If you’re working in a technical role within Data Science, be it as a Data Scientist, Data Analyst, Machine Learning Engineer, Business Analyst or something related – at some point you will probably be faced with the question:
“Should I stay Technical, or should I move into Management?”
Maybe this will be by choice. Maybe you’ll be thrust into the role by necessity or it’ll slowly creep up on you as you gain more management responsibilities over time.
Whatever the case is, you might naturally think
but do I have the skills to be a Manager?
This is a tough one to answer because unlike technical skills which are more or less discrete, observable, measurable (sortof?) and to some degree objective – management skills are a lot more “fuzzy” in all of these aspects.
Another problem you might face is that many data professionals report to non-technical managers, so it’s hard to determine if the advice they can give you will be relevant based on your technical expertise.
With this backdrop, I’ve put forward this checklist of tasks that you can use as a rough guide to develop the skills you’ll need in a management position. Before reading through it, I want you to keep a few things in mind.
Firstly, you don’t need to have everything checked off before applying for a role you’ve had your eye on. If you are newly in a management position without most of these, don’t worry – this still applies and can help you make sure you cover a lot of ground over the next year to 18 months or so.
Secondly, treat this as a way to spot opportunities for upskilling that may not have been obvious at first. Your situation might be quite different than I’m imagining, but you can try to see what similar things you can do in your situation.
Thirdly, managers are not the all-knowing oracles they might appear to be (maybe that was obvious 😉 ) but good managers learn to take things in their stride, deal with uncertainty, get comfortable with long feedback loops (sometimes years or decades) and to some degree just have to maintain faith that their best efforts are contributing positively to successful outcomes. There’s no reason you can’t get to this point as well!
Ok, without further ado, here’s your checklist – go grab as many of these opportunities to develop your management skills as you can:
1. Make at least one staff hire
Managers do a lot of hiring and I think it’s one of those things that are just very different when you’re doing it versus reading about it. There’s a lot of stages related to hiring and I suggest you go through as many as possible. What’s great is you don’t need to do it all at once. You can gradually build up by being involved in more steps with each hire of new teammates:
- Figuring out what the role should be
- Drafting the job ad
- Reviewing applications
- Taking part in one or more interview rounds
- Candidate selection
- Making an offer
2. Hire a consultant, contractor, freelancer or other professional service provider
You’ll often need to outsource work that your team doesn’t have the skill or capacity to do. It’s quite different from hiring staff in basically every way, even though the flow might seem quite similar.
- Figure out what scope of work you need done, when by and what your available budget is
- Drafting the Terms of Reference (sometimes called other things – basically it’s the list of requirements for the project)
- Evaluating proposals (be involved in lots of these if you can! You’ll learn how fallible human communication is and how to make decisions based on uncertainty)
- Contract approval and signing (this might involve negotiating payment terms)
- Managing the relationship with the service provider
- Invoice approvals
- Reviewing deliverables
- Closing the project
3. Onboard a new team member
They say the best way to learn is to teach. The best way to learn about all the good and bad parts of your company and team setup, systems and procedures is to manage the onboarding of at least one new team member.
You’ll gain an appreciation for all the “non tech” aspects of what it means to take on a member of staff. The idea behind understanding what works well and doesn’t isn’t to set you up for fixing the bad parts, but to broaden your awareness of all the things you need to be navigating when your managerial role requires you to help your team be effective within an imperfect environment.
You should be thinking critically of how to make the onboarding experience really good without draining your own energy completely. In my experience the onboarding process sets the tone of the team member’s experience in their role for at least the next 12 months.
4. Participate in a company-level discussion or decision-making process
There’ll be some call to participate in something that affects all colleagues including the ones you don’t know and will never work with. It could be something like discussing the canteen setup, the remuneration policies, contract approval process, procurement of software or something to that effect.
You’ll learn a lot about the way such politically-centred projects get done which can be very different from the very focussed, technical projects you’re used to working on.
5. Learn some basic project management skills
It’s likely you’ll already be managing projects as part of your technical role, but if you’ve not managed other people’s projects before then it’s good to get some knowledge under your belt.
I’ve written a short guide on this called Project Management Fundamentals for Data Analysts, but at the very least try to gain a deeper understanding of these two concepts.
- Capacity: How much work people are able to do – and start learning about all the things that affect this.
- Critical path: The series of dependent tasks which, if delayed, delays the whole project. This is key to helping you prioritise workload.
6. Keep track of your own budget
Managing a budget is both a skill and an art in my opinion. Somewhere along the line someone is keeping track of what you’re spending but I highly recommend you keep track of this yourself. Make a simple spreadsheet of anything you’re spending money on and start keeping track of the budget, the actual spends and the forecasts. If it’s not money, then do so with time.
You’ll see how blurry the lines are between different line items, how hard it can be to keep track of things and why you’ll need to always have a good sense of whether you are on track overall, or under or over-spending. A firm grasp of your budget is a huge factor in being able to make other decisions where there is a lot of uncertainty. You want to reduce the amount of uncertainty you deal with :). If you have a good grasp of your own budget then you and the Finance department will be on good terms.
7. Work on something with your Legal department
If you’re doing any of the preceding steps then this might have happened by default, but if not then look for calls from “Legal” to assist in reviewing something they’ve drafted or providing input to company requirements. Another good option is to ask them for assistance in understanding the NDAs you’re handing out (or signing!), or there might be some legislation that affects your work or the organization’s strategic positioning – anything of that nature.
Doing this will help train you to look at text critically and start seeing how others weigh risk. Legal provides the “bounding box” in which a company operates and it’s good for you to know where they see high risk and low risk areas of work.
8. Read a ton of Ask a Manager
Expect that you’ll be dealing with all sorts of weird and wonderful situations when you start managing people. It’s best to figure out how you might respond to situations before they actually occur. I suggest reading posts from Ask a Manager. People describe all their interesting (sometimes distressing) HR issues and Ask a Manager responds extremely thoughtfully.
It’s like learning from a very wise HR colleague.
With some or all of this experience, you’ll have an amazing basis on which to build your career in a management position. Many managers start out with very little of this and still thrive. Hopefully this helps shorten your learning curve considerably.
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