So you want to be a rock n’ roll star?
Becoming a data scientist may be the modern tech version of becoming a rock n’ roll star but no-one really seems to be talking about what happens a few years further into your career.
Analysing big data sets. Building models. Connecting data pipelines. The challenges never end.
But what happens if it’s all starting to get a bit too routine and you start to hear whispers that you should want to move on to the next step on the career ladder?
The traditional move in tech has usually been to start eyeing up a move to management and in the analytics world it’s no different. Maybe your own manager has moved on leaving an open vacancy or your company mentor (you do have a mentor, don’t you?) has suggested it’s time to push yourself on to the “next level“.
The only way is up. Or is it?
In many corporate structures, the data science career progression isn’t differentiated from that in the rest of the company. You’ll go through some process from junior analyst to analyst to senior analyst and then hit the management hurdle. The big problem there is that moving up through the ranks in any technical role should not necessarily mean that management is the ultimate end point.
I’ve made the move from senior analyst to analytics manager myself so trust me when I say:
Becoming an analytics manager is not a promotion.
It is a career change.
Pure and simple. Except moving from an analyst or data scientist technical lane straight into team management is not simple. Not even a little bit. And this is what we’re going to explore.
It’s taken me over six years since entering the management world to really start to dig into what makes the jump so difficult for so many high achieving technical analysts. At the root of so many of these people’s introductions to management is what is known as “the Peter Principle”. The underlying premise is that you are judged to be the best candidate for promotion to another role based on your high performance in your current role.
The problem with the Peter Principle is that your upward ascension in the company org chart will only ever stop when you get promoted into a role that you no longer excel at. In short, managers rise to the level of their incompetence. I can sense a million light bulbs going on in heads all over the world as I write that.
All of those totally incompetent middle managers you have encountered in your career suddenly shoot into your mind. And all those times you questioned how they got into that position suddenly get answered.
They were good at something else and, when they got into this job, their bosses found they weren’t as good at it and left them there. Now it all makes perfect sense.
But that won’t happen to us, will it?
Well, what does your personal experience tell you?
Invariably it does.
Why would you want to move into management in the first place?
Hitting the glass ceiling.
Maybe the reason you have decided to try your hand at management is that you are worried about hitting the glass ceiling as an analyst. There is no doubt that technical roles usually have a shelf-life when it comes to suitable rises in compensation. It’s a very rare company that allows it’s technical staff to maintain their individual contributor status and ride that pony all the way up the promotion highway to the boardroom.
If the only reason for moving into management from an analyst role is to get more money then you may need to re-think your strategy. For data scientists in large urban centres, it’s questionable whether their managers are making significantly more than they are in the first place. Given the supposed shortage of quality, experienced analysts and data scientists, there is only one way the compensation for actually doing the do is going – and that’s up.
It’s OK to be average.
I may be alone in thinking this but there’s also nothing wrong with finding a role you enjoy and sticking with it. A quick look around any modern cubicle farm will show up plenty of analysts with 15 or 20 years on the clock that are more than happy in their comfortable rut.
You don’t have to be pulling up trees all the way through your career if the drive to do that isn’t in you. Sometimes just doing good (if not outstanding) work, getting pretty well paid and going home at 5pm is good enough. If this sounds like you then know that there is plenty of room for you in the corporate analytics world. Don’t go making yourself miserable chasing a promotion to a job you may well hate.
No back room boys in the boardroom.
It has to be said that in many companies there is still a widespread (if covered-up) belief amongst senior execs that technical staff don’t have the potential to keep pushing on up, regardless of their performance as managers.
I’m minded of a story I was once told about a senior exec doing end of year performance reviews on his team. The department was rather varied in it’s remit so it included marketing, comms and several other large teams including analytics.
The analytics team had had a particularly fruitful year. High praise all round for meeting and exceeding business expectations and completing a multitude of successful projects. When it came to score the analytics managers however they all got bumped down a performance grade. He felt that they were all “back room boys” and, as such, were little more than button pushers, regardless of how highly they were thought of throughout the company.
