Twin hubs and weird hours - How to manage a global data team

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

The obvious difficulty posed by having data teams- based in different cities around the world is coordinating meetings and having face-to-face time. However, according to the former global lead of customer intelligence and data at a leading retailer, the way to get around this is to make full use of video conferencing platforms. He often found himself speaking to some people in Asia in the morning and others in South America at night. “It can make for some weird hours, so it does drive you towards flexible working, which is not a bad thing,” he said.

Meeting with colleague video conferenceBased in the UK headquarters along with most of his team, he also had some direct reports in North America at the HQ of a sister company. A few members of his former team are on secondment in Asia, while others are in South America. He also helped to support and mentor a team in a different country in North America and occasionally travelled to continental Europe. He described the set up as being that of twin analytics hubs with spokes out to the other locations.

Having team members in so many locations had a distinct advantage. “It means we’ve got teams with a number of different perspectives and backgrounds. It gives us an increasingly diverse team which is a very good thing,” he said. Teams work “brilliantly” together which he argues is down to the nature of the type of people who work in data. “ I think we were lucky, we employed a bunch of really nice people," he said. 

“It gives us an increasingly diverse team which is a very good thing.”

"Analysts and data scientists have always had slightly better loyalty to their chosen career profession, so they tend to get on,” he explained. One thing he has noticed is that at conferences, analysts tend to stick together to talk about the new technical tools they are using and find out what their counterparts are up to.

Jonathan Palmer, product director of core data services at King

Jonathan Palmer, product director of core data services at King, has a similar view. King has offices all over the world, but the main locations are London, Barcelona and Stockholm and the data team is distributed among those three offices. Palmer said that the people he recruits are happy to travel and to work in a flexible way. As such, they see not being in the same location as colleagues as a minor inconvenience, rather than a profound difficulty.

He also spoke of the upside of people from different backgrounds working together. “There are some cultural advantages. Stockholm is not so hierarchical - it’s more consensus-based compared to London where it is more traditionally corporate. So, blending those two together, it’s quite a powerful recipe for getting the best of both worlds.”

Palmer added: “The cross-cultural exchange is quite an enjoyable process.” Working across different times is not a very big issue as his teams are all in Europe with London being just one hour behind the other two cities.

“The cross-cultural exchange is quite an enjoyable process.” 

For Tim Lum, head of data and insight at Virgin Atlantic, working across vastly different time zones offers one great benefit - the extension of the working day of the company. When he was working at Expedia, if there was a bug that needed fixing, developers in India would start working on it and developers in the US would continue to resolve the issue after the first group had finished. “That really helped reduce the amount of time that we were down,” he said.

However, he found that the language barrier was a definte downside of working with teams located in India, the Ukraine, Romania and the US. This was despite business being conducted in one main language – usually English, but sometimes French. The difficulty would arise when native speakers used complicated language or slang, making it difficult for the non-native speakers to comprehend. He said: “Native English speakers who are not used to thinking about the nuances of their accents and languages use very advanced words and can forget that other people on the other end of the line may not completely understand.”

“Native English speakers can forget that other people may not completely understand.”

Tim Lum, head of data at Virgin AtlanticTo address this problem, Lum suggested that managers should remind folks at the beginning of each meeting to use language that explained things simply and easily and to be very careful about how they communicate. For Lum, this is especially important when it comes to specifying KPIs so that everyone is working to exactly the same goal. He said that data managers should make sure that their instructions are as up-to-date and detailed as possible and not forget that some of the team are not sitting alongside and being privy to all the conversations.

The former global lead at the leading retailer said that a lack of face time is one of the downsides of managing a global team. “It can be a struggle when the two teams don’t share the ‘water-cooler moment,’ bumping into each other in the corridor. It’s easy to get communication just slightly out of sync,” he said.

“It can be a struggle when the two teams don’t share the ‘water-cooler moment."

The advice Lum would give to those who are about to start managing a global data team is to ensure that there is the right set up to begin with and to manage expectations. He said by doing this, “you’re then ensuring that everyone’s on the same page and constantly reviewing where you’re at, either in terms of capabilities or ensuring that you address cultural issues immediately as they come up.”