Four Powerful People Skills For Data Scientists

Let me start off with a few common assumptions about the subject of this write up "Four Powerful People Skills For Data Scientists", and my take on each of them based on my experience and observations.

1. Common Assumption: People skills are just "fluffy" soft skills
Soft skills are often referred to as "the fluffy stuff". People skills in particular, top the list of fluffiness, in many people's perception.

Observation: People skills can be characterized as a set of hard, tangible skills which require significant learning and training effort.

2. Common Assumption: Data Scientists have poor people skills
In a corporate environment, data scientists are labeled as "the geeks" or "the incomprehensive ones" or "the guys living in an ivory tower," all of which are rather friendly characterizations.

Observation: Data Scientists are amongst those groups of professionals with the highest potential to develop people skills - unknowingly.

3. Common Assumption: People skills are somehow deceptive
People skills are quite frequently perceived as manipulative and, by the way: "I am not a sales guy anyway, and I have no intention whatsoever to become one."

Observation: First, every business and public institution is operated by people. People skills are not the sole domain of sales and HR. Second, people skills are not so much about seducing people to buy things they don't want, as to handle challenging and complex situations with other people.

Why should you invest in people skills?
Because it pays off, literally.

I have seen businesses thrive based on people skills, including my own. On the other hand, I have witnessed companies generating millions of USD in losses or opportunity costs due to lack of people skills on their teams.

Over the last 25 years, I have worked in different companies on four continents. My collection of Four Powerful People Skills is based both on my experience as well as on observations.

Source: Wikipedia

Let's get started.

1. User Experience (UX) Skills
Whenever dealing with people and businesses, you need to understand their experience reality. The proverbial pain points are part of everyone's experience reality, but usually, people are not suffering and in pain all the time. Hence, asking your customers, partners, colleagues about pain points will give you just a limited view on the reality they are dealing with on a daily basis. You can (and you should) gain insights by asking lots of questions, but this route has its limitations. Not everyone will tell you everything they know. That's not because they are secretive. Most of the time, people leave out many important nuances in response to your questions because they seem to be just too obvious to them to even mention it to you. It's by far more effective to immerse yourself into someone else, quite literally, and walk in their shoes for a while.

Example: At the time of writing this article, I am taking rig truck driving lessons, as well as excavators and forklift operator training. My company is growing its business with commercial and military vehicle manufacturers. Will I ever make money driving trucks? No (although, admittedly, it's a hell lot of fun). We are providing data science services. However, our User Experience Skills help us understand the people on the ground. Ultimately, every data science project has an impact on the people in the first front line of business. Understand the people you build and design for, directly or indirectly. Gain a holistic, contextual understanding of your work. It always pays off.

Advice: Launch a User Experience Team
If your business is catering to fast food restaurant chains, someone on your team should flip burgers for at least a couple days. Commercial vehicles? Someone should get a truck driving license. Logistics? Somebody should work in a logistics center for a while. Don't offload these tasks to the lowest ranking employees on your team. First, because you will not act upon their learnings. Second, because you have to set a signal: "We take customer centricity to a whole new level." The higher up in the hierarchy the person getting his hands dirty, the higher the impact.

Your company does not support these efforts? Do it anyways. Invest your own time and money if possible.

2. Communication Skills
Over the last 10 years, I have been working with people from at least 30 different countries. The biggest challenge? Literally, in many cases, people do not understand each other. We are living in a globalized world, and it's quite common to work on projects with teams distributed across multiple countries such as Spain, France, Italy, the UK, India, China, and the USA. In such a multicultural case, you might assume that you all speak English on your team. However, you are faced with seven different English dialects: Spanish English, French English, Italian English, British English, Indian English, Chinese English and US (Texan for example) English. Each dialect sounds almost like a distinct language.

I have seen companies losing business opportunities worth millions of USD, just because nobody could understand the other party's distinct English dialect.

Advice: Invest in accent reduction training. Speak slowly and clearly
You should take this advice very seriously (more so than any other advice in this article). Nobody will tell you bluntly that you are hard to understand, because it would be considered as impolite. As a result, you might repeat the same mistakes over, and over again, losing time, money and motivation. If you are a French company catering to customers in the US, or a Texan company working with business partners in China or vice versa, you can surely make one assumption right from the start: The other party will hardly understand what you are saying. This is a huge problem for many businesses and organizations. Accent reduction training can get you on the track, tapping into business opportunities that otherwise might get lost once and forever.

The same goes for fast talkers. Some people even pride themselves to talk fast (because they have so much valuable knowledge to share). In fact, they overrun their audience. If you are this type of person: Hit the brakes hard. Really, really hard. Speaking slowly and clearly will be painful and inconvenient for you in the beginning. However, your audience will benefit from understanding what you actually say. Don't just hit the brakes ones. Make it a habit each and every time you open your mouth (it's hard to overcome the habit of fast mumbling, I am speaking from my own experience here).

Your company does not support these efforts? Do it anyways. There are many great courses out there available for free on YouTube.

