10 minute read

Data science is a fast growing field, with many people looking to jump in. Data science skills combine technology and mathematics so that insights can be drawn from large sets of data. Our industry likes to focus on Python and R, or the need for understanding statistical methods. But far too often the data science world fails to acknowledge other skills that are absolutely necessary to be successful in our field. Beyond math and tech, data science skills need to include interpersonal skills. Without them new insights may go unnoticed and change won’t follow, ultimately diminishing all of the good that could come from what we do. 

Data Is For The Cool Kids

It is 2019 and the Information Age is in full swing. The explosion of data, and compute power has made analytics the new frontier, and data workers are the new explorers. There is excitement, investment and anticipation for what data science will mean for all aspects of our lives. Data science is one of the most talked about fields of study in mainstream business culture today.  You can’t look at social media, or any media for that matter, without hearing how data is transforming how organizations work, view the world, create value and in even create problems. Data skills of all sorts (data science, analytics engineering) are in high demand as organizations across the globe are working to figure out what they need to do to be successful in the Information Age. It is a golden era for those that fill those roles. They are in the drivers seat as they find the best opportunities that their skills can buy them, and there is no end in sight- for now at least.

Beyond Math

 What might history tell us about data science skills

Let’s go back to ancient times, when Amazon was only a jungle. In 1993 the impact of the internet on business and more over, society, was still very much unknown. The only thing that was certain, was it was going to be BIG. Companies were diving headlong into e-commerce strategies, investing millions in their new online presence and ultimately in the people that would help them get there. The term “web developer” hadn’t yet entered the common lexicon, but in only months those jobs would be the topic of discussion on CNBC because they represented hot jobs that the “new economy” offered us. If you had the right skills and were in the right places, you could find big personal payoffs.  Signing bonuses, high salaries, funky new work environments, and other perks were becoming an expectation. For certain, It was good to be a web developer at that time.

This represented an opportunity that was too much to ignore for many people.  As a result, a massive move among the US workforce toward technical skills, like HTML, JAVA and similar languages, was seen throughout the 90’s.  I can recall friends who would within 12 go from working in food service, to being sought after by corporate head hunters. The people invested time and money to learn new skills, and by so doing they transformed themselves and their futures.

But by 2005, the landscape had changed materially. If you were a web developer, your career was at risk like many in the information technology space. Commoditization and globalization had transformed the technology industry as corporations moved more and more of their technical operations to third parties, many of which were located overseas. Ironically, because of the internet and the technical renaissance seen in developing countries like India, competition in the web development space had become fierce. No longer were web developers able to demand what they once had enjoyed. As the supply of technical skills grew, US web developers were being evaluated along side those from across the globe, putting them a tight spot as they tried to find ways to distinguish themselves from their foreign competition.

This scenario is nothing new. It can been seen at various points in history as technology advances and people have to adjust or find themselves in difficult position.

The Skills Shift Has Already Begun

Taking a step back and looking at the decision science industry from a global perspective, I think it is fair to say that we could be on a very similar path as the one I described above.   Over the past several years I have seen a growth in both the number and depth of skills being offered by large consultancies based abroad. I speak with executives from many industries who are thinking about how to build their analytics and data science capability. These international firms are, with greater frequency, becoming a part of their strategies. This is understandable as the challenge to these executives is a familiar one. Our industry is competitive, making it difficult to find and retain good talent. Economics are driving more and more people into it,  but over time there will almost certainly be accompanying problems around competency and expectations of the talent pool. Our brothers and sisters across the world are certainly not sitting still. They are using their in-roads created by technology and process outsourcing to demonstrate how they can use their knowledge of a client’s systems to speed their journey toward insights.

At the same time technology will continue to advance, making the more straight-forward elements of our field more accessible to the mainstream business population in the same way a WordPress has put web development within reach for just about anyone. Lastly you can be assured that as with the internet, AI will begin to contribute to the commoditization of those who created it. In time, data analysts, engineers and scientists will be asking themselves how they can differentiate, in much the same way as web developers did in the early 2000’s.

