The Maverick Interview Series - Meeting inspirational leaders of fast-growth organisations to discuss all things people and culture.

Today’s conversation is with the co-founder of The Data Analysis Bureau, Eric Topham. A London based end-to-end Data Science service provider, Eric and his team are here to help businesses make better use of the data they already own and to understand what data to collect.

In this interview, we’ll explore a range of topics, from Eric’s unique journey in becoming an entrepreneur, to what it takes to create a high-performance culture in a fast-growth organisation.  As always, I will be asking Eric’s advice for you, the leaders of tomorrow

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EL
Thanks for joining me today Eric, let’s start by hearing about how you became an entrepreneur?

Building the best culture has to start with us, as the relationship we have with our community is reflected in how they interact with our clients

ET
It was a complete accident. Two and half years ago, I was finishing my PhD in ecology, doing a large amount of data analysis, complex modeling and coding, and I fell into some consulting work as a data scientist. I quickly understood the industry and saw the role being deployed in a number of different ways. Then, randomly, I met someone on the train home one evening, who is now my business partner and we spotted a broader need for data scientists. It’s not something I imagined I’d be doing but it’s been fantastic.

The value of our service is maximized if we have a commonality of values, processes and methodologies

EL
So, what is The Data Analysis Bureau?

ET
The Data Analysis Bureau is a new and exciting model for providing data science services. We help our clients identify questions that would benefit from a data-analysed response, in turn helping them find the value within that data.  This service is usually delivered internally or by large consultancies, but we have created a hyper-flexible, cost effective and lean model using a community of freelance data scientists.

EL
Let’s talk about this community. In a startup developing the right culture is critical – Is this the same with a freelance community?

ET
Culture is vital. Over the past 12 months we’ve been working hard to ‘productise’ our approach in terms of how we deliver our solutions. In order for this to work across our wide community of freelancers, we need to establish the right culture. This means when a freelancer is partnering with us, there’s alignment and consistency in the work we deliver. But building the best culture has to start with us, as the relationship we have with our community is reflected in how they interact with our clients.

Investment in training plays a big part of how we build our community, and ultimately, it helps all the parties involved

EL
Do you think this investment in your community should be high on the agenda from the start?

ET
Yes, definitely. In our case, without the right community and culture, it becomes very hard to deliver value in the right way. If we had a disparate community with differing standards and misaligned objectives, the value of what we offering would greatly diminish. The value of our service is maximized if we have a commonality of values, processes and methodologies.

EL
One of the themes we’ve explored in this series is whether founders have a moral obligation to invest in their team’s development? What’s your view?

ET
I think there’s an obligation for any organization which is benefiting from human capital, whether they are freelancers or employees, to advance them. At the end of the day, they’re all doing the same job, but only under a different arrangement or agreement. Investment in training plays a big part of how we build our community, and ultimately, it helps all the parties involved.

EL
We know Reward plays a key role in engagement – can you discuss your model of reward?

In the beginning we worried about engaging enough clients – but, at the moment, it’s about being able to identify and grow our freelance community the right way

ET
We have a very competitive contract rate, but we understand time off a contract can be costly and stressful for a freelancer. It’s important for us to remove a bit of that pressure, so we share a percentage of our profit with our freelancers proportionate to the number of days worked. This strategy is part of our mission to improve the freelance experience overall. Of course, there are some real advantages to us as well, one of which is increased loyalty. This commitment fits neatly into our vision; to enjoy the freedom of freelancing with the benefits of working for a large organisation.

Another part of our reward is training. When our community of data scientists give back, say they share their knowledge online, they can accumulate points. These points can be ‘traded in’ to The Data Science Bureau for training courses. So effectively there are two ways, monetary and non-monetary, for us to give something back.

EL
I’m interested to know what are the big things that keep you up at night?

ET
Haha quite a few things actually! But one of the big ones is the growing number of people describing themselves as data scientists. This is great in one sense, as more talent is entering the market, but it also means more work in identifying the right level of quality and experience can be a challenge.

As is finding the right blend of skills and availability to avoid having to turn work away. In the beginning, we worried about engaging enough clients – but, at the moment, it’s about being able to identify and grow our freelance community the right way.

If you only ever hire people who are not as capable as you, you’re never going to achieve your potential

EL 
We’ve talked about freelancers and the importance of the right culture – let’s talk now about leadership. Where do you see the next generation of leaders coming from?

ET
Data science attracts people from many different backgrounds; people who have been commercial, who have been in analytical roles and have grown their skills in the field of data science organically. We also have people like me moving from academia into the commercial space and are seeing the very first cohort coming through the masters’ courses. This group will be the very first data scientists ‘from birth’ which is exciting.

So, the question of where the leaders will come from is interesting. On one hand, the academic group will be strong because the commercial space can lack academic rigor at times. On the other hand, those coming from a commercial background will have the edge in understanding what businesses want and can deliver data science in a business centric way.

Perhaps those coming through formal training will benefit from each of those groups and will turn into the first true data scientists, able to develop and elevate the field to the next level.

EL
I’d love to finish the interview with a couple of rapid fire questions. What would be your greatest bit of leadership advice?

ET
Make sure you’re hiring people that are cleverer than you. If you only ever hire people who are not as capable as you, you’re never going to achieve your potential.

EL
What skills do you think are most valuable in today’s world?

ET
The modern data scientist is no longer sitting in a dark room with lots of screens. The whole purpose of data science is to deliver value to a business, so scientists have to be very good communicators. This means the softer, client-facing skills are vital, from simple things like being personable and talkative to being able to explain complicated concepts in a succinct manner.

EL
Finally, if you had to give your 16-year-old self a bit of advice, what would it be?

ET
When I was in school I often asked my math’s teacher why I was slaving over regressions during my GCSE- I’d say “what’s the point? I’ll never use this in life!”. Well, that y=mx + c regression is the core of the data science role, so I’d tell my 16-year-old self to stop complaining and concentrate.

EL
Eric, it’s been a pleasure chatting with you.