March 28th 2017 | Dale M. Zupsansky | Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media
Executive search firm Burtch Works has placed Adam Holmes as chief data scientist at Upside Travel, Priceline founder Jay Walker’s new startup that uses big data to optimize travel deals for business travelers. Founder and managing director, Linda Burtch, led the assignment.
Mr. Holmes will spearhead the company’s use of terabytes of data delivered daily from online hotel and airline reservation partners to offer travel options to customers. He will provide innovative data science solutions and lead the company’s data science team based at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Most recently, Mr. Holmes was divisional vice president of analytics for Hudson’s Bay Company, leading data science and analytics across a number of marquee brands, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, and Gilt. Prior to that, he tackled analytics projects for Target Corporation.
A Challenging Hunt
“Upside Travel was looking for a quantitative leader, with a specific technical data science background who would serve as an important part of their leadership team,” said Ms. Burtch. “The ability to work in a startup culture was important, which involves tight timelines and fluid priorities. Having the ability to recruit and manage a team of difficult-to-find (and retain) data scientists was also of key importance,” she added.
Because the data science discipline has emerged relatively recently, there are only a small number of leaders available with both the quantitative skillset of a true data scientist “plus the leadership gravitas needed to interface with the C-suite and senior external partners,” Ms. Burtch said. “This makes the hunt for well-qualified leaders a challenging one.”
Ms. Burtch has more than 30 years of experience placing quantitative professionals. Her expertise has been widely cited in a number of news outlets, and her deep industry knowledge has made her an invaluable resource for clients and candidates throughout the sector. She recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss the recruitment of data science leaders. Here’s an excerpt from that interview.
Linda, explain the chief data scientist role?
In almost every search we take on, the chief data scientist is working with a greenfield – so they are tasked with establishing that capability within the organization. They also create the roadmap for analytics for their enterprises and work to establish trust with key stakeholders. These professionals work to prioritize high impact / high value opportunities using analytics. And, of course, recruiting, managing and mentoring this tough-to-find talent for teams is paramount. Overall, the most important aspect of their roles is to effectively and quickly evangelize the use of analytics and data-driven decision making enterprise-wide.
What are some of their key attributes? What do you look for in top drawer data scientists?
There are three crucial characteristics that we typically seek for a data science lead. First, superior technical smarts – deep educational background in math, computer science, physics, operations research or another technical field. While a Master’s degree is sometimes acceptable, a PhD is much preferred in many cases. Having a better than ‘working knowledge’ of big data tools – prior or current coding skills with Python, R, Java and a very strong understanding of the Hadoop (and related) infrastructures – is critical. Second, it is imperative they have the ability to understand the distinction between what might be interesting verses what is important for the business. Pragmatic, actionable, and value-driven solutions are always top of mind for a quantitative leader. Finally, the ability to influence senior level leadership and work cross functionally are key skills we seek out.
“Because the field of data science is so new, the pool of chief data scientists is a shallow one. When an organization is searching for their quantitative leader, they need to evaluate candidates with a very different lens than the one used for a typical senior leader search.”
Are there any peculiarities with organizations setting out to tap their first data scientist lead?
Most of the time, when we are asked to fill this role it is typically the first data scientist officer position the company has hired. So the first thing we do is to get leadership on board with embracing data-driven decision making. Operationalizing the use of quantitative insights by using a change management skillset is one of the biggest challenges facing data scientists. That is where the need to be a data evangelist is critically important.
Where does the best data scientist talent usually come from?
Because the field of data science is so new, the pool of chief data scientists is a shallow one. When an organization is searching for their quantitative leader, they need to evaluate candidates with a very different lens than the one used for a typical senior leader search. Oftentimes, requiring specific domain experience is unrealistic, as is defining a precise educational background or years of experience. Talented data science leaders can transfer their technical expertise between industries and disciplines and many will be comparatively early in their careers with disparate educational foundations. Some of the more (relatively) mature businesses with data science talent include technology, marketing services, retail, fintech, telecommunications, insurance and adtech. There are some exciting emerging areas such as IoT (Internet of Things) for manufacturing, energy and transportation organizations, and healthcare analytics involving work in bioinformatics and genomic research.
Can you share some other similar searches you’ve completed?
Many of our clients request confidentiality in their partnership with us, but in addition to Upside’s chief data scientist, we placed the chief analytics officer at Horizon Media recently. We have also worked with an East Coast REIT for their first analytics hire, an analytics leader for one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the country, and the first quant leader for an insurance firm in Dallas. We are currently on the hunt for the first quantitative hires for both an East Coast retailer and a Midwest investment company, as well as the head of data science for a new tech start-up in Chicago. We are continuously working on quantitative managing director positions with the Big 5, and just signed a contract for a data science lead for the best known CPG firm in the world.