How to Become a Data Scientist – Part 3
This is the third and final part of a thorough, in-depth overview of becoming a data scientist, written by a recruiter in the field. This part focuses on the job market.
Getting. The. Break. Everyone I met for this project got a break, one way or another. Dylan Hogg even got his before he completed his machine learning diploma, because a founder of The Search Party was an ex-colleague and wanted him on-board. So he joined as a software engineer and was given the chance to continue his personal studies with the ultimate goal to transition to data science when he was ready.
It is worth acknowledging: there is always the chance of getting lucky through an online application. But if you have come this far, it would imprudent to risk all that hard work by relying solely on this approach. Networking then, is crucial to landing that first job. And lucky for you, it couldn’t be easier these days. Whether or not you have pre-existing contacts like Dylan, get on Meetup and find your local groups. Not only are they an invaluable source of information, but you will also have the opportunity to meet the community and find out what is going on in the market.
One of the great things about data scientists is their passion for their field (without it, how would they have got to where they are?), and this means they are usually very active in the community. While this tends to foster a close-knit group, I have also observed a welcoming culture towards newbies and non-experts. As such, if you have something you could present, why not approach the organisers? I can’t think of a better way to gain exposure.
Be aware though… Recruiters also attend these events, and considering the role they play in the job market (until algorithms take over), it is only right that we dedicate some time to them here.
I am one of these! And what an interesting bunch we are. It is no shock revelation to say that our profession has a bad name. And here is the thing: it is for good reason. Due to intense competition, low barriers to entry, and an inability to attract and retain intellectually curious people, mediocrity is endemic in the industry.
Of course, good recruiters do exist – but they are few and far between, especially in complex technical fields. But what constitutes a ‘good recruiter’ in the first place? Well – in simple terms – I would characterise it as those with an established network of clients, and a good comprehension of the field in which they recruit. It is these individuals that are worth having in your corner, as they will know which businesses hire your type of skillset, and the reasons why *. This brings advantages through:
- Enhancing the efficiency of your search by eliminating the businesses/positions that are not relevant, which isn’t always possible to deduce from job advertisements/descriptions
- Connecting you with opportunities that you might not have come across on your own
That is the theory anyway. In practice it is tricky, because how are you supposed to distinguish the ‘good’ from the ‘not-so-good’, or from the ‘down-right-terrible’? To clear this up and more, perhaps a full account of how recruiters operate is in order, and what better than this coming directly from one who specialises in data science?
* For the sceptical reader, it might interest you to learn that even I have used a recruiter. I know, I know – a recruiter using a recruiter... madness.
1. Identifying Recruiters
Word-of-mouth. Good recruiters will have a reputation so recommendations from the community are simply the best place to start. I wouldn’t worry about what agencies are best; it is more important to identify the individuals.
Failing this, monitor job sites for well-written advertisements and search for recruiters on LinkedIn. If the content is original and not the usual clichéd drivel, then the recruiter probably knows what they are doing.
Once you get talking to recruiters, it should be obvious if they have a clue or not, simply by what questions they are asking. But at the same time, do not be afraid to pose them some testing questions (it always amazes me how rarely people do this).
2. No Recruiter Will Work With Every Business
Great, you have identified a respected recruiter and you are confident they will represent you to the best of their ability. But is that enough?
Probably not. It is important to realise that however proficient a recruiter is, they will not work with everyone. If you want to work through recruiters to give you good market coverage, or you want to use them to target a specific business or industry, you will need to find out what pre-existing relationships they have.
This is where it gets a little complicated. With so many competing agencies of varying specialities, a business often uses different agencies for different areas. Or they might have a preferred list of agencies (a ‘PSA’ or ‘PSL’ in recruitment speak), but have agreements to use other agencies when the preferred list cannot deliver. It is not important to understand the complexities here, just remember to probe the recruiter with a lot of questions about their clients and the nature of these relationships (asking where they have placed is a good starting point). Once you have this information, you can then attempt to identify a few recruiters with different client bases, which will then give you good coverage.
A quick word on trust though: this should go both ways. Just because a recruiter has discussed their client list with you does not mean they have ‘ownership’ over your future applications to these businesses. But at the same time, if you have no intention of using the recruiter and you are simply trying to gather information, that isn’t right, is it?
3. Recruiters Methods
When you are dealing with recruitment agents, it really is valuable to understand their incentives, most notably: how revenue is actually created. In most cases, recruiters are paid by businesses to fill their open jobs, and usually on a contingent basis, i.e. only after a placement is successfully completed. They are not typically paid by job seekers, and so even the very best recruiters will not place every candidate – they are there to fill jobs, not help every job seeker. However, for ‘highly placeable candidates’, it is in their interest to be pro-active, and it is therefore useful to be aware of the following method that is regularly employed in the industry.
In recruitment-speak, this is referred to as ‘reverse-marketing’. It is the practice of introducing good candidates to relevant businesses, irrespective of whether they have an open hire. I have successfully placed people using this method many, many times, and when done properly, it can be beneficial to all parties. Reason being – it has the potential to unlock opportunities that were not previously known, either because of fortunate timing, or occasionally because the business creates a new position as a result of the introduction.
Quite understandably, job seekers can be wary about their details being sent around without their knowledge, but the recruiter should be transparent with you. To make certain, probe them about their methods and whether they intend on employing this tactic on your behalf (as not all recruiters do this, and even if they do, ‘reverse-marketing’ is typically only conducted for the best and most relevant individuals). If it is their intention and you provide your permission, ensure that you agree the list of target businesses in advance, so you retain control of your search.
Take note that recruiters will often use this technique with organisations they haven’t worked with before, as it is an effective way of developing new business relationships. In this scenario, it might be in your best interest to approach the organisation directly, or use an agency that has a pre-existing relationship in place. However, I have also placed several individuals in this way, and created some very rewarding partnerships in the process. So if you trust your recruiter, why not allow them to try on your behalf? And if they have no luck within an agreed timeframe, you can then explore other avenues *.
* If this is unsuccessful, it is highly unlikely to harm your future chances of employment for two reasons – one, a ‘reverse-market’ of this nature will be conducted on an anonymous basis, i.e. your skills and experience will be summarised but no identifying information will be shared. And two, with no pre-existing contracts in place; there are no terms to dictate that the agency has ‘ownership’ over future applications.
4. Clueless Recruiters
Should you work with them? For a highly technical field like data science, I tend to think you should avoid the fools and partner with recruiters who have a good comprehension of the subject matter. However, like most things in life, it is rarely this simple.
Let’s say that a recruiter who is clearly lacking in the ‘understanding’ department approaches you about an interesting opportunity, and by dumb luck and some matching key words, the position is actually relevant. Etiquette might suggest that you should agree to be represented by the person that first informed you of the opening, but I flatly reject this – your job search is too important. If you really have no confidence in the recruiter, why not look at other options before giving your approval? You could explore applying directly, or you could find out if other, more trusted consultants are able to help.
Look – if you are the best person for the job and are represented by a clueless recruiter, it might not matter either way. But given the choice, it is preferable to go with someone you rate every time, especially if they have a good relationship with that business. I know from my experience: when I introduce a candidate to my established clients, quite often they will agree to an interview before they have seen a CV. Why? Because they know my track record and expect that the people I introduce will be relevant and worth their time. And a good recruiter doesn’t just act as a filter; using their knowledge of the business, the team and the interview process, they will help prepare you for the application and subsequent interviews. And if the hiring manager gets the wrong impression from your CV (this happens more than you might think), the recruiter is in a position to push back and correct the misunderstanding. But in a complex field like data science, they will only have this influence if they have the required understanding and credibility.