”…Don’t worry so much about staying up on the absolute latest technology, just worry about delivering an overwhelming amount of value on the tasks you’re working on.”

After deciding a PhD wasn’t right for him, and after working years in the marketing industry, Alton Alexander decided to set off and start his own analytics consulting firm – Front Analytics.

I was lucky to be brought on during the early days of Front Analytics and see the changes and growth of the company. Alton’s whiteboarding skills are epic, and he meets with a variety of businesses to help them work through their data problems with a laser focus on how to provide immediate business value.

What’s a day in the life of a data scientist here?

“Our data science and engineering focus will vary from day to day depending on the clientele we cater to but there is a lot of collaboration between the data engineering and data science teams”. They follow the agile approach of doing daily standups and regular sprint meetings.

When I was there the team was split between R and Python but since then things have changed. “Oh yeah, the market definitely has shifted more towards Python, I’ve seen a strong pull from the clients themselves preferring solutions implemented in Python.”

What are the backgrounds of the people on your team?

Most data scientists on his team have a shared skillset around working with data in Python and R. “Most have made it through a masters in engineering or one of the hard sciences, but what I look for is creativity and past performance. There’s not any one background that’s looked at as necessary. Degrees don’t matter as much as creative abilities and having the maturity and emotional intelligence to understand executives’ needs and having the creativity to see the data opportunity.”

What are the skills or attributes you look for in new data scientist hires?

“I look for somebody who has delivered a significant portion of a project, even if they don’t necessarily recognize it or take credit for because sometimes there’s a level of humility. I would be looking for someone who is a lifelong learner, even if they don’t have a master’s degree or even a bachelors…they need to have demonstrated and applied what they learned in a way that moves the needle.”

When I asked him about his take on hiring generalist or specialist he had this to say: “I would avoid hiring the generalist if someone classified themselves as a generalist. I’m really looking for someone who can learn and has gone deep on something. They don’t have to be PhD level deep, but you pick up the general and fundamental skills when you go deep on something.”

“You learn how much is enough, or when is it done. And when people are a little too generalized, you’ll just jump from one framework to the next, or the new algorithm etc, but a specialist recognises that there’s the right tool for the job for that project.”

What would you say to someone just starting in data analytics?

“I would encourage them to look at their strengths, passions, and curiosity, and allow that to motivate them to advance through the harder elements of a task. To have the grit to push past the points where the average person gives up.”

In addition to focusing one’s curiosity and grit, Alton recommends finding a business area that you can become an expert in. “Make a move into one industry and maybe even one department within that industry and don’t worry so much about staying up on the latest and greatest, just worry about delivering an overwhelming amount of value on the tasks you’re working on.”

“If you find your passion and see it through all the way to creating value, tools will change, but that process of creating something and not being a 0x contributor, that’s where people need to be and that’s what I look for.”