24 December 2013

LT for Hire: NLP Recruiting Gets Business-friendly

In a recent Expert System blog on 10 Semantic Technology Trends for 2014 that the Italian company has identified, trend 4 is boldly entitled “The Programmer of the Future is a Linguist” and claims that “the role of the linguist to bridge the gap between meaning and contextual relevance will become an essential part of technology applications.”

In other words, however much we try and automate the processes of understanding what a web page, a query, a text or even just a single sentence means, we know that the expert human linguist will still be a crucial factor in programming machines to understand better.

This role, by the way, was amply brought home in early December, when the UK firm Crystal Semantics was acquired by a media tech company: most of the commentary highlighted the fact that the founder David Crystal’s team of linguists took ten years to handcraft a disambiguation and categorisation engine for English (and other language) web pages that would aid a “sense” engine to understand the gist of polysemic words. Machine learning clearly can’t do it all.

To find out more about the job market for such linguists, LT Innovate talked to Maxim Khalilov the founder of NLPeople and Nick Gallimore at Natural Language Recruiter, the language technology wing of the mployability site in the UK, to find out more about job needs in the LT industry as a whole.

Maxim Khalilov started the NLPeople site in May 2012, and now publishes around 60-80 jobs for researchers and scientists in industry per month, finding demand to be fairly stable. New rounds of European Commission-funded projects tend to spark a rise in demand, and he also noted a “moderate increase of about 5-10 %” in October 2012, May 2012 and June 2013, probably due to business expansion activities among big players on the NLP market. His primary focus is in fact on the research community, so his data do not necessarily reflect the global job scene.

Nick Gallimore has been working exclusively on job openings in the LT industry under the general mployability banner for three years now, and decided to focus on the LT industry via the dedicated Natural Language Recruiter brand. He himself is passionate about language and technology and is keen to build credibility in this fast-growing space.  

For him, job openings in the field fluctuate considerably from month-to-month. “It takes companies quite a long time to hire people (their requirements are often very different to research organisations) so it's not usually clear how ‘new’ a vacancy is.” But quoting figures that are close to those cited by NLPeople, “we see 250-350 job openings in industry each year in Europe, and a similar level each year in the US. We also believe that there is quite a lot of commercial-side hiring in the LT space that takes place ‘under the radar’.”

Which LT fields do these jobs address? Khalilov sees increased demand in the machine translation industry in Europe and in the USA, as well as more positions for speech processing experts. The latest tendency is crowdsourcing – “we regularly receive jobs submitted as a part of various language crowdsourcing projects.” And of course the data analytics/data scientist segment offers a growing number of exciting openings for NLP people.

Not surprisingly, NLP developers with the hands-on implementation experience are much in demand. A solid NLP background knowledge is mostly required, in some cases in combination with the language expertise. Language technology researchers and scientists with proven coding skills are taking second place.

What sorts of companies are advertising for NLP expertise? NLPeople receives lot of jobs from the recruitment agencies which, in many cases, prefer not to reveal the actual employer. A second major segment covers jobs at the “IT monsters”. Although Khalilov sees great potential in other companies needing NLP expertise, he reckons that they mostly “prefer to buy solutions and focus on integration only.” Then there are the NLP-oriented start-ups that typically require a broad outlook of computational linguistics, data mining and machine learning technologies.

Geographically speaking, Natural Language Recruiter works worldwide, even though the initial focus is on the UK. “We have clients in the UK, US, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and China as LT is a truly international space,” says Gallimore.

For Khalilov, the USA is an “absolute leader on the industrial NLP market” – especially on the West Coast and in the Greater New York area. In Europe, there are a large number of localization jobs in Ireland “the localization Mecca of the Old World.”

A noticeable number of start-ups concentrating their efforts on the interface between NLP and machine learning appeared in 2011-2013 in France, Germany and Spain. While in Germany these new companies tend to stick close to big university centres, in France and Spain virtually 100% of them are in the Paris and Barcelona areas respectively.

Overall, then, LT jobs are on the rise. Let’s hope the LT industry harvests the benefits. 

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