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Sometimes, The World Is Telling You To Polish Up Your LinkedIn Profile

September 27, 2013

The above title was stolen verbatim from an excellent essay by Dan Milstein on the Hut 8 Labs blog (hat tip Deane Yang). The actual title of the essay is “No Deadlines For You! Software Dev Without Estimates, Specs or Other Lies”

He wrote the essay about how, as an engineer, you can both make yourself invaluable to your company and avoid meaningless and arbitrary deadlines on your projects. So, he’s an engineer, but the advice he gives is surprisingly close to the advice I was trying to give on Monday night when I spoke at the Columbia Data Science Society (my slides are here, by the way). More on that below.

Milstein is an engaging writer. He wrote a book called Coding, Fast and Slow, which I now feel like reading just because I enjoy his insights and style. Here’s a small excerpt:

Let’s say you’ve started at a new job, leading a small team of engineers. On your first day, an Important Person comes by your desk. After some welcome-to-the-business chit chat, he/she hands you a spec. You look it over—it describes a new report to add to the company’s product. Of course, like all specs, it’s pretty vague, and, worse, it uses some jargon you’ve heard around the office, but haven’t quite figured out yet.

You look up from the spec to discover that the Important Person is staring at you expectantly: “So, <Your Name>, do you think you and your team can get that done in 3 months?”

What do you do?

Here are some possible approaches (all of which I’ve tried… and none of which has ever worked out well):

  • Immediately try to flesh out the spec in more detail

“How are we summing up this number? Is this piece of data required? What does <jargon word> mean, here, exactly?”

  • Stall, and take the spec to your new team

“Hmm. Hmm. Hmmmmmmmm. Do you think, um, Bob (that’s his name, right?) has the best handle on these kinds of things?”

  • Give the spec a quick skim, and then listen to the seductive voice of System I

“Sure, yeah, 3 months sounds reasonable” (OMG, I wish this wasn’t something I’ve doneSO MANY TIMES).

  • Push back aggressively

“I read this incredibly convincing blog post 1 about how it’s impossible to commit to deadlines for software projects, sorry, I just can’t do that.”

He then goes on to write that very blog post. In it, he explains what you should do, which is to learn why the project has been planned in the first place, and what the actual business question is, so you have full context for your job and you know what it means to the company for this to succeed or fail.

The way I say this, regularly, to aspiring data scientists I run into, is that you are often given a data science question that’s been filtered from a business question, through a secondary person who has some idea that they’ve molded that business question into a “mathematical question,” and they want you to do the work of answering that question, under some time constraint and resource constraints that they’ve also picked out of the air.

But often that process has perverted the original aims – often because proxies have magically appeared in the place of the original objects of interest – and it behooves a data scientist who doesn’t want to be working on the wrong problem to go to the original source and verify that their work is answering a vital business question, that they’re optimizing for the right thing, and that they understand the actual constraints (like deadlines but also resources) rather than the artificial constraints made up by whoever is in charge of telling the nerds what to do.

In other words, I suggest that each data scientist “becomes part business person,” and talks to the business owner of the given problem directly until they’re sure they know what needs to get done with data.

Milstein has a bunch of great tips on how to go through with this process, including:

  1. Counting on people’s enjoyment of hearing their own ideas repeated and fears understood,
  2. Using a specific template when talking to Important People, namely a) “I’m going to echo that back, make sure I understand”, b) echo it back, c) “Do I have that right?”.
  3. To always think and discuss your work in terms of risks and information for the business. Things like, you need this information to answer this risk. The point here is it always stays relevant to the business people while you do your technical thing. This means always keeping a finger on the pulse of the business problem.
  4. Framing choices for the Important Person in terms of clear trade-offs of risk, investments, and completion. This engages the business in what your process is in a completely understandable way.
  5. Finally, if your manager doesn’t let you talk directly to the Important People in the business, and you can’t convince your manager to change his or her mind, then you might wanna polish up your LinkedIn profile, because otherwise you are fated to work on failed projects. Great advice.
Categories: data science
  1. September 27, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Wow, I am surprised at how well this resonates for applied mathematics in general. You usually have the real technological or scientific applications that empiricists care about, but they are then filtered through a middleman of theorists who formulate it in what they think captures the essence, and give it to applied mathematicians to solve; often without further context. This often results in a lot of work being done that is irrelevant to scientific progress (although sometimes fun in its own right). It also shows why the best academics are ones that bridge the theory-applied domain and take their work from the empirical question to solving the mathematical treatment and back.


  2. John
    September 28, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    The last part about polishing up your LinkedIn profile resonates for me, along with another item in the news today… Joe Nacchio’s release from prison (former telecom executive, covered in 9/27/2013 WSJ). I used to work for him when he was at AT&T (several management layers removed) and he created the kind of atmosphere where people were fated to work on failed projects.


  3. John
    September 28, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Trying to think of how to characterize Joe Nacchio…
    Probably best to start w/ a quote from the late Steve Jobs:

    “I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies like IBM and Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company. John Akers at IBM was a smart, eloquent, fantastic salesperson, but he didn’t know anything about product. The same thing happened at Xerox. When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter as much, and a lot of them just turn off.”

    Joe was a technical light-weight who knew how to yell and bang tables with his fists, kind of like a sales guy who knows all about “hustle” and meeting quotas, but doesn’t understand or care about what he’s selling.
    Sometimes when his former peers are being charitable, they say Joe “didn’t suffer fools gladly”. But he was more of a “Gimme the answer I want or I’ll fire you and replace you with someone that will tell me what I want to hear.” kind of manager.
    People working for him were always afraid for their jobs and the managers that got ahead did so by pandering to his need to be told what he wanted to hear.
    It wasn’t like working for someone that was results-oriented… it was more like working for a sociopath that was surrounded by layers of syncophants.
    As a result he was neither like, nor respected and, when things went South at Qwest, people turned on him. Based on the WSJ interview, I don’t think he has changed and I don’t think he understands why he was (is) so reviled.


    • September 28, 2013 at 4:55 pm

      It sounds like a lost cause trying to get through to him, too. Sometimes the best thing to do is avoid people.


    • September 28, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      Wow, that guys is a huge douchebag.


  4. John
    September 28, 2013 at 5:29 pm

    Yeah… I used to be bitter about him, but I’m over that now. (joke)


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