If you think I am wrong, consider this. McKinsey & Co. expects skills mismatches for data analytics professionals to be driven by AI and automation adoption. This was presented as part of their 2018 executive survey on workforce.

 Soft Skills Advance

How Soft Skills Advance Data Science

Thankfully, the case of web development and technologists in general can offer some strategies for those of us in the data industry that want to ensure our resumes remain durable and our careers satisfying. The hard skills in math and technology will always be necessary, but won’t always be sufficient, if a professional wants to remain at the top of the pack. Adding communication, leadership and political skills to the core skills we are all already familiar with will help professionals become a force multiplier. There are a lot of interpersonal skills you can develop, check out this post from Monster to get some other ideas.

But for my money, those below are a great start. A single analyst with great technical skills can do the work of a great analyst. However that same analyst, with leadership, communication and political skills will be great – while making those around them greater as well.

Communication 
The need for strong communications skills is huge, especially in data science. Too frequently I see great ideas fall to the wayside because of communications breakdowns. Our work can be complicated, and difficult to understand for those that aren’t familiar with our methods. Some may find the concepts we deal with to be intimidating. And while many might enjoy discussing Euclidian distance and K-Means Clustering, I doubt my marketing customers data really care when they are trying to sell more widgets by next quarter.

Communication skills can help overcome these challenges. Our customers and partners need to understand why an analysis is meaningful to them. They need to understand how you arrived at a conclusion, and what that conclusion will do for their business or project. For those professionals that can translate complicated analytical concepts into easily appreciated business concepts, you will have the opportunity to educate, influence, and build relationships which can make you indispensable.

Leadership
Our industry is still new, and continues to evolve. This requires professionals who can help their organizations navigate the ever changing landscape of data science. Data scientists can do this in many different ways, as either managers of others or individual contributors. Therefore leadership can take many forms in our world. You could help your organization determine the best tool selection for your analytical needs, or develop ways to infuse data into old business processes. While these leadership opportunities may seem small, they can translate to big wins for you or your organization. Big or small, as a team leader or an individual contributor, good leadership at any level can not be outsourced and will positively impact an organization is numerous ways.

Politics
Any time we have more than one person making a decision about something, you have an opportunity to see politics in action. Understanding the behaviors we exhibit when we are placed into groups, as well as the motivations for that action, is what organizational behavior is all about. Politics goes together with organizational behavior like the Jedi goes together with the Force (yeah, I am trying to be relate-able).  Skills in this area can be elusive, and exhausting to acquire, but they can also be invaluable.

Political skills develop over time and those lessons can be tough, but critical evaluation and exploration of situations can deliver knowledge that over time will become a critical part of your professional tool set.  With them, you will be able to overcome biases, identify risks, get consensus, foster partnerships and generally succeed where others wouldn’t.

The Take Away

How then can you remain truly resilient? Go beyond building your math and tech skills, and  develop competencies that help you become a force multiplier.  By rounding out your tool set you can add value in new and different ways, you can make those around you better, and demonstrate just how impactful one person can be.

In 2010 I had the opportunity to work together, side by side, with technical professionals from many different backgrounds, all in the data space.  We had offshore teams, near shore teams and onsite teams of professionals all working together. I was in a leadership position trying to manage project goals in line with a multitude of competing needs and accounting for many different constraints. There was no way to be successful without working together. It was then that I began to realize just how valuable communication, leadership and political saavy was when demonstrated by professionals who had strong technical capabilities.

Those that could combine technical skills with interpersonal skills, became force multipliers. We actively made decisions to spend more money on those people. We were willing to go to what seemed like extremes not seen since the internet boom (in my case) for these critical resources that had proven so valuable to our team. Conversely, we felt comfortable utilizing off shore resources to address more commodity work at a much lower cost. Forces in our global marketplace indicate that it will only be a matter of time before we see similar strategies become commonplace for analytics and data science organizations. While this will certainly create issues for some professionals in our industry, those who are able to effectively demonstrate soft skills, enabling them to broaden their impact across their teams and organizations, will find themselves in demand regardless of what the rest of the world does.