By Saeed Mirshekari

Dec 21, 2021

Take Care of Your Unicorn

There were times in the past years that a lot of people were all in agreement that Data Scientists are unicorns! They have super powers but they are extremely hard to find. If you can find and hire a Data Scientist for your company, you are extremely lucky!

Nowadays, after more than a decade into the major boom of Data Science and Machine Learning, we have a lot more Data Scientists (Data Analysts, Data Engineers, Applied Scientists, Statisticians or whatever they want to call themselves!) in a lot more business sectors, in a lot more regions, and in a lot more companies! Considering this huge growth, are we still in agreement that Data Scientists are unicorns?!

Well, I believe true Data Scientists are still unicorns! However, over time some of them turn into other creatures if they don’t take care of themselves. Later in this note, I’ll explain how some Data Scientists can turn into Unhappy Elephants, Dinosaurs, and Mules and how to avoid that. Before getting to that point, let me quickly clarify whom I’m writing this note to and why.

Whom I’m Writing This Note to and Why?

About 6 years ago, just after I landed on my first Data Scientist job in late 2015, I wrote a note on my journey [you can read it here: Physicist Turned Data Scientist: A Path from Academia to Industry]. My goal in that note was to share my experience with my fellow young academics as well as people with other backgrounds—who want to step in the same path of switching to the field of Data Science and Machine Learning as I did—to help them succeed in their journeys with less pain.

This note has been viewed thousands of times on the web since then and the feedback I received has been amazing! So I decided to write a second follow-up note focusing on my on-job experience during the past years as a Data Scientist in industry on a mission to find/create (one way or another!) the best work experience for myself and the people around me.

Whom am I trying to talk to in this new note? I am writing to two groups of people as the main audiences of this note:

  1. Data Scientists in their early careers (1-5 years on the job) who are thinking about improving their work experience in their current and/or next roles. That may also include Data Scientists entering middle career stage that are also reflecting on their career journey and next steps!
  2. Younger Academics (specifically graduate students and post-docs in STEM) who are prepared for a transition from academia to industry and now are available on the job market. They may be either in the process of job searching, evaluating a job offer, or anywhere in between.

Why am I writing this note? I am writing this note to help my target audience minimize the pain and maximize the joy through the process of finding their dream job and creating the best work experience early on in their career path for themselves and the people around them.

I’m a Data Scientist; Now What?

After you have done all the hard work and completed all the requirements to build up a solid skillset for a Data Scientist job (if you want to learn more about what is available and what is needed, check out my earlier note to see the details of my journey), you sooner or later will face the question: “Now what?”

Most people will find out in one way or another—unfortunately, many learn it the hard way—that the ultimate goal is to make sure you get a great work experience over time. However, the quality of work experience means different things to different people. How do you define a good working experience? Is it all about higher salary? Is it about job security? Is it about self-development opportunities? Or maybe a combination of all of these? Before sharing my views, let’s take a quick look at a couple of underlying facts and their supporting survey data.

FACT#1: On average, job satisfaction drops over time in early years of employment specially among people with higher educations. So be prepared and proactive.

A fairly recent KDnuggets poll (2018), based on a small sample of 635 voters in data profession including Data Scientists, Data Engineers, etc. shows that the s

Satisfaction (green line) drops with time, becoming close to zero after 4 years and staying low between 4 and 16, and rising sharply for the few people with over 16 years on the job.

This means on average most people (most probably including yourself) are going to face some challenges in the early years of their career path and most of the time this leads to a drop in the level of job satisfaction. Therefore, it is important to be cautious and take care of the unicorn Data Scientist you have built in yourself over years.

FACT#2: There is a specific set of common factors that derives the job satisfaction. And it's not always about money. So be aware and take precautions.

The top 10 responses when PwC asked 19,000+ people their reasons for leaving as a part of exit interviews they conducted for clients. As reported in (2005) The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave by Leigh Branham, page 21, Figure 3.1

A relatively big survey with 19,000 employees in 2005 shows that the deriving factors in job satisfaction are quite common and unlike the common perception, it is not always the compensation. In fact, most of the people are leaving their jobs because of bigger opportunities elsewhere towards self-development and to get out of an annoying situation in the relationship with their supervisors.

