Searching for the secret ingredient of a successful data science team building. Interview with Mateusz Bogdański, Lead Data Scientist from Arla Foods.

Have you ever experienced the feeling of “clicking” with someone? Not in a romantic sense, but in general.
The longer I work, the more I try to understand certain patterns, observe people and capture elements that logically connect as a whole. There are many factors that go into being happy in the workplace. Although you may claim it’s quite an individual matter, many of them are common to most of us. For me the most important factors are the possibility to grow and to be authentic. I couldn’t work in a team where I cannot develop myself, challenge my skills with new projects and simply be myself.

Interview

I have spent some time thinking about the topic of the interview I want to conduct with Mateusz and then I’ve realized that he is the best company for searching this secret ingredient in team building. People often say how much work life balance is important these days. I totally agree with that however hard it may be during remote work. Nevertheless, as long as this kind of division is justified for me, I couldn’t do same with my personality. I want to be the same person, with the same vision and values ​​in my professional life as in my private life. That is exactly what this secret ingredient means for me.

As the introduction I wanted to say that it was Mateusz who have opened me the door of the data science intership not that long ago and became my first mentor. I really appreciate our collaboration from the very beginning as it’s build on trust and sincerity. I know that in case I don’t like anything in our cooperation, I can honestly speak out my mind and I can expect the same from him even though our relation has changed and now he’s not only my mentor but also manager. By changing teams over time and challenging ourselves in various projects, we have developed a great way of working about which I would like to talk today from various perspectives – like a Scrum Master with Product Owner, like a mentee with mentor, like a subordinate with the leader.

As a reminder I would like to mention that we have already brought up the data science team building and management on the interview with Kasper Pors Hansen but from the different angle. Let’s see what the ‘it factor’ in team building means for an experienced data scientist.

Sandra: Could you please tell us a little bit about your story? How have you get into Data Science? Do you have a classic, statistical foundation, a computer science background or do you come from a totally different area? What are the most interesting challenges you’ve had during your career?

Mateusz: I’ve graduated from actuarial statistics with econometrics. My master thesis is about using SOM (self-organizing map, what is a type of neural network). That was in order to find best investment opportunities on Polish stock market based on the fundamental indicators of companies.

After studies I have been working in financial sector where I focused mainly on automating business processes with a bit of statistics. Later I was working on forecasting the world trade, analysis in retail sector and currently I’m working in dairy. So from my journey you could say that we need analytics and data science everywhere, no matter the industry.

I’ve read somewhere a quote, that data science is not about modelling or using machine learning it’s about solving problems and this is something that I can fully relate to looking back to my career. What I also very often like to say is that I was doing data science, before it was named data science.

Data Scientist vs Statistician meme on tuxedo winnie the pooh
Sandra: What are the attributes of a good team for you? How to create a workplace which can enable team members to collaborate freely, share their opinion, ideas and constraints they face without the fear of being judged or unconstructively criticized?

Mateusz: Through my whole career I’ve been working in various teams and in different setups, covering different roles. Many of the teams were working very well but some of them not that much. It’s very easy to say from perspective now, why some of them weren’t working at that time, but harder to fix it while being in the middle, when emotions also take part in it.

I don’t want to sound like a coach, but the main reason why the teams were working well was a good example from the leaders. Maybe I was lucky in the past, because in each of the workplace I had a boss who was supporting me, but also left a lot of independence in solving complex problems. I have to admit that there were some failures in that process, but it also allowed me to grow and be in the place where I’m currently.

I think you could generalize this with a saying that example comes from the top and that’s what you should try to do in order to show people that they can do all of that things without any concerns. In general, when you listen to people, don’t judge them, share knowledge and try to be as transparent as possible it starts to create ‘good atmosphere’ in the team. I believe that every team has a potential, just sometimes people are not encouraged to work as a team.

Sandra: I really enjoyed the part where you’ve mentioned that sometimes it’s hard to think rationally in the critical situations. Is there even a place for emotions in the team? From the woman perspective I see that in the (still) male-dominated world of IT there is little space for being human. People often have difficulties in stepping out of the role of professionals, talking about mistakes and facing negative feedback. How to stay human under pressure, chasing deadlines and overpromising? How a good team overcomes obstacles?

Mateusz: From my perspective, the pressure is a bit removed from the developer while working in agile as he or she shouldn’t be forced to do more than is on the ‘board’. Whenever something new appears, we should either adjust the current task in order to make room for new one or move it to the next iteration. Here come the role of a scrum master who should be the guardian of the team velocity and product owner who should manage the expectations with the business. So yes, we should all be humans and accept that something can’t be delivered or needs to be postponed.

