DATA STRATEGY

Some practical advice on where to start from someone who’s been there before

Most resources I come across when looking for advice and best practices on how to build a data department at a middle-sized company are either about creating a data-driven organization or building a data team. However the position I found myself in more than two years ago required a more pragmatic approach:

As the first (and only) data person at an organization, how can you concretely start to introduce data best practices and build a data department?

Have you recently been asked to build a data department at a given company? Do you plan to take on this role in the near future? Or, out of curiosity, have you always wondered how an organization went from using almost no data to having a multi-person data team? If so, this article is made for you.

On the left, a castle card “Data department day 1”. On the right, a majestic castle “Data department day 500”.
Challenges of building a data department from scratch (image by author, based on pictures by Sigmund and Dorian Mongel on Unsplash)

When I got hired as the first “data person” at my current company in November 2021, I was faced with a blank field. The top management had unlocked the budget line for one data person, but the company was far from being data-driven. My manager had previously worked with tech and data roles, but his background was not extensively related to data roles at organizations. Finally, none of my colleagues in the tech department (mostly software engineers) had ever held a position related to data engineering, analytics or science.

So I gathered all the tools I had at my disposal. I could count on my previous experience as a data team lead at a scale-up company and on the skills I had acquired as a strategic consultant. Other valuable assets were to be found online: there are countless books and articles listing pieces of advice to create a data-driven organization or to build a data team. Asking questions to peers in the data community and to colleagues from other departments would also prove to be useful for the journey ahead.

In this article my ambition is not to teach you theoretical fundamentals that you could find online or in books. They are precious resources you can definitely rely on. But nothing beats experience in the field. What I want to…

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