That means despite various reasons that might cause a drop in job satisfaction, there are a few common reasons why people become unhappy and leave their jobs. In the early years of your career, it is important to be able to measure the quality of your work experience and have a good understanding of that for yourself. Even though I cannot define or quantify the quality of the work experience for you, I can share mine with you and I hope it is helpful for you to define yours!

What Keeps You Happy at Work? A Triangle Model

I borrow the terminology from RGB (for Red-Green-Blue) color model to make my point about the 3 fundamental factors in the quality of work experience.

Here I’d like to share my view on how I “define” the quality of work experience. In addition to that, later in this note, I will also share a short list of things that did work and didn’t work for me to improve the quality of my work experience on my journey and I hope it can be useful to others for a better decision making on what to try and what to avoid.

What are the the first questions that come to your mind when you evaluate a new job opportunity? Write them down and look at them carefully. There might be a single thing or a long list of factors. Name the top 3 on your list! Those questions mainly define your perception of the quality of work experience.

Based on my experience, my top 3 most important ingredients for an excellent work experience—in no particular order—are: self-development, financial freedom, and mental health. Below you see an illustration of my happy-unicorn triangle model!

Happy Unicorns live in utopia! They have a great relationship with their supervisor/team, they work on the most challenging problems, and their paychecks reflect their skillset and contribution. They love going to work every morning! [Just kidding! They work from home since 2020.]

This is the best case scenario in which all of the 3 factors are there. That means this job helps you towards all of these important factors. Therefore, this situation guarantees a high quality work experience over time to me. The bigger the area of this triangle, the better the quality of work experience. On the other hand, the lack or shortage on either of these 3 factors can quickly shrink the quality of working experience. Now let’s also look at other possible scenarios…

Unhappy Elephants get paid well and work on some quite challenging problems but they’ve got a terrible relationship with their supervisors/teams. Most of them will not survive! They need to get their a** out of this situation ASAP! Tomorrow is too late for them.

In the Unhappy-Elephant scenario, your job pays well and helps you towards your financial freedom and also provides good opportunities to develop your skills (both hard and soft skills) towards a great self-development, but it destroys your mental health because of the bad relationships in your team or bad company culture in general. This situation sooner or later will turn you into an Unhappy Elephant!

Even if you have to compromise on a single factor, this case is probably the worst case scenario! Been there, done that! I’ve had times dealing with crazy dumbass bullying boss on top of terrible toxic company culture and it was the worst! The lesson learnt was to never compromise anything with your mental health in the workplace and get out now, because tomorrow is too late! Nothing is worth more than your peace of mind at work and it will affect everything from your productivity to personal life.

Happy Dinosaurs have a great relationship with their bosses and get paid well. They usually feel really comfortable in their positions for years. They live a happy life in their own world. But because they have been working on the exact same things for years, they’ve got only a few opportunities to develop any new skills. That makes them unattractive to others; it is hard for them to move too.

In the Happy-Dinosaur scenario, you get paid well and also get a really good relationship with your manager and team members. However, that job offers very limited opportunities for self-development. As a result, it gets harder and harder for you over time to move around and develop new skills.

In this case, you need a change! Either change your TEAM or CHANGE your team! As a younger person in your early years of your career, you have to always keep your eyes open not to turn into a dinosaur! Reflect on your past year progress and do your best to create opportunities for self-development as much as you can. It could be within your role or outside of it.

Everybody loves the Happy Mules except their future selves. They work on challenging problems every day and they’ve got a fantastic work relationship with their bosses/teams. The problem is that they usually don’t get the opportunity to reach to their financial freedom in a reasonable period of time on their careers. They are well under-paid and they don’t realize it until they do!

Happy Mules work for companies which offer great opportunities to build and enjoy happy and healthy work relationships. Their jobs also offer good opportunities to work on new and challenging problems that lead to self-development. But the only problem is that those jobs don’t pay what you actually deserve based on your skillset, contribution, and market norms.

