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  • Writer's pictureAdam Votava

Chief data scientist as a conductor

How to be a world-class conductor to your data teams

Chief data scientists are typically recruited from a pool of talented data scientists. And though the transition from talented to chief sounds like a small and logical step, the role is very different.

Data scientists are solving problems in the front line. Every day they are sharpening their technical, coding, problem-solving and communication skills. Some aspire to become chief data scientists. And when they finally get the position, they are amazed by how different the new role is.

Personally, I struggled with not building models, learning new technologies, studying new methods and trying them out all day, every day. I felt like I was missing out and the whole industry was moving ahead while I stayed still. Simply, I was used to processing — lots! People assume it’s a standard, easy transition from expert to managerial role. I would argue, it’s not. How do you strive as a data science lead? How do you add value to the data science team, the business and its clients?

Inspired by music

I love music. Mostly jazz and classical. When I listen to an orchestra playing, I’m impressed by the technical skills of the musicians; I’m equally impressed by the technical skills of many data scientists.

But I’m fascinated by how powerful, majestic and spectacular an orchestra sounds when playing together.

And this is entirely down to the conductor, who weaves the breathtaking experience for the audience.

Back to the data science world

How does this matter for chief data scientists? I believe there are two lessons to learn from world-class conductors.

  1. How they are conducting the orchestra

  2. How they keep improving in their role

Many books have been written about leading a team and the role of the conductor/orchestra analogy is not new. Wikipedia reads:

The primary duties of the conductor are to interpret the score in a way which reflects the specific indications in that score, set the tempo, ensure correct entries by ensemble members, and “shape” the phrasing where appropriate.

This clearly describes the execution. Pace. Leading a team.

Watch the following video if you don’t know what I am talking about:

But Wikipedia also mentions (with my highlights):

Conductors act as guides to the orchestras or choirs they conduct. They choose the works to be performed and study their scores, to which they may make certain adjustments (such as in tempo, articulation, phrasing, repetitions of sections), work out their interpretation, and relay their vision to the performers.

This is all about backstage, the ‘invisible’ part of a conductors’ job. We experience this ‘invisibility’ in the jumping of Zubin Mehta or dancing of Leonard Bernstein. But what actually happens behind the scenes?

Apart from driving a custom-made Porsche like Herbert von Karajan (!), conductors choose the works to be performed — studying, adjusting and interpreting them.

And this is what chief data scientists ought to do too.

A chief data scientist should make the best effort to:

  • keep up with the new trends in the world of data through extensive reading, following thought leaders and interacting with a network of experts to know about anything worth exploring

  • design and execute a data strategy that supports their business the most, by deeply understanding the business needs and carefully studying possibilities of the data

  • select projects to run and adjust them to fit the situation of the business

  • interpret results while being true to business problem

  • relay the vision of data to the data team and the business as a whole, by observing what works, what doesn’t and intervene when needed

And crucially, a chief data scientist needs to ensure the data team works as a world-renowned, co-ordinated, in-tune, in-flow orchestra! Knowing when to let people and projects shine, when to keep the momentum, and when to pull it back.

It is liberating (and considerably more enjoyable) for a chief data scientist to consider herself a conductor and not a manager. And, one can still closely follow the field of passion, just as a conductor is still a musician. Transitioning to chief accretive: ‘and’ nor ‘or’.

American conductor (pianist and composer) Michael Tilson Thomas, surmises the chief-data conductor nicely:

Being a conductor is kind of a hybrid profession because most fundamentally, it is being someone who is a coach, a trainer, an editor, a director… One of my central maxims is how a major part of what a conductor tries to do is get a large group of people to agree on where “now” actually is.


As ever, I’m indefinitely grateful to Chelsea Wilkinson for patiently shaping my thoughts into a publishable format.


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