👩🏽‍💻 To code or not to code.... that is the question...

...for anyone in data leadership

How much hands-on work should a data leader do?

This question comes up a whole lot in my line of work.

Should people in high level data leadership roles be hands-on with technical analytics tasks, or not?

It’s not only a touchy subject but quite an expansive one. In today’s edition of Strategies For Effective Data Leadership, I’m gonna dive in with my 2 cents.

👩🏼‍💼 Most people in data start out as doers…and stay that way.

Moving into leadership (specifically people management) can be a tough transition for data professionals. The typical path for career progression into leadership is IC > Team lead > Team manager > Head of > Director etc.

Right up until, and often including, the ‘Head of’ stage you’d be likely to find most data leaders are still quite heavily involved in hands-on data tasks.

In fact, just take a look at many of the advertised Chief Data Officer roles out there at the moment. Many of them require years of experience with certain coding languages and data visualisation skills. I can’t think of any other C-Suite level role where the equivalent would apply…

It’s seems that not only are many senior data leaders still quite hands-on, but the job market is determined to keep it that way.

In my humble opinion this is a terrible mistake that holds back the data discipline immensely.

🌟 So that’s how things are… but how should they be?

The role of a data leader is multifaceted. They need to find the right balance between acting as a strategic leader whilst having some degree of technical involvement.

Managing a team of data analysts, scientists and engineers requires them to have a high comprehension of what’s technically possible. But the main crux of their role will be about representing the data function and it’s contribution to the business and it’s stakeholders.

As a leader, the primary responsibility is to set the vision and strategy for the data team and to ensure that the organisation’s data plays a central role in helping to determine the overall organisational strategy.

For that reason, I believe a data leader’s focus needs to be less geared towards contributing in a hands-on fashion, and much more focused around helping drive various functional strategies.

⌚️How is a data leader’s time best spent?

It’s impossible to make a hard and fast rule about this as it will need to be customised around the specific needs of the organisation in question. But at a high level, here’s how I see a TRUE data leader breaking up their day:

🧭 Strategy and Management: 60-70% (at least)

  • Focus on leading strategic initiatives, managing stakeholders, and overseeing the team's progress.

⚙️ Technical Oversight: 10 - 20%

  • Liaising with your teams to provide input (and receive advice on) technical decisions, architecture, and design.

🛠️ Hands-on work: 0 - 10%

  • Contribute direct technical work when necessary or during critical situations.

The last one will depend heavily on how the team is structured and how many people there are in the teams(s). Of course, in a start up environment or a company with a very small data function, the proportion of hands-on work undertaken by a data leader will likely be higher than this.

🧠 Be the dumbest person in the room

One of the core reasons I feel so strongly about data leaders not being technically hands-on is because I think data leaders should fill their teams with people who are technically more competent than they are.

It’s never a good idea to promote to leadership a person who happens to be very good technically, but who lacks leadership skills. They are not the right person for the job.

Similarly, someone who is a great leader and excels in that arena, should not be expected to the best technically in their department.

Great leaders are great because they lead effectively. They lead by empowering and encouraging their teams towards success. They lead by delegating and planning work so that their teams can be forever up-skilling and learning.

Yes - data leaders MUST know that is possible technically.

Do they need to be the ones doing it? Hell no.

💡Get a handle on your data career.

Through my coaching and consulting, I help data leaders and leadership teams develop robust data-centric cultures to help them increase accuracy and velocity around decision making to maximise ROI from strategic initiatives.

I combine my extensive career experience as a Global Head of Data within a Fortune 500 alongside my experience as a consultant, coach and mentor to work with leaders to develop a company wide, data-centric culture that will ensure organisations are in the right place to maximise their growth potential.

If you’d like to schedule a free 1:1 chat about data leadership coaching, grab time with me here: https://calendly.com/tristanburns/30min

⚡️Whenever you are ready, there are a few way I can support you: