Mexico bureau of BusinessWeek magazine.
After Mexico, my family and I moved to Pittsburgh. It appeared that the magazine was losing interest in heavy industry in the mid-90s, so I began to write about software and robotics coming out of at Carnegie Mellon University. That was my transition into technology. A year later, BusinessWeek offered me a job covering technology in Europe. I moved with my family to Paris, where we lived for four years. I focused largely on mobile communications. It seemed to me that the combination of mobility and the Internet would fundamentally change communications.
I returned to New York in 2002. I focused on big picture stories. One day in 2005, I proposed a story about the decline of the U.S. technology industry. I argued that we were behind in wireless and in broadband, we were graduating fewer scientists and engineers than other great powers, especially in Asia. One editor pointed out that mathematics was critical for these competitive issues. The editor in chief, Steve Adler, called for a cover story on math, and he assigned it to me. I didn’t know much about math at the time, and I still don’t. But this gave me the chance to dive into the world of data analysis. I wrote a cover story, Math will Rock Your Business, and later got the contract to write the Numerati.
Ajay- How do you think the government can motivate more American students to science careers?
Steve- I think focusing on the science that kids find cool–robotics, space and ocean exploration, would help. Funding basic research would be useful. But I don’t think it’s entirely a governmental issue. Parents, companies, universities, they all have to participate.
Ajay- What are the top tips you would give to aspiring technology writers and bloggers (like myself)?
1) Learn about non tech subjects, such as history, literature, art and psychology
2) Work on writing clearly for non experts. Avoid jargon.
3) Do reporting
4) Do more reporting
Ajay-The Numerati portrays a math elite which breaks the stereotype of the lonely, nerdy geek. How important do you think is that common people be more educated in math so they are more aware of marketing operations and credit offers?
Steve- I think it’s important for common people, as you call them, to understand basic statistics. More and more of our lives are going to be analyzed and communicated to us statistically. Those who do not understand this will not know to ask the right questions, and will be easily fooled. This is also true within companies. CEOs can be fooled by numbers, just like anyone else.
Ajay- Asia delivers a disproportionate number of science graduates. Yet one generation ago American and European heritage scientists made the trip to the moon with very basic computers. As our lives get increasingly shaped by the Numerati, how important are geo-cultural influences in its membership?
Steve- Most of the Numerati I met in the United States were born outside the U.S. The US has long relied on foreign brains, especially for its technology industry. As the Numerati study people’s lives, the quantitative experts will increasingly need to work closely with linguists, anthropologists, and psychologists. And they’ll need to understand different global cultures and languages. In this sense, the international nature of the Numerati is an advantage.
Ajay- Do you think the shift in money and influence from lawyers and financiers to scientists and mathematicians is temporary or is it here to stay?
Steve-I think it’s here to stay. There will always be lawyers and financiers who make loads of money. But they will have quantitative experts on their teams.
Ajay- What influenced your decision to be associated with Predictive Analytics world?
Steve- I had the privilege of interviewing Eric Siegel as I was researching the book. We’ve kept in touch since then. I think he’s very bright and does excellent work.
Ajay- What does Stephen Baker do when not writing books or articles or observing the world go around him?
Steve- I like to ride bicycles, I like to travel. I love Spanish and French and baseball and music
Stephen L. Baker is the author of The Numerati and a senior writer at BusinessWeek, covering technology. Previously he was a Paris correspondent. Baker joined BusinessWeek in March, 1987, as manager of the Mexico City bureau, where he was responsible for covering Mexico and Latin America. He was named Pittsburgh bureau manager in 1992. Before BusinessWeek, Baker was a reporter for the El Paso Herald-Post. Prior to that, he was chief economic reporter for The Daily Journal in Caracas, Venezuela. Baker holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
You can read more about the Numerati at http://thenumerati.net/index.cfm?catID=18 Stephen L Baker is the keynote speaker at Predictive Analytics World and you can check the details here http://www.predictiveanalyticsworld.com/register.php if you want to listen to him at the event.
You can follow Steve on twitter at http://twitter.com/stevebaker and follow his blog here http://www.businessweek.com/the_thread/blogspotting/