3. Behavioral Science Skills
I recently stumbled upon a meme stating something along the lines of: "We can all agree that people skills are more difficult than nuclear physics." In fact, human behaviors are very complex and ambiguous. You should always stay away from simplistic explanations. Whenever someone starts a sentence with: "Humans behave in such ways, because ..." you can be sure, that they don't.

A few years ago, I started asking myself: "Why do humans behave the way they do under certain conditions?" For example: "Why do some people thrive under pressure while others collapse?" "Why do some businesses embrace innovation, while others resist any change?" Or: "Why do some businesses survive and others die?"

I started searching for answers in (business) psychology, and over time, I drifted towards human behavioral biology, molecular biology, and neuroscience amongst others. Having no formal STEM education whatsoever, I am faced with severe limits on the amount and depth of knowledge I am able to acquire and absorb. Nonetheless, the insights I gained over the years, opened my mind. I lost interest in simplistic answers in the quest for an explanation of human behaviors. Instead, I learned to look from different angles: One and the same behavior might be interpreted in different ways, even within one and the same discipline.

This set of skills take time to acquire, but it's the most rewarding one intellectually. By comparison, Communication Skills beats all other people skills listed here by far, in terms of an ROI (return on investment). Nonetheless, the other skills in this article shouldn't be ignored.

Examples: There are two complementary ways to get your feet wet with Behavioral Science Skills. A) Read a lot. B) Observe a lot. Let me give you a couple of examples from my reading list:

"48 Laws of Power" by Robert Greene
This book is rather a collection of 48 anecdotes than laws. However, they offer some excellent explanation of how people in power reason, feel and act. Some consider this book to be pure evil, as it outlines deceptive and manipulative techniques used by those in power. I recommend reading this book with a healthy distance to the subject (so does the author, as he confessed in one of his interviews). This book helped me navigate through various difficult encounters with those in power.

"Human Behavioral Biology" by Robert Sapolsky
This series of 25 lectures at Stanford University (you can find them on YouTube) is a must-watch for everyone who wants to dive into the subject of human behavioral biology. Each lecture is approx. 60-90 minutes long, and this series does not assume any prior knowledge of this subject. As Robert Sapolsky states in the first lecture, everybody should learn about it.

"The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disasters Strikes - And Why" by Amanda Ripley
Based on countless interviews with survivors and subject matter experts, Amanda Ripley outlines three distinct phases people go through when disasters strike (denial, deliberation, and decisive action) and how they feel, think and act in each of those phases. This book helped me better understand my own potential behaviors in the event of a disaster. But also, I discovered surprising parallels to how businesses respond when their markets face disruption. Think, Kodak, PanAm, Blackberry, and Nokia as some of the prominent examples. After all, businesses are made of people.

Obviously, these are just a few items on my list. I deliberately picked those three which could not be more different from each other, just to give you an idea of the spectrum.

Advice: Launch a book club at your company
Many outstandingly successful companies have internal book clubs (such as for example Tableau, which was recently acquired by Salesforce for more than 15 billion USD), and they benefit greatly from the shared learning experience. They become smarter as a company, they promote a meritocratic culture and they become more valuable.

Your company does not support these efforts? Do it anyways. Gather a bunch of people you enjoy spending time with, and start your own informal book club.

4. Time Management Skills
You need to learn to manage other people's calendars. Sometimes it feels like being another person's personal assistant, but here's the deal: Most people are bombarded with information, their attention spans become shorter and shorter. To make things worse, the wide-spread, excessive usage of social media chops up people's attention span even more. The co-founder of Facebook, Sean Parker, goes even as far as claiming that his former company destroys the very fabric of our society.

Example: Whenever dealing with customers, partners, and employees, I think thoroughly through their calendar: "What is the next step? When should we meet and talk?" I send them meeting invites, I send them reminders, and new invites when they miss their appointments, I keep track of progress and think through each and every step. Being someone else's nanny is tough at times: Nobody pays you directly for that effort, it's frustrating when people break their commitments, and after all, they are grown-ups, right? They should do it by themselves! But they don't. Being able to get people to commit and holding them accountable can literally save your business and your career.

Advice: Organize time management training
These training should be delivered by office managers and secretaries, not by self-proclaimed time management gurus. Secretaries deal with a difficult clientele (top executives) and they know how to keep them on track in good times and in bad times. They are the real super nannies, and you should become one, too, if you want to get things done when dealing with other people (close a sale, finish a project, get a raise, etc.).

Your company does not support these efforts? Do it anyways. Invest your own time and money if possible.

Why should you do all this?
Because most other people won't.

Most people will ignore this advice. They will find excuses why they can't (such as: "My company does not support these efforts!"). That's is good for you, if you take the advice above seriously. If you run a business, you can put yourself ahead of your competition with reasonable learning and training effort. Likewise, if you are a data scientist in a large corporation, and you want to have a great career, the Four Powerful People Skills For Data Scientists will certainly help.

In any case, I wish you the very best!

I run a data science & data literacy consultancy, and we cater to large companies in Europe and the US. You have questions I didn't answer in my write-up, or you want to share your experiences? Please leave a comment or reach out to me via email [email protected] or LinkedIn. Thank you!

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Tags: Business, Data, People, Science, Skills, Soft, Strategy


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