Passion and data are two words that no-one ever considered putting into the same sentence before. We all have a passion for our career - we want to succeed and progress and we want to be paid. Passion for data is the value-add proposition.
After 11 successful years at Sky, I have taken the opportunity to move on and look for my next challenge. Having interviewed and recruited people to work in Sky’s fast-paced organisation, the shoe is now on the other foot and that has prompted me to reflect on what I consider to be the characteristics that a strong data practitioner needs to demonstrate.
The data world is continuing to evolve. It is not just data any more - we now have Big Data. Information is being gathered about us from pretty much everything we do. CCTV cameras record our whereabouts, activities that we undertake on the web or in emails are analysed to the nth degree. The importance of data is increasingly being realised not just by individuals who are keen to protect their personal information, but also by companies looking to drive their business forward as we all continue to evangelise that data is the lifeblood for any organisation.
But no-one starts out in life thinking, “when I grow up, I am going to work in data”. Or perhaps they do and I just missed that train of thought. In that case, I have to count myself incredibly fortunate to have fallen into a discipline that I truly am passionate about.
The creation of the IDM Award in Data Management will hopefully start to address many of the concerns that I as an individual and thus data owner have, for example, being confident that information is treated with the respect and security that it deserves.
I want to take this opportunity to recognise the hard work that the IDM has put into developing this much-needed Award. Educating data practitioners in the right way to manage data is a brilliant stepping-stone into a career within data. But is it enough?
The key characteristics that I am looking for when I recruit - and thus will try to convey to future employers - are pretty straight forward:
Commercial understanding - this is really at the heart of what we do. Yes, we have to handle data in an ethical and legally-compliant manner. But if we don’t do it for commercial benefit, how do we justify our existence? An analyst could create the most fantastic piece of code that runs quickly and provides way more information than anyone can ever dream of, but if it is of no use to the business, what’s the point?
Communication – data practitioners need the ability to understand the business’s needs and the ability to communicate their response to the business client in a language that they understand. Both of these are key to breaking down the barriers that seen data labelled “the dark art” by those that don’t have the inclination to understand what an outer join does.
Attention to detail - the difference between “and” and “or” may seem minimal to most, but can have severe ramifications for data outputs. The data practitioner needs to check their work, check it again and then get a third pair of eyes to look it over. That means being good at process. While you want people who are able to think for themselves and add value to the clients’ request, they still have to follow a process. It is there to protect them and their customers.
Experience - I want to know that you’ve done it and I want to better my company and myself by picking up on activities and know-how that you can bring into my business. Where the individual is new to the workplace, the Data Management Award can also help to break that familiar cycle of, “you can’t get a job if you don’t have any experience and you don’t get any experience if you can’t get a job”.
All of the above are the easy characteristics to discuss and they can all be learnt. The pieces that are missing from this puzzle are deeper in the individual and are what I believe makes a data practitioner stand out from the crowd: Passion and Openness.
Openness is the easier of the two to address. For me, this represents a data practitioner who will listen, regardless of their seniority, and will consider what is being placed in front of them and will change their mind. Most importantly, they will learn continuously, because none of us knows it all.
The last piece of the puzzle is passion. Passion and data are two words that no-one ever considered putting into the same sentence before. We all have a passion for our career - we want to succeed and progress and we want to be paid.
Passion for data is the value-add proposition. It is the realisation that you are handling the information of individuals and of the business. You want to get it right first time, every time. You want to learn, you want what is best for your customers and - as the gatekeeper for the customer’s data - you will stand up and fight your corner when the business’s demands do not align with your view.
You realise that there are processes that are mundane but that need to be followed. Most importantly, in a business world that rarely recognises the great work that you do but is quick to point the finger should things not go to plan, you get satisfaction out of doing your job well.
I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic data practitioners during my career. What stood them apart from their less strong colleagues is that they got it. They understood data absolutely, they had years of experience and could demonstrate fantastic results. But also they had passion. That passion drove their attention to detail, their eagerness to add value and not just provide an answer, but to shape the question and add value. The business loved them.
Are there many people out in the market that could definitely put a tick in all of these boxes? I believe many can cover the first four above. But far fewer also have the passion and openness that elevates them beyond the crowd. Many of these data practitioners are rooted in those organisations that appreciate them for the value they bring to their company.
They understand the data. They understand the business and they are passionate about both. They should be treasured and nurtured. They control the lifeblood of your company.