The role of passion in data science is extremely undervalued

As the title implies, I have a pretty strong opinion on this one.  And it’s not because companies aren’t placing enough emphasis on hiring data scientists with high passion (vs just great technical skills).

No, I’m more saying passion is undervalued because I’m hearing more about companies who are actively working to kill the passion of their data scientists – turning them into corporate drones.

It’s probably not intentional…or at least, I don’t think it is.  It’s more, companies aren’t realizing just how unique of a mindset the best data scientists must have to be world-class…and how fragile that mindset is to getting overwhelmed with bureaucracy and corporate politics.

It’s suffocating, and I don’t think many companies appreciate this.  The best data scientists look at the world completely differently – and without even realizing it, many companies are stomping that out.


The most valuable trait a data scientist can have is passion

I was talking to one of my industry buddies about this, and he’s currently going through a tough time.

Long story short, he’s having to philosophically choose between (a) maintaining the passionate, curious mindset that has made him a high performer, really caring, really digging into data to find true insights vs (b) becoming a mindless corporate drone, with the passion squeezed out due to corporate and bureaucratic pressures.

He really, really cares about the work he’s doing, but his job is just doing all it can to kill that inner flame.  And it’s not in one fell swoop – from what I can tell, he’s just being pulled in a million different directions and getting slowly suffocated by internal corporate politics and mindless, legacy bureaucracy (‘well we’ve always done it this way’).

What makes a data scientist valuable is not wearing the most polished suits, saying the fanciest buzzwords, having the firmest handshake, maintaining steadiest eye contact – it’s finding insights in that data that no one else has ever found.

To be world class at that, you need passion.  You need energy, you need the inherent motivation to keep digging – long after everyone else would have quit.  You need to appreciate how ‘good enough’ analysis will almost never result in true, valuable insights that actually matter.

You have to spend some of your spare time reading about the industry, lurking on message boards to find out whatever additional little nugget of information that may help lead to a breakthrough in your next study.  You need to commit to becoming an expert in your business domain, and never stop asking questions.

You need to have passion that transcends what you’re actually getting paid for – not because you’re looking to give away free work, but because you think this stuff is really cool.

That mindset, where you always want to keep improving, keep learning, becoming a world-class domain expert – it’s so valuable, and so rare.  I just don’t know if you can teach passion, and convince someone to care.

This mindset takes a ton of energy.  You never stop questioning yourself, never stop digging, always looking to deliver that world-class analysis.  And yet – some companies don’t seem to recognize this.

They don’t understand just how easy it is to kill passion.  How just a few extra meetings, just a couple extra budget spreadsheets, just a few meetings with other managers to fight over timelines, just a little internal audit, just a bit of non-critical bureaucracy, just a bit of corporate politics…how all of that adds up and will kill the passion of a data scientist.

And you know what – that’s fine.  The incentives in corporate America right now is not to be valuable, it’s to be a drone.  It’s not to be passionate and deliver value, it’s to stay in line and keep your head down.

As an employee, it’s very easy to lose – but employee home runs pretty much aren’t rewarded.  It sucks, but it’s the message that a lot of corporate America is sending right now.

I think companies are going to have to choose.  They can either treat data scientists as, well, scientists – where curiosity and passion are absolutely the currency of what makes them valuable…

…or, companies can kind of just keep going and assume that forcing data scientists to be drones is well of course the right move – my leadership book said so!  Company culture!  Process!


So what’s the solution?

…I don’t know.  I’m guessing my buddy is about to quit, even without having another job lined up.  It’s a bad situation for everyone involved.

Are some data scientists (including me) just too ‘sensitive?’  Sure, and I would readily admit that.  It’s something I’m working on.  However…where’s the line between ‘sensitivity’ and ‘passion?’  For me…there isn’t really one.  It’s kind of a package deal, if you truly care about what you’re working on.

If you’re somehow still reading, one potential recommendation:

Let’s say a data scientist comes to you and says they’re feeling a bit overwhelmed with any work-related items that (a) aren’t data science, and (b) are non-essential.  I would take that conversation very seriously

In not so many words, they might trying to tell you that they’re being turned into someone they don’t want to be.  That could very well be the last ‘open’ conversation you have with them, before they quit.


The views expressed on this site are my own and do not represent the views of any current or former employer or client. 


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