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Keeping it Fresh – being a female leader in the data world

Being a leader in data and technology can be challenging for anyone. I think it’s fair to say, that in such a male-dominated environment, it can be more of a challenge for a woman.

So, the question I set out to answer today, during my workshop at the Women In Data UK 2018 conference, is this: How can you lead data and tech teams more effectively?

My session is all about drawing on our experiences, setbacks and qualities – as women –  in leadership, managing multi-disciplinary, technical and mostly male teams.

Harder to manage

‘Adapting your management and leadership abilities to suit the different personalities within the team can prove exceptionally challenging’

Managing employees in data and technology can also bring its own challenges. The stereotype of a data/tech specialist is someone who is introverted, has a higher IQ (which tends to correlate with a lower EQ), is usually not comfortable with communicating or presenting, and prefers doing deep, lengthy R&D projects that require limited interaction and maximum concentration.

Of course, this does not ring true with everyone, but adapting your management and leadership abilities to suit the different personalities within the team can prove exceptionally challenging. Especially when, as in this case, the team is all male.

Added to this is the fact that most teams are made up of millennials, who are used to moving around, enjoy flexible working and have their own business mentality.

These latter factors are best reflected by the fact that so many of the group I manage, as well as in many other data engineering teams, are usually contracted.

All of this means that it is becoming harder to manage data engineers – and, most importantly, to ‘keep it fresh’.

Qualified to lead

‘I draw confidence from knowing that I can be a bridge between the technical data world and the commercial client world, speaking in both languages as it were’

So why do I feel qualified to talk about all this?

Well, firstly, I am a millennial, and can empathise with how many of my team choose to operate. Secondly, I have a data science background – I studied Astrophysics, which is where my passion for data began (especially during practical sessions using telescopes). Thirdly, I have been operating in a male-majority environment for some time, but as a first experience – a chapter that has proved challenging.

I have also felt that my skills leave me in a unique position: my main strength is communicating the applications and storytelling of data, which means I enjoy working with the clients as well as my engineering team. In this sense, I draw confidence from knowing that I can be a bridge between the technical data world and the commercial client world, speaking in both languages as it were.

Overcoming challenges

‘Having learned various lessons and navigated through some challenging tests, I now lead a full-time, motivated team’

The past year has been a tough one for the data world for several reasons: GDPR has made everyone nervous; the Cambridge Analytica scandal shook the industry; but the toughest part of it all for me has been leading a team of highly intelligent and technical people.

That said, it has also been a year for development and growth with some positive results. When I took on the team a year ago, there was a significant churn and the team was very contractor-heavy. Having learned various lessons and navigated through some challenging tests, I now lead a full-time, motivated team and we all feel like we are winning!

I believe that to be a good leader in anything, you need to answer three important questions:

  1. What quality do your team value most in you as a leader?
  2. Which of your strengths help you best recover from a setback?
  3. What do you perceive as your greatest characteristics?

If you can answer those positively and channel the answers into your leadership style, then I believe that you can aspire to your full leadership potential.

Rowena Humby is Chief Product Officer at Starcount. This piece is based on a workshop that she conducted at the Women In Data UK 2018 conference on 29/11/2018.

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