The Happy-Mule case is certainly not the best situation to be in, but it is the quickest to recover from! When you let your Happy Unicorn to turn into an Unhappy Elephant or a Happy Dinosaur, it is very difficult to turn them back to become a Happy Unicorn again. It is absolutely possible, but it just takes time to fix those damages. Happy-Mule case is often relatively easy to fix! But it still requires some action to get out of that situation.

In this case, you have to speak up as soon as you realize that. Your future yourself will hate you if you don’t. This is your life and when you spend your precious time and skills—that you have developed over years—on somebody else’s dream to come true, you need to make sure you get paid for it accordingly just so you can spend the same amount on your own life dreams, whatever it may be. But never sign up for an unfair deal specially when it comes to your precious lifetime on earth. That sh*t is unique!

Here is a summary table of all possible scenarios in the triangle model and my projections and suggestions.

The Quality of Work Experience: Do’s and Don’ts

After sharing my definition for the quality of work experience, I would also like to share a list of actions that I found very useful and applicable in my early years of career in Tech industry and more specifically in the field of Data Science.

So here are the 10 actions that I did try and the result was great! Keep taking these actions helped me to improve the quality of my work experience in the past years. So I think they will work for you too:

1. Listen/Watch Carefully: You think you know it all? Listen carefully. You think you are the smartest person in the room? Listen carefully. You think the speaker doesn’t know what he is talking about? Listen carefully. There is always something you can learn from other minds around you just by listening carefully and openly. Do not close that doors, always keep them open. You wouldn’t believe how much of great new things come in!

2. Make Sure Your Voice Is Heard: Do not let your willing for listening other voices blocks your voice to be heard by others. You see something, you say something. Communication is key and nobody can hear your voice from your brain but from your mouth. Communication is amazingly powerful. In order to communicate well, you not only need to listen carefully, but also make sure your voice is heard.

3. Take Initiatives/Ownership: People usually remember you by the products you initiate/own even before before by your name. Isn’t that amazing? The reason is that taking initiatives and ownership differentiates you from your generic role and makes you unique. It opens new doors and leads to new opportunities too. It also proves your abilities to go beyond your basic requirements of your job faster.

4. Lead by Example: You will be surprised to know how much bigger is the impact of doing something rather than saying something! When you only say something, people only hear it through your words. They make their own interpretation of it in their heads and usually leave it there. It is difficult to unify and follow interpretations. When you do something, there won’t be multiple interpretations. So it is easier for them to follow an executed action. If that makes sense, people follow your lead.

5. Stay Humble: I’ve never regretted humility and I do not remember even a single time that I did not appreciate it from other people during or after a technical conversation. You can’t offend anybody by staying humble, but you can easily offend and/or hurt other people’s feelings by being arrogant or even just being over-confident, even though you think you are 100% correct.

6. Act as a Human: Act as a Human: When policies and protocols are unclear or you just simply are not sure what is the best decision at a given situation, specially in direct interaction with other people at work, the best option is always to follow your common sense and act as a human being. It almost always aligns with every company’s policy and it goes a long way!

7. Offer Help: That is what makes a team a team! You help each other out while walking towards a same direction as a team. You see a colleague struggling on their way, you offer to give a hand. They will do the same for you when you need help. Offering help is also one of the best ways to work with new individuals quickly and get to know them better. It can open opportunities that you could never imagine. You are planting a seed.

8. Learn How to Learn and Keep Learning: Never stop learning new things and developing your skillset, specially in the field of Data Science and Tech in general. Things are moving fast and you want to be updated all the time. Learning how to learn is the key. Also, always learn what you need to learn. Nobody knows everything! But you need to know your thing. Find it and stay on top of it.

9. Remember You Are Enough: Don’t get intimidated by the things you don’t know or things you haven’t done. Nobody knows everything, even if they pretend to! You are a capable person and as long as you know how to learn new stuff and take the courage and the hard work into doing something, you are enough. It always starts with the first step and it takes time, but you will get there! You are enough.

10. Look at the Same Thing Through Multiple Lenses: Before making important decisions, try to look at the subjects from different angles and through different lenses. Sometimes, a specific decision seems like the best decision until you look at it from a different perspective. I’ve been surprised many times by the new information that I could collect right away from an old subject, just by picking a new lens or a new angle.

