A Data Science Tour of Duty

In September 2015, I was looking for a job in Austin and started interviewing at Yodle, a marketing tech company. Yodle was looking for someone with experience in data and predictive analytics, and I was looking for a company where I could learn how to code and work on new, interesting problems. It was a good match, but one thing that made this opportunity stand out was the way that my soon-to-be boss described what my time there would be like — a “tour of duty”. Tim was building a data science-y team and was testing out a management framework he had discovered called “The Alliance”. I was intrigued.

A tour of duty?

I’ll pause here for a quick explanation of The Alliance and the tour of duty concept.

The Alliance was created by LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman to address a lack of trust and alignment between employers and employees in a networked age. The gist is that since pensions aren’t really a thing in tech and most people no longer spend a lifetime at the same company, employees behave more like free agents — they are willing to leave a position when the next good thing comes along without concerns about loyalty to their employer.

The Alliance outlines a new employer-employee compact where employers can retain employees better by being open and honest about this situation and focusing on how they can add mutual value to each other. One way to do this is to establish a tour of duty for each employee — a commitment by both parties to a specific and mutually beneficial mission (with explicit terms) to be accomplished over a realistic period of time. For a more thorough explanation, check out the visual summary below.

There are some other key components of The Alliance beyond the tour of duty that I’m not going to outline here. The framework for having open and honest conversations about career goals and timelines was also interesting and impactful for me, and worth a read if you’re interested.

My tour of duty

My transformational tour of duty started with making some goals to be incorporated into a formal growth plan. (One crucial piece of The Alliance is that the mutual agreement between employers and employees should be written down, which includes the things that each party hopes to achieve during the tour of duty.) My initial goals included learning to code, doing innovative data analysis, and learning to automate things, all of which would be put to use on a project to build in some automation around our A/B testing.

Building trust incrementally is another facet of The Alliance — the relationship deepens as each side proves itself. I wanted to learn how to code, and Tim gave me about two months of paid development time to ramp up on company practices and learn to code before diving into analyses. This built trust for me immediately, and because my boss was willing to invest in me, I was happy to invest in his mission and doing great work for our team.

The timeline we set for this first tour was about two years, and especially at the end of my ramp-up period, I was feeling really good about it. We did weekly 1:1’s to check in, and I was able to freely talk about how my goals were changing as we accomplished things along the way.

…Okay, multiple tours of duty

Four months after I started, Yodle was acquired by Web.com. If you ever want to throw a wrench into long-term job plans, an acquisition really is a great way to go. Due to several shakeups that were beyond my boss’s control, I actually ended up completing three distinct tours of duty — one in marketing analytics and automation, one in product analytics (including feature research and user behavior) and a final tour in production machine learning and data science.

During these times, Tim let me know when he was having doubts about projects or when tectonic shifts in our organization’s structure were coming. His openness and honesty empowered me to be open and honest. At one point, I told him that I didn’t want to do product analytics work — my job at the time — anymore. (Note: I actually like product analytics, but I really wanted to learn how to build machine learning models and put them into production.) My goals had grown with my skillset, and he added me to a team where I could pick up these new skills while continuing to add value to the business.

Multiple shorter tours was definitely was not what we initially planned, but we were able to be agile and adjust as needed, and I’m grateful to have gained valuable experience in multiple arenas. My last tour in particular was exactly the kind of transformational launchpad that we talked about when I first joined.

The end of the road

Tim had always been very up-front that if my dream job came along, I should take it. In turn, he let me know when he was contacted by dream-job-level prospects, and kept me up-to-date on how he was feeling about his role, his missions, and his career path. When I had an inkling of when it would be time for me to move on, I told him.

Another goal of The Alliance is to extend the relationship between employer and employee to be a lifetime relationship that exists beyond the scope of a single job. I feel really good about this. I’d love to work with Tim again because I know he cares about my career beyond a single job, and he demonstrated this by giving me the opportunity to work on projects that would grow my skillset and enable me to move on to the next thing.

Post-tour thoughts

If I had the chance to work within The Alliance framework again, I’d take it.

The Alliance is rewarding, but it’s also tough. It takes commitment from both parties and a lot of gradual trust to get the point where you can talk openly about your career beyond the scope of a single job (but once you get there, it’s worth it). When plans changed or gave way to new ones, being able to talk openly and honestly about what was and wasn’t working allowed me to build my skills while helping the company with its goals — a win-win.

My tour of duty was a transformative step in my career, exactly as it was designed to be. With a roadmap, a reasonable amount of time to dedicate, and a clear explanation of how my projects would be mutually beneficial to me and the company, I was enthusiastic about my work. I was given the opportunities I needed to learn new skills, build cool things, and work with great people. As my time at Web.com comes to an end, I’m happy, well-equipped, and ready to start my next tour of duty.

**
If you’ve worked under The Alliance framework, I’d love to hear about your experience and whether there’s anything you might add or change — feel free to ping me on Twitter.

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