It’s a cautionary tale that getting onto the management ladder won’t magically give you access to the directors’ private bathroom or the top floor offices. There are still a lot of high level execs in well-known companies who don’t understand nor trust what we do. Thankfully that’s changing but this anecdote shows there is still a long way to go. Just beware is all I am saying. The grass is not always greener.
Leave your current skills at the door. You won’t be needing them here.
Management is clearly not for everyone. It’s definitely not a natural extension to the analytical role you’ve been doing (and doing well) so far. Once you have made the jump, you’ll probably find the main problem with making the transition is having to learn a whole new skillset. Analysts do not always have the most well developed inter-personal skills for a start. It’s a stereotype but experience tells me it’s somewhat rooted in reality (sorry everyone I’ve ever worked with – I’m putting myself at the front of this list!)
Learning how to conduct one-to-ones, performance reviews, manage other people’s workstack priorities and get dragged into upper level office politics are not what you’ve been used to. And it’s a steep learning curve for someone used to getting high grades at their own end of year reviews so far.
Playing an interchangeable role of peacemaker, shrink, priest, benevolent dictator and all of the other day to day roles a people manager has to employ can take it’s toll. Especially on someone more used to slapping on the noise cancelling headphones and diving headlong into analysing a set of data.
Learning to let go.
Perhaps the hardest part of moving from an analyst role to analytics manager is the realisation that you aren’t supposed to be doing the analyst work any more. I found it extremely difficult to let this one go especially when a juicy interesting project came our way. I like nothing better than rolling up my sleeves and turning data detective. Exploratory data analysis is my bag and when I had to do the scoping and requirements part then hand it off to others, I struggled.
If you find yourself wishing you were the one doing the work rather than managing others doing it, maybe it’s a sign that you’ve taken a wrong turn on the career path.
Drip founder Rob Walling sums it up very well:
“If you find yourself in management and wish you were coding, don’t wait until you’re completely burned out and bitter; do yourself (and your company) a favor – and do it now. Get yourself back into the code jockey seat. If your current company won’t work with you, there are companies out there who will.”
Life really is too short to do something you hate. And there is no shame in slipping back into your analyst role if you find the admin and people management too far from what you want to be doing.
So why did I move from quarterback to coach?
I moved into management for a few very specific reasons.
I had a second child on the way being the main one. Kids are expensive and there is no greater motivation to grab more money than having some small mouths to feed and clothe.
I had been a contractor and then consultant with the company for the previous five and a half years as well which played a large part in it. I knew the team I would be managing and I had (and still do) have an excellent relationship with my manager. There is nothing wrong with a little stability at certain times in your life and I figured our impending arrival heralded one of those times.
The fact that our consulting gig was ending and the offer of a full-time job was coming at just the right time may have also factored into it as well…
I certainly never wanted to maintain a steady charge up the ladder once I’d placed my foot on the first rung. Dealing with many different characters at senior levels and seeing how their world is so detached from the day-to-day operations of the business has only reinforced that.
The choice should be YOURS and yours alone.
Your motivations for considering a move into management will be your own but my ultimate advice is to make sure that you are really doing it for your own reasons. Not because you are being press ganged into a move you don’t want because it’s expected of you. If the change of direction is being forced on you because you’ve been told it’ll reflect badly on you if you pass up the opportunity, you’ll want to think about what that tells you about the culture of the place you’re working in.
Whatever your personal decision is, just know that it doesn’t have to be forever. I know some data analysts that have made the jump to management and never looked back. They are adored by their teams and they have adapted themselves to suit the demands of the new role. Others become stiff robots, unable to bring any empathy to their man-management style and end up making their analysts lives hell for no real end benefit.
For those who can’t give up the technical aspects of the job, they have two choices. Either admit it’s been a mistake and get back to what they were good at in the first place or carve out a compromise for themselves.
I always made sure I had some hands-on coding and analysis work for myself. It made the brain drain of bureaucracy, admin and politics slightly more bearable. And of course I knew the work would be of a high quality. I mean, why else did I get promoted in the first place? 😀
Let’s hear your stories.
Drop me a note with some of your own tales of moving from an analyst role into management and how it worked out for you. Knowing where the pitfalls lie and the possible successes you can achieve can be really helpful to anyone coming behind. Plus I’m nosey and like to hear other people’s stories.