A Chief Data Scientist leads and mentors a team of data scientists and data engineers while driving the machine learning or deep learning initiatives of the company in all areas. A co-founder, well, they’re wearing many many hats. So what do you do when you combine these two roles? What does your day-to-day look like?
Enter: Christopher Penn.
Christopher Penn is the co-founder and Chief Data Scientist at Trust Insights, a marketing analytics consulting firm helping companies solve their marketing’s data and analytics problems. He’s going to take us behind the scenes on what you can expect if you pursue a career in data and if you decide to start your own company. Let’s see what he has to say!
Startup Boston (SB): How did you land on this career path?
Christopher Penn (CP): This career path actually found me. I started in technology way back in the late 1990s at a nonprofit and then in the early 2000s I joined a financial services company, it was one of the first online ones, I was the Chief TEchnology Office. I was also the guy that cleaned the restrooms on Friday because I was Employee #3. And what happened was, over the seven years I worked there, technology became more into play with marketing.
We didn’t have a name for it back then, but in the decade afterwards it became known as marketing technology. And updating the web server, sending newsletters, this is what got me started down the path towards building an understanding of the systems that involved marketing.
Then, in 2011, Google rolled out this product called Google Analytics Multi-Channel Funnels, which was part of the Google Analytics Suite. And it changed everything for marketers because it allowed us to understand how everything played into conversions. And it was at that point I really changed my focus from being focused on the technology of marketing to being more focused on analytics and data.
I made a couple career moves after that and ended up at a PR firm for 5-ish years, really focusing on data science and machine learning. And then sort of outgrew that company. They went into one direction and I and my now co-founder and partner wanted to go into a different direction and double-down on all of the things we knew we could do: organizational behavior and change,and using data to help people make better decisions. So that’s when we started this company, Trust Insights, as budding entrepreneurs with this idea that people could use their data better.
SB: What are you specifically responsible for?
CP: I like to joke that I just make charts most of the time. But my business partner, Katie, and I split the business into three pieces.
We heard from a college that every business needs three people: a finder, a minder and a grinder. The finder is the sales person that builds the pipeline. The midner is the person that runs the business itself, such as taxes, accounting, law and stuff. The grinder is the one that is doing the work of the business.
My role is the grind role. I write a lot of code, interface with clients, I talk to folks about what they should do with their marketing and try to impart on them what they should probably do differently based on the data. It’s not just, “Google is responsible for 60% of your traffic,” it’s, “This is what you see and this is what you think we should do about it.”
SB: How did you know this was the best career choice for you?
CP: I honestly didn’t. Data science as a profession didn’t really exist until about 10 years ago. I changed with where the market was going. Everything became digital in 2000, and once 2007 happened the world was totally different because the iphone came to market. And the iphone really did change everything.
When everyone has a computer in their pocket with a camera and a way to make media, everything becomes digital. Even if you’re offline and out and about in the world, you’re still taking photos for instagram.
So when it comes to this idea of career choice, the world changed to what I was already doing. It could have gone very differently, but it didn’t. So we’ll see what happens in the next decade. I’m interested to see where the world goes and if my career goes in that direction or not.
SB: What type of person does well in this role?
CP: The kind of person that does best in this role really depends. Just like there are all different types of chefs - pastry chefs, sushi chefs - there isn’t one kind of best kind of person to take on a data science role because data science is kind of like four professions rolled into one.
You need to have business skills, domain expertise, data engineering skills, and statistical skills. In order to succeed, you do need to have a minimum level of confidence in all of them. And then, specifically, there will be an area or two that is really your strength. Then, of course, there are soft skills you’ll need as well, such as communicating with other people. You need to be able to understand what someone is asking for. There’s enough room in the data scientist profession where someone could do well as long as they have minimal competence in all four areas
SB: What advice do you have for someone looking to pursue this career?
CP: The best advice is to do stuff because you love it and are interested in it. There are so many different ways you can approach this as a career and all of them require you to have some innate curiosity and to be tenacious.
I think the worst advice is to do it for the money because the money is temporary. A lot of stuff in data is being turned over to machines so our responsibility as a data scientist will be for more of the high-level stuff, such as looking for bias in our data sets, and if you don’t love what you do you won’t particularly enjoy it. So if you're working in this profession because you like the paycheck, one, it won’t last and, two, it will crush your soul.
Curious what a day in a life looks like as a Cofounder & Chief Data Scientist? Check out what Christopher does on a daily basis in the video below:
We love highlighting the movers and shakers of the New England startup ecosystem. Who should we highlight next? Fill out this quick form to submit your - or their - information.