Be careful — look out for the right things to make sure the project will be an opportunity to grow, to contribute, and to be something to look back on with pride and satisfaction.
Your environment is an incredibly important factor in determining your trajectory.
With the commercial success of applied data science, it’s only natural that the domain attracts a fair degree of hype, which in turn, unfortunately, leads to a variety of undesirable consequences.
For organizations looking to build or hire talent, that usually means sifting through candidates with questionable attitudes or preparation.
For data science professionals — dealing with clients or employers who lack organizational readiness and data science maturity.
This post aims to help professionals evaluate organizations.
The Symptoms ????They come in a variety of flavors — from strategic and cultural, down to the practical.
What could they be?Excessively “leveraging AI and machine learning”, only on PowerPoint slides?”It’s going to be a tremendous AI initiative”, despite nobody knowing how, or if AI is really needed?Maybe the ancient version control technique of “save-as-with-suffix”? Your time spent in the chair valued more than what you delivered?Lack of process in data management and data quality?Fearful ad-hoc privacy protection efforts that don’t work but slow down work?Every project beginning with writing the same low-level routines?Custom-built CSV reading loops?Excel- and email-centric workflows?Python 2.
6?Those would be some of the symptoms, yes.
Trouble is, you won’t see many of them until you start, or even quite some time after that.
That is unless you take a careful look.
Mind you, stakes are high.
An innocent misjudgment may very well lead to a limbo position of an intern with a fancy title.
With responsibilities encompassing bits of full stack development, overseeing deployment and also helping out that colleague with their Excel formatting issue on the regular.
And no learning.
Get off my lawn!On the other end, the attitude of expecting the client to be perfect is unreasonable, there is always something to add and improve.
It is your responsibility to strive for clarity.
It is your responsibility to cultivate beneficial habits and processes.
That includes contributing to the improvement of your environment.
But do the conditions exist for you to do your job?.What extra tasks will you be taking on?.And do you want to be taking them on?.Do they put you on the learning trajectory you want to be on?.You spend a large chunk of of your day, your week and your year working.
Work should be fun and a source of pride — this depends on you more than anybody else.
That being said, you need certain conditions.
Most companies have a compliance process.
Why not have your own?Let me go through some tests and questions that I use to check out the situation.
Does the company have a strategy?.Do they have particular objectives lined up that will put them at a lasting advantage?.Do they have an actionable results plan for the effort?.Are they speaking clearly about the results they expect their team and yourself to produce in the next 6 or 12 months?Be very careful about this.
No clarity or strategy will mean no accountability and high uncertainty, and that will lead to either stress or a resigned attitude.
That’s the last thing you want.
Not to mention all the senseless meetings and counting hours instead of counting progress.
Respect your time.
One question that I tend to ask has proven a good entry point for the survey is a variety of the following: “Let’s imagine you decided to work with me, we are 6 months into the project, and you are really glad and satisfied that I’m on board.
What contributions have I made to help us succeed?”Look for clarity and specificity in the answer, and ask follow-up questions.
Expectations and leadership.
Your future team either have to have clear-cut expectations for your contribution, or they should want to have you be actively involved in lining out the body of work and leading the effort.
Be wary of confusion and moving targets.
You want to nail down the expectations and overdeliver, to build trust and success.
Again, you don’t want to end up maximizing the number of hours spent in the office to demonstrate (superficial) dedication — you want to deliver results.
You want to be involved with a crowd that is ambitious about their own success and the success of those around them.
That means they won’t have time for politics.
They won’t have respect for busywork.
They will deliver solid work with high integrity and appreciate you for doing that too.
You will be proud of what you’ve done, grateful for what you have learned, and will have made good relationships with exceptional people.
Looking before you leap, ask what accomplishments they are most proud of, or the one most important thing they have learned from their colleagues on this project.
Look at the way they view and interact with one another.
This one is gearing towards employees/consultants.
You are in a creative profession, and that should be a starting point in the conversation.
You should be evaluated on the quality and quantity of your output and the positive influence you have on others.
Naturally, it’s important to have face time with the team and to get to know everyone in the initial period.
That being said, flexibility done right will greatly increase your satisfaction in life without any negative effect on productivity.
It’s worth negotiating for — you will never have those beautiful years of your life again.
Find out what a typical week looks like, and try to get stories when someone demonstrated the culture of flexibility.
Tech stack and change process.
Non-archaic tech stack.
You want to be working smart, and the key here is having access to great tools that are fit for the job.
You know that both the tools and industry practices are constantly being refined and improved.
New frameworks are being released as well.
Responsible and efficient change management is a big topic to cover, but you want to get a feel for at least two scenarios that will very directly affect your day to day.
The first is your personal coding environment — how easy it is to get, for example, your favorite code editor installed?.What level of access do you have in your environment?.It will either be easy, or a terrible hassle.
Second — ask what does a major dependency update look like, how long does it take, and what verification efforts are carried out.
It will tell you a lot about the velocity at which the organization is moving.
Be sure to meet your direct contact or manager.
They have great influence over the way your work is seen and received, and also the way your ordinary day looks.
It’s not your landlord or your mother in law, but it’s a similar type of deal!.Ideally, they should be eager and proud to share stories of how they made their colleagues develop and grow.
Trust your gut feeling!I will note that the relationship with your client is in constant change, and as you establish yourself as a trustworthy and valuable contributor, you will likely gain flexibility, as well as influence over culture and strategy.
It’s reasonable to hold off with big demands at the very outset, but also remain mindful of the general level of opportunity a few months down the road, and let that play a role in your decision making.
ConclusionWhat if the opportunity doesn’t check all the boxes, but is very exciting for other reasons?.What if you have external pressures to move forward with the job?Focus is king.
Focus on actions that deliver results, and use those as your leverage to steer everyone towards a better situation.
At the very least, you will have contributed something meaningful in the time before your next project.
I hope that this checklist contributes to your success.
Best of luck!Thanks to Alex Grace, Dima Scherbakov and Michal Mazurek for suggestions and review.