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Computer Science vs. Data Science: What is the Difference?

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Maybe you want to learn more about data science since you’ve heard it’s “the sexiest job of the 21st century.” Or maybe your software engineer friend is trying to talk you into learning computer science. Either way, both data science and computer science skills are in demand. In this article, we will cover the major differences between data science and computer science to clarify the distinction between these two fields.

Before we dive into the differences, let’s define these two sciences:

Data Science vs. Computer Science

Data science is an interdisciplinary field that uses data to extract insights and inform decisions. It’s often referred to as a combination of statistics, business acumen, and computer science. Data scientists clean, explore, analyze, and model with data using programming languages such as Python and R along with techniques such as statistical models, machine learning, and deep learning.

While it’s one part of data science, computer science is its own broader field of study involving a range of both theoretical and practical topics like data structures and algorithms, hardware and software, and information processing. It has many applications in fields like machine learning, software engineering, and mathematics.

History

While many of the topics used in data science have been around for a while, data science as a field is in its infancy. In 1974, Peter Naur defined the term “data science” in his work, Concise Survey of Computer Methods. However, even Naur couldn’t have predicted the vast amount of data that our modern world would generate on a daily basis only a few decades later. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that data science was recognized as its own field. It gained popularity in the early 2010s, leading to the field as we know it today — a blend of statistics and computer science to drive insights and make data-driven business decisions. “Data science,” “big data,” “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” and “deep learning” have all become buzzwords in today’s world. These are all components of data science and while trendy, they can provide practical benefits to companies. Historically, we did not have the storage capacity to hold the amount of data that we are able to collect and store today. This is one reason that data science has become a popular field only recently. The emergence of big data and the advancements in technology have paved the way for individuals and businesses to harness the power of data. While many of the tools that data scientists use have been around for many years, we have not had the software or hardware requirements to make use of these tools until recently.

Computer science, on the other hand, has been a field of study for centuries. This is one of the main differences between it and data science. Ada Lovelace is known for pioneering the field of computer science as the person who wrote the first computer algorithm in the 1840s. However, computing devices such as the abacus date back thousands of years. Computer science is a topic that has been formally researched for much longer than data science, and companies have been using computer science tools for decades. It’s an umbrella field that has numerous subdomains and applications. 

Applications

The applications of each of these fields in the industry differs as well. Computer science skills are used in many different jobs including that of a data scientist. However, common roles involving computer science skills include software engineers, computer engineers, software developers, and web developers. Two roles that use computer science, front end engineer and Java developer, ranked first and second respectively on Glassdoor’s 50 Best Jobs in America for 2020 list. While these roles do not formally require degrees, many people in these jobs hold a degree or come from a background in computer science. 

Common computer science job tasks include writing, testing, and debugging code, developing software, and designing applications. Individuals that use computer science in their roles often create new software and web applications. They need to have excellent problem solving skills and be able to write code in programming languages such as Python, Ruby, JavaScript, Java, or C#. They also need to have a fundamental understanding of how these languages work, and be well-versed in object oriented programming.

Data science is applied in job titles such as data scientist, data analyst, machine learning engineer, and data engineer. Data scientist and data engineer ranked third and sixth respectively on Glassdoor’s 50 Best Jobs in America for 2020. Individuals in these roles come from a variety of backgrounds including computer science, statistics, and mathematics. 

Common data science job tasks include cleaning and exploring data, extracting insights from data, and building and optimizing models. Data scientists analyze and reach conclusions based on data. They need to be well versed in statistics and mathematics topics including linear algebra and calculus as well as programming languages such as Python, R, and SQL. They also need to have excellent communication skills as they are often presenting insights, data visualizations, and recommendations to stakeholders.

Since computer science is one component of data science, there is often crossover in these roles and responsibilities. For example, computer science tasks like programming and debugging are used in both computer science jobs and data science jobs. Both of these fields are highly technical and require knowledge of data structures and algorithms. However, the depth of this knowledge required for computer science vs. data science varies. It’s often said that data scientists know more about statistics than a computer scientist but more about computer science than a statistician. This reinforces the interdisciplinary nature of data science.

The Use of Data

Data, or information such as numbers, text, and images, has applications in both computer science and data science. The study and use of data structures is a topic in computer science. Data structures are ways to organize, manage, and store data in ways that it can be used efficiently; a sub-domain of computer science, it allows us to store and access data in our computer’s memory. Data science benefits from data structures to access data, but the main goal of data science is to analyze and make decisions based on the data, often using statistics and machine learning.

The Future of Computer Science and Data Science

Today, all companies and industries can benefit from both of these fields. Computer scientists drive business value by developing software and tools while data scientists drive business value by answering questions and making decisions based on data. As software continues to integrate with our lives and daily routines, computer science skills will continue to be critical and in demand. As we continue to create and store vast amounts of data on a daily basis, data science skills will also continue to be critical and in demand. Both fields are constantly evolving as technology advances and both computer scientists and data scientists need to stay current with the latest tools, methods, and technologies.

The field of data science would not exist without computer science. Today, the two fields complement each other to further applications of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and personalized recommendations. Many of the luxuries that we have today — a favorite streaming service that recommends new movies, the ability to unlock our phones with facial recognition technology, or virtual home assistants that let us play our favorite music just by speaking — are made possible by computer science and made better by data science. As long as bright, motivated individuals continue to learn data science and computer science, these two fields will continue to advance technology and improve the quality of our lives.

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