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BD #10 - Communicator, Explorer, Builder, Conductor

The four roles essential for any data team

Prompt: Four coloured gems, cartoon (made with Stable Diffusion)

Prompt: Four coloured gems, cartoon (made with Stable Diffusion)

I'm often asked: "what are the essential roles to include in a data team when starting fresh?". I think this is really difficult and falls back to the classic consultant answer of - it depends.

There are a lot of specifics that are essential to give good recommendations on team structure to deliver the most for an organisation. You need to know what are the key value drivers for the project, what's been tried before, what skills exist around this new team that are going to be able to support them - a data team in an organisation with no other technical roles is going to have very different needs to one where there are plenty of software and DevOps engineers ready to assist with production.

With that said, I do think there are key personality types that abstract well to any data team. Over the years I've come to identify four that I believe are essential to have for any data team to perform well.

I think this comes from my life-long love of gaming, especially tabletop RPGs where each character has a defined role and skills that shape how they contribute to the group. This list is essentially some of the "character classes" that individuals need to have to make a good team, just like a good adventuring party tends to need a healer, tank, DPS and crowd control (apologies if I'm getting a little too nerdy here, you don't need to look up what DPS means for the rest of this post to be useful).

I'll walk through each and why I think they're needed in the sections below.

The Communicator

Read enough of my writing, and you'll know that I think communication is the most important skill in any data role. That doesn't just mean speaking, either. That includes visual communication - making great charts and graphs, clear slides, and knowing when to use visuals to convey a point and when to trim them out.

For me, communication also means listening deeply. Most issues are centred around misaligned understanding. Getting your meaning across and truly listening to your stakeholders will make you much more effective. I talk about this more in this post here

If teams can't do this - understand the business problem, listen to the stakeholders, digest feedback and then broadcast out their ideas and the value of their work in a way those stakeholders can understand, you're not setting yourself up for success. 

Someone in the team must act as a communicator and translator.

Explorer

I think this is the role most people in data naturally fall into. We're a curious and resourceful bunch. This is the person that likes to get lost in the data. Or dig through the latest solutions. Read dozens of papers searching for some new approach or hidden insight.

This role often brings with it the innovation and creative problem-solving that are essential to delivering data solutions. Without it you will become too reliant on hand-holding and not doing enough experimentation to find the best solutions.

Builder

This person likes to make things. The kind of data professional that gets excited about the nuts and bolts of what's being built. They'll sometimes not even care too much about the problem, just that the ETL, modelling, and reporting all run like clockwork.

Without this person, you often get stuck unable to cross that gap from valuable insight to automated, production-ready solutions. Furthermore, builders like to check the details; things like data quality and testing go awry without them. You'll find a lot more of these people with engineering backgrounds than analyst or scientific roles in my experience.

With a good builder on the team, you know that something will be delivered at least, making it easy to iterate to better solutions in the future or integrate with the wider business.

Conductor

I couldn't think of a great name for this one (suggestions on a postcard please), but this person likes to take control of the project, setting and sticking to deadlines and ensuring that what was committed to gets delivered. They're not necessarily project managing (any one of these roles could be filled by any data professional), but they do bridge that gap - helping to run the team and ensure the workstreams are lined up instead of getting in the way of each other. 

This person is often good at seeing how the system and stakeholders will interact as the puzzle pieces fall into place. They're probably also keen on setting expectations and doing rigorous prioritisation.

Without them, you end up with too many spinning plates and lots of projects that get started and are never finished.

Final thoughts

Now, these don't have to be four different people. You can get individuals that embody all of these roles on their own. I've found that teams without any of these key roles filled often struggle to make as much impact as they otherwise could.

Have a think about the people in the teams you're working with and if they exhibit any of the traits above.

Can you fill any gaps?

Would moving people around or championing more cross-collaboration help?

I've found that stakeholders integrated into the team make an excellent substitute if you haven't got all four as you get domain knowledge and "voice of the customer" for free on the team too.

Good luck.

 If you're looking for help, here are a few options:

  • I now have a CDO-as-a-Service offering, where I'll help you build and shape your data function for a fraction of the cost of a permanent hire; if you're keen to discuss this or other project delivery using my consultants, please email me at [email protected]

  • I offer 1-2-1 coaching; book a coaching session here

  • For more, free, daily insights follow me on LinkedIn here or Twitter here

All the best.

Adam

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