On the other hand, below are five actions I want you to avoid at early years of your career and beyond. Keep avoiding these actions helped me to improve the quality of my work experience in the past years. I learned them the hard way as you don’t have to. Here they are:

1. Don’t Take Things Personally: This one is a big mistake and you should learn how to avoid it. It may happen at work that somebody says somethings critical about your work that you don’t like and you take it personal and react to it immediately as a personal threat. This is so wrong and can negatively impact you and the business and should not happen.

Always keep in mind that when talking about work and your contributions, it has nothing to do with you as a person and this is just business! Listen, absorb, digest, and respond. Your very first thought always should be: it is only about the business, unless you see other signs and evidences against it that eventually warns you about other possibilities which leads to a second don’t-item below.

2. Don’t Close Your Eyes on Visible Signs: As mentioned above, your first thought should be always around business and not personal. However, there might be times that you see signs and evidences repeatedly against common sense and simply things that you don’t like or in more extreme cases things against company’s policies such as bullying, ageism, sexism, racism, discrimination, and quid pro quo in work place. At this point, the big mistake is to avoid these signs.

Depending on the situation you have to think and manage them differently but the big mistake here is avoiding the alarming signs. The problems do not go away by closing your eyes on them. The job interview is probably the best time for you to look for the signs. Companies treat you the best they can when they try to hire you [during job interview process]. So if you see fishy signs there, expect minimum 10 folds bigger on the job! Companies interview you and you interview the company.

Do not allow others to intimate you to accept something against your good will. This process from noticing an alarming sign to normalizing it can happen gradually and slowly and can be hard to call out specially when happens from your upper managers, but it is certainly toxic and will hurt you in the long run. Do not ignore the signs! Speak up, think ahead and take appropriate actions. You should feel safe and comfortable at work place. That is your basic right and nobody can take it away from you.

3. Don’t Beat a Dead Horse: Sometimes you may get unlucky and end up working in a toxic workplace or maybe simply you need something important to you to be changed at work for a long time, such as a reasonable promotion request or asking for a project change. Always keep in mind that your actions need to be impactful. Otherwise, over time it is going to be like beating a dead horse and takes you a lot of energy and effort for zero results.

Changing people and company’s policies and culture is extremely difficult and requires a lot of time and team effort. Therefore, if you are not in a position to make an impactful change on what you need to be changed, avoid beating the dead horse and simply move on. I beat a heck of a lot of dead horses in my first years of my career but I’m getting better at avoiding it over time.

4. Don’t Fight a Wrong Fight: As an individual contributor, sometimes it’s just a better strategy for the business, for you, and for others around you to avoid getting into nasty fights! What do I mean by that? Reasonable disagreements and constructive critics are the moving engines of any healthy company specially in High Tech. If you think you have a better solution, always fight for it and don’t step back solely because of the sake of getting into a disagreement or critical conversation. That’s how we grow!

However, sometimes you may learn the other end don’t want to listen to you or they are not even open to changes or implementing new ideas. This is very disappointing to learn but good to know. There is not much you can do about this at that point. Getting into a disagreement or tense critical conversation can only hurt you. In that situation, change your location peacefully instead and avoid fighting the pigs. There is no reason for you to pick a bad fight, there are plenty of good fights out there in this world that you can spend your time and energy there.

5. Don’t Have Unrealistic Expectations: I learned it the hard way that managing expectations in advance and during a process is a key to success. Sometimes the main source of a lot of problems is unrealistic expectations. You expect something on your end, but the other end simply does not have the capability of satisfying your expectations in the first place. Always try to understand the team/situation as much as you can as soon as possible. This helps you to mange expectations and avoid any unrealistic expectations down the road on your end and on the other end. Communication is a key factor to avoid unrealistic expectations.

Saeed Mirshekari, PhD

Saeed is currently a Director of Data Science in Mastercard and the Founder & Director of O'Fallon Labs LLC. He is a former research scholar at LIGO team (Physics Nobel Prize of 2017). Learn more about Saeed...

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