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What is a data leader & how you can become one (even if you don’t have a STEM degree!)

Lillian Pierson, P.E.

Lillian Pierson, P.E.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In today’s post, you’re going to get quick answers to the following questions: (1) what is a data leader? And (2) how to become a data leader?

There’s a BIG myth going around about data leadership that I’ve been seeing lately.

 

That myth? 

That you need a degree in STEM, or tons of data science implementation experience in order to secure a position in data leadership. 

Whatever misconceptions you may have, or whatever you’ve heard before – I want to make it clear…you do NOT need either of those things to be a data leader!

So yeh, like I said, today you’re going to get a quick definition answering the question “what is a data leader?” and then I’m going to share with you a case study that illustrates how one of my readers managed to become one (without a STEM degree or any serious professional data implementation experience).

If we haven’t met before, I’m Lillian Pierson. I’m a data strategist and the founder of Data-Mania, and it’s our mission to help other data professionals get ahead in their careers by becoming data leaders. To date, I’ve trained over 1.7 million workers in data science in partnership with LinkedIn Learning and Wiley. 

Part of what prompted me to address this was a comment I received on Instagram the other day. Someone asked, “do you think that in order to be a good data leader you should first master data itself, through data science?”  

And my answer to that question is “yes – but also no”.

Let me explain.

I have seen many amazing data leaders out there that never actually practiced data science –  they didn’t build models or implement solutions.

 

What is a data leader, anyway?

A data leader is a highly data-competent leader whose job it is to make sure a company’s data projects are profitable and performing well.

 

 

This is key, so I’ll repeat it again:

A data leader is a highly data-competent leader whose job it is to make sure a company’s data projects are profitable and performing well.

 

I’ve also defined it over here, as:

  • A leader or manager of data projects on behalf of your employer
  • An online thought leader in the data industry
  • A leader of data projects within a business that you own
  • A leader of data projects for client’s who’ve retained your data consulting services

 

What sort of competencies do you need to become a data leader?

what is a data leaderBeing a data leader requires data competency and knowledge from a wide range of consulting and leadership expertise as well. Relevant experience includes:

  • Data strategy
  • Data competency (ie; data science, data engineering, AI, data storytelling, data management, data governance, data privacy, AI ethics, etc.)
  • Organizational leadership
  • Project management
  • Thought leadership

 

In order to become a data leader, you definitely need to understand the ins and outs of how data science works, all the algorithms, all the caveats, etc.

But that’s not all you need to know.

You do have to know statistics and a good bit about computer science. And you certainly need to understand the principles of data storytelling and analytics design. You also need to understand the ins and outs of data science, AI, data engineering, data management & governance, and more…

But on top of all that, you need to have good leadership and project management skills. It’s a management position after all, so you should have a good grasp on managing and leading a team. 

And last but certainly not least, you need to understand strategic and tactical planning. 

So, no – just doing data science is not the way to move into a data leadership role.

What you actually need is to know data science, and then broaden your range of expertise to support you in a higher function within a data leadership role.

What you actually need is to know data science, and then broaden your range of expertise to support you in a higher function within a data leadership role.

 

Case Study – Landing a Data Leader Role Without a STEM Degree

Let me illustrate this with a little story about one of my readers.

I want to introduce you to a gentleman named Tim. In reality, I’ve changed his name and other key details for the sake of anonymity, but this story is 100% true. 

Tim attended a liberal arts college and pursued a degree in Government Studies. After finishing his studies, he went on to work in – you guessed it, government. He also went on to learn project management and get his certification. In his first big role out of college, he landed as a position as a business analyst. Specifically, he landed a role as a business analyst within the IT department. 

Tim did a stellar job in this position, and his superiors were impressed, so they promoted him to be a senior analyst within the IT department. In these roles, Tim got to know IT from a business perspective, which plays a pivotal role in this story of his. 

And keep in mind, on the side, Tim has been up-leveling his project management skills and working on those credentials. 

So here we have Tim who has great people skills, great project management skills and understands the business of IT, and the next thing we know, Tim’s been promoted again – this time to be an IT Team Leader. 

After some time in this position, Tim decided it was time to exit the public sector and move into the private sector, where he became a management consultant working in technical project management. Through his years in IT roles, Tim started taking an interest in data science.

IT projects tend to be very data-intensive and there’s a lot of overlap between IT and data science, so he decided to dig into data and diversify his skill set, once again. He approached data science from a self-study perspective, purchasing my book, Data Science For Dummies, and taking online courses to learn how to implement data science. Tim fell in love with data science and was eager to bring this expertise into his career. 

Fast forward a few years, and I get in touch with Tim. You want to know where good ol’ Tim’s at now?

Tim is suddenly Chief Data Officer at Ritzy Karton, a luxury hotel chain (FICTITIOUS NAME ALERT: remember this case study has been anonymized ???? )

What are his duties?

Tim now spends his days building AI programs, managing leadership relationships, and managing teams of data professionals to make sure that projects are delivered on time and under budget, and then, of course, doing data strategy and oversight.

To me, Tim’s story is an incredible one. 

Because trust me, it’s HARD to snag a data leadership position (even harder than a data science position in my opinion).

The difficulty is reflected in the pay scale. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a data leadership position is $236,000 a year.

Tim was able to secure a position like this with his liberal arts degree, using his people skills, his sharp project management skills and by learning data strategy skills. 

He didn’t spend years implementing data science – his career wasn’t about that. It was about understanding the ins and outs of IT, being great with people, finessing situations, inspiring and motivating team members, and developing strategies to deliver projects that are actually profitable for businesses.

 

Imposter Syndrome and How It Holds Us Back 

I’ve spent years being an engineer and a data scientist and I know firsthand how it feels to beat yourself up about “not knowing enough”. You think you just need to learn a new programming language, you just need to get better at this methodology, that you just need to master deep reinforcement learning or whatever the latest trend in data science is and then you’ll be enough. You’ll get promoted, you’ll move up a rung on your data career and you’ll finally get the recognition and salary you deserve.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t work like that.

The thing about imposter syndrome is that the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

There will ALWAYS be new data implementation skills to learn. Data is an ever-evolving industry. 

The key to advancing your data career is not to get caught up in a continuous cycle of online courses and doing and learning more, more, and more implementation skills. The key is to diversify your skillset and learn the skills needed to become an effective data leader. Skills like project management, leadership, team management, and data strategy.

“What got you here won’t get you there” and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to your data career.

I share all this to educate my fellow data professionals so that you can know what to focus on in order to grow. In order to advance. There’s a popular saying, “what got you here won’t get you there” and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to your data career. Taking more courses on Udemy and diving into new programming languages will not help you snag a data leadership position. 

I’m also sharing this for all of you out there who are interested in data strategy but DON’T have that data science and implementation background. If you are a business analyst, a business intelligence or analytics specialist, you too can be a data leader.

All you need to do, my dear data professional, is take your exceptional data literacy skills, and focus on up-leveling your people skills, leadership skills, project management skills, and diving into data strategy. Easier said than done, I know… But with a little effort every day, you’ll be leading data projects before you know it!

 

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Hi, I'm Lillian Pierson, Data-Mania's founder. We welcome you to our little corner of the internet. Data-Mania offers fractional CMO and marketing consulting services to deep tech B2B businesses.

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Fractional CMO for deep tech B2B businesses. Specializing in go-to-market strategy, SaaS product growth, and consulting revenue growth. American expat serving clients worldwide since 2012.

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