How to manage a data science team? Interview with Kasper Pors Hansen, former Senior Manager in Arla Foods.

This post is extremely important for me as not only do I introduce you to the new version of my website – which cost me a lot of effort and a huge amount of joy – but also to my dream “People” series. I have always enjoyed exploring career paths of inspiring people from industry, considering their decisions and stories full of various challenges and twists. There is no better way of learning than being inspired by a person, especially if you’re that lucky so he/she becomes your mentor.

The first guest of those inspirational talks series is also very unique. Let me introduce you to Kasper Pors Hansen, former Senior Manager at Arla Foods who have played a great role in my career start not only as a manager but primarily as such mentor. Kasper has joined Arla Foods on the beginning of 2018 to help with modern digital transformation within the area of data and analytics. Together with the new formed team, Analytics Powerhouse, he faced the challenge to help help lead an initiative to centralize data across the company, making information more accessible and easy to understand.

When interviewing Kasper I aimed to learn from his experiences on topics such as challenges in leading data analytics team, the myth of golden mean in being a technical manager, the future of data driven world and most desired competences and his thoughts about remote work. I hope you’ll take a great pleasure of reading our talk and find the added value as much I did. Without further prolonging…

Sandra: Could you tell a few words about your story? What made you enter advanced analytics world? What challenges have you faced before joining Arla Foods?

Kasper: I joined the world of data and analytics in Africa more than 15 years ago. I worked for a consulting firm that developed a big payments platform (mPesa) for Vodacom in Kenya and my focus was on BI and making sense of all the billions of interactions that customers had with the platform. This was a 100% custom built platform and before the Power BI era so it was a lot of hands on development work. I have since worked in other industries but always with a focus on advanced analytics and software development simply cause I’ve seen how big an impact it can have on big organizations as well as down on individual lives in rural Africa. Some of the main challenges I have faced are typically around change management and people and not so much around the technology itself. That’s usually the easy part I’ve found. 😊

Sandra: What does it mean to lead a data driven organization? What is the biggest challenge there?

Kasper: My personal opinion is that it means more than just data. It’s about building new tools, skills and probably most important, a culture where people want to base their decisions on facts and data instead of relying mostly on gut feel. In my experience the challenges with becoming data driven change over time, depending on where the organization is from a maturity point of view. It may start out with being a technical challenge such as developing technologies that make the data available and then move on to being challenges with acquiring the skills that can use the new technologies and finally changing the business so it’s aligned with this new way of working. This is where the value really sits.

Sandra: Leading a team responsible for development in so many areas, dealing with various constantly evolving technologies seem to be the extremely hard piece of work. How technical a person on your position should be? Is it possible to estimate this „golden mean”?

Kasper: I don’t think there is a golden mean unfortunately as it depends very much on the person. Personally, it has helped me significantly to have a technical background to be able to understand the challenges that the teams face, in particular when you are starting out on this journey.  There are many opinions and data science and software development are not exact sciences at all. It may be just 0s and 1s but it’s still humans putting it all together, so it really helps to have some sort of idea of how it all works when you take decisions. I guess it’s the same in any industry. It would probably be a bad idea to make me responsible for managing a team of medical doctors for example. 😉

Sandra: What are the skills of future in a data-driven world? What are the soft skills which are required there? Do you consider them equally important as technical background or is it just a „valuable addition”? How important is a university degree in IT world?

Kasper: That’s a difficult question. I think domain knowledge will always be important. You have to know the industry and field you work in. More data specific skills are obviously going to be in high demand, such as the ability to develop advanced models and apply those to real problems, working with data models, and building IT systems that support this.

From a soft skills point of view I think it is important to be able to communicate well with others. A data scientist can rarely solve a problem on his own. In most of the cases he or she is dependent on a “business” person with domain knowledge and an IT person that can make data available. I’ve always valued my own university degrees very high. It may not seem super useful when you’re in the middle of it, and you may never use what you learned directly, but it teaches you to think differently and approach problems in a structured and systematic way.  

Sandra: Last year the way of work has changed a lot due to Corona Virus. What are your thoughts about remote management comparing to the times when you have entered the office every day? Is it more difficult now? Many companies in Poland do not trust they employees working fully remotely.

Kasper: I think and hope we will be able to work more remotely than we used to before Corona but with a good balance of being together physically in the office and working remotely at home. I have always been used to it throughout my entire career as my teams have been spread all over the world.  It worked well even when it was just via old school conference calls on a regular phone so of course it also works now that we can se each other and collaborate online.

Remote work opens up for a lot of opportunities to attract talent as well when you don’t constrain yourself to a single location and maybe in IT, where we’ve seen many employees being more productive at home during Corona, we will work in a setup where we meet quarterly for more intense working sessions and then go back and work individually from home. It’s all about finding a good balance I think and if you build a good team then it’s just a given that you can trust everyone to also work remotely.

Sandra: You know I am always joking about the fact, that you cannot call yourself an expert if you don’t create your own library inside your house – just to keep it as your Microsoft Teams background at meetings to look professional. 🙂
Is there any book that has made a great impact on your life and career and you could recommend it? It doesn’t have to be data related.

Kasper: When I did my MBA I was introduced to a book called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It is not data related, in fact it was written before anyone talked about being data driven, but I always thought Covey had some good points on how to approach challenges in life in general. The habits are very much around being proactive, staying humble, focusing on what’s urgent and important, not only thinking about yourself, understand before you can be understood, teamwork and continuous improvements. I don’t know if it makes you a more effective person, but I agree with many of the points he makes in his book and I believe it makes you a better person at least.

Summary

I am really glad about the outcome. It’s always a pleasure to work with Kasper and so it was in this case. I loved especially the intro about Kasper’s previous experiences – show me someone who’s beginning are that unique! Working for Kenya on technology ground must have been so interesting and challenging. I also claim that aspiring managers and data scientist will find some tips and directions here.

And what are your thoughts about our today topics? Do you agree with Kasper or would you like to share your opinion? Are there any personas from big data industry with whom interviews would you enjoy the most? Who should I reach out? What kind of questions would you ask them? Or maybe are there any topics you’d like to explore with the proper expert? Please don’t hesitate to let me know in comments or message me via contact form.

6 Comments

  1. traitors. we don’t talk about them.

    You’ve been warned.

      1. data siens is the path to the dark side.
        data siens leads to pytong.
        pytong leads to pandas.
        pandas leads to suffering.

        You’ve been warned.

        1. Author

          Hahaha. Seems that I have one more warning left… Let me think how to use it responsibly! *evil laugh*



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