Industry Leaders on the Future of Data Science with Martin Thorn (abrdn)

In our new blog series, The Future of Data Science from Industry Leaders, we asked four industry leaders from across the UK what they expect to see heading into 2022.

In this edition, Martin Thorn, Head of Data Science at Abrdn, shares his thoughts on how businesses can prepare for the coming year.

Martin has more than 25 years’ experience in the data science industry. As Head of Data Science at Abrdn, Martin is working towards deploying data science into an organisation that hasn’t previously tapped into its benefits.

The core of his role is to bring in concepts and ideas that have worked in other industries and see how they can be applicable to Abrdn.

Martin, thanks for joining us. There is currently a boom in data science roles, across the profession, and that’s exacerbated by the lack of data scientists worldwide. What else can we expect from 2022?

I think Data Scientists will become more of a commodity in terms of skillset with a lot of the “grunt work” being moved offshore in the same way other development roles have. There will always be a place for highly skilled data scientists working with a stakeholder, but I think we’ll see the actual development moving offshore. This may be accelerated by the increase in the usage of the citizen data science tools but I’m not 100% confident there. I also see budgets being squeezed unless companies start to see tangible results.

Speaking of budgets being squeezed if companies don’t see tangible results, what are the other biggest challenges that data scientists face?

Being relatable. How do you bridge the gap between a PhD data scientist and a CEO?   At the moment, they are often speaking a totally different language and that’s going to hinder adoption. I think the industry needs to start making good on the promises made by the vendors and consultancies. Too many people have spent millions on data projects and have yet to see a return.

That needs to change very quickly, or we will find that the investment starts to dry up. In order to get there, I think we need, as an industry, to be much more clear that a revolution powered by data more often than not involves seismic changes in the organisation. That might be job losses or it might be repurposing people to other roles but either way, there will be a big emotional cost to this revolution. That’s the hard bit and it’s the bit you don’t see in the sales literature. There are too many great innovations sitting on a shelf as the business struggled with the final yards.

Those are some big predictions with long ranging effects, how can people prepare for those challenges?

Just be honest about what we can and can’t do. Machine Learning can’t fix the world’s problems and the more we say “ML isn't’ right here” the more we gain trust. As an industry we also need to be careful about being too fond of our roots in academia. In the business world ‘dumb but in production’ beats ‘clever and on the shelf’ every day of the week. We need to bake in simplicity, not dazzle the world with our clever words.

We’d be remiss not to talk about the shift to work from anywhere. What’s your advice for people managing remote teams for the first time?

The same things that make a team work face to face work in the remote world - spend time getting to know your people and ensure they are able to make the most of the opportunities this rather strange time affords us. More than ever it’s about offering flexibility to ensure that people feel supported to work in the way that suits them best. That might be fully remote, in the office or a hybrid. The managers and companies who can blend all three will be the ones that succeed.

And for people that are joining remote teams?

Don’t focus on the skills that got you your qualifications. Those skills are great but lots of people have them. How do you differentiate yourself? Put yourself out there, make a different noise and over-simplify everything. That will make you stand out. Also do the humble things that gain empathy and trust. Simple things like playing back what you heard off the back of a meeting before starting your work. Best case it confirms you were right and are on course, worse case you find out you’ve missed a bit and it’s fixed before you start work. Working remotely just means you have to make sure you’re keeping in touch more. I started this role remotely and it is harder than in real life but there are huge plus points for me personally.

Lastly, diversity and inclusion are finally beginning to take it rightful place in the conversation. How can we make sure that people coming into the industry are more diverse and that the industry is more inclusive?

I think we have to be less prescriptive about qualifications and backgrounds and look to what value people can add. Tech skills are only half the battle, and that percentage will, I think, reduce as every year passes. If we continue to insist on PhDs from highly regarded universities, we will miss out on some amazing self-taught talent.


Listen to Martin Thorn on MBN Solutions’ data science leadership podcast, In Focus.