Sandra: As you’ve mentioned the scrum master role – what do you think about combining roles in a team? Referring to your experience, do you feel it’s a good solution to be a developer and product owner/scrum master at the same time? Do you have any thoughts or pro tips you would like to share?

Mateusz: It seems like a yes and no question, but I’m afraid I need to answer it in the worst possible way – it depends. What I’m certain about is that it’s not easy for a lot of reasons. Just to give an example, if I’m a developer and a product owner, my focus time on coding is starting to be limited. I need to work with stakeholders, answer questions, prioritize next steps, gather the requirements and many other things. So in essence I need to plan very well my tasks and understand how much time I can really spend on them, not to delay the development of other team members.

Thus just from this example – yes it can be done, but you need to be really detailed in planning the tasks and accept more distractions that would, for sure, delay your daily coding. It requires a lot of self-discipline and being honest with yourself and the whole team of how much work you can do. I would say that the most important pro tip, would be to understand what are your long-term goals, because you would need to sacrifice some of them if you’d like to cover two or more roles in a team.

Sandra: Coming back to the subject of knowledge transfer – could you say a few words about citizen data science which we develop currently in Arla Foods? As I emphasize on every occasion, I truly believe that to set up a well-functioning team or community as per this case, it needs to be based on its members interaction. How such process should look like in a perfect world and what are the benefits of maintaining citizen data science community within organization?

Mateusz: It may sound a bit too ideal, but I’m really a fan of democratization of the data and analytics and this is exactly what we are trying to do with the citizen data scientist programme. The whole concept is fairly straightforward, as we have limited resources and we are not able to help everyone in Arla with their analytical problems. We want to encourage people to start working with data on their own.

What we provide them is first a training where they can learn how to use R (in future we also plan to add Python) and environment where they can easily work with the data. After the training each of the citizen data scientists starts working on a project that is related to his/her area of expertise and accepted by their manager. During this work, they are supported by a buddy data scientist. We already have a huge interest in this and plans for expansion.

Sandra: Approaching the end, if you had access to any data on the world, what would you work on? Is there any problem which you’d like to solve?

Mateusz: I don’t know if I have one particular problem I’d like to solve, but as I’m also investing on the stock market I would like to have a bit more time in order to continue the work I’ve done in my master thesis. But as we all know, the time is limitation here…

Sandra: Do you have any book/s which have made a great impact on your career and you could recommend?

Mateusz: As a joke I could say there were couple of books that made me cry and one of them was about actuarial statistics. But getting more serious, during my studies I read two books that I can recommend for beginner. The fist one is “Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk” by Peter L. Bernstein. As the title says goes through the history of risk and ways of calculating it. Second one, as at some point of time I was really interested in deterministic chaos, is “Does God Play Dice? The New Mathematics of Chaos” wrote by English mathematician Ian Stewart. Also worth a read if you want to know a bit more about this subject.

From self-development point of view I could for sure recommend Napoleon Hill bestseller book “Think and Grow Rich”, which made a huge impact on my life when I read it I think around 10-12 years ago.

My reflections

Although I have this opportunity on a daily basis, also this time I am glad that I could compare our perspectives on today’s topic. I am curious if you’ve been able to spot Mateusz’s secret ingredient? It’s the trust from the top and a lot of independence in solving complex problems on your own. We have the greatest satisfaction when we find the solution ourselves. I totally agree with his point and I would definitely add it to my personal list.

What I’ve also enjoyed very much is how Mateusz mentioned the limited amount of time for our goals. Each of us has days of 24 hours in our lives, nothing more. Life is made up of constant choices that we need to make every day. It’s one my my biggest problems, I need to admit. I get excited about new ideas and projects so easily, I would like to implement them all immediately and forget that by fragmenting our attention to many things, we remain average on all of them. Sometimes it’s worth to sacrifice on one thing, to excel at our main goal. If you have to remember one thing from this article, let it be focusing on one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth.

Summary

I am really curious what is your secret ingredient of a good team. In what kind of environments do you feel fulfilled? What are you looking for in a workplace? Please feel free to share with me your reflections in the comments under the article or by contact form. I really appreciate all interaction with you!

At the end of this article, I’d like to wish you to find your right team. Or maybe you are already in it, you just need to discover its potential, referring to the words of Mateusz? Maybe this should become your mission? Keep warm and see you in the next article!

4 Comments

  1. I think good Excel skills are the most crucial ingrediate of a good data science team.

    1. Author

      Thank you for sharing your opinion. For me, maybe not crucial, but definitely a fundamental skill as very often data we deal with is stored in tones of spreadsheets. 🙂

  2. I have recently started a web site, the information you offer on this web site has helped me greatly. Thank you for all of your time & work.

    1. Author

      I am so happy to read that! What have you found most useful? 🙂

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