Creating a community of impactful data leaders during a lockdown

Dan Harris2020-10-15 | 9 min read

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This article was originally published to LinkedIn. Thanks to Dan Harris for giving us permission to re-post it here.

In March, our carefully planned calendar of business events, conferences and meetings disappeared overnight. A short period of uncertainty ensured before the realisation that the virtual world would become the new normal.

Before the lockdown, my colleague, Nikolay Manchev, established the London Machine Learning meet-up for data science practitioners, and was able to grow attendance when he moved the meet-ups online.

I realised we needed something to bridge the gap from data practitioner to data leader. To be successful it would need to be immediately valuable to data executives. Not an easy task.

A re-imagined idea

During a previous role at Dataiku, I founded a ‘data and cocktails’ group. I partnered with Eden Smith who helped recruit our first delegates. Peter Jackson was our opening speaker around the time he and Caroline Carruthers were finishing the final draft of the Chief Data Officer’s Playbook – a book which has become required reading for current (and future) CDOs.

I went to that event armed with a dozen questions to open up the group conversation after the talk. I didn’t need them. Maybe it was the cocktails, but the conversations started immediately after Peter’s talk and didn’t stop for the next two hours!

I was taken aback by the willingness of the delegates to openly share their challenges, and particularly where they were struggling. Many were the first data leaders their company had hired and were establishing brand new data practices for their companies. They had executive support from the C-suite, who knew they needed to have data at the heart of their digital transformation, but often lacked the details of what needed to be delivered.

That blank sheet of paper was both a blessing and curse…

It was immediately apparent that these data leaders were on a similar journey and appreciated having a safe environment where they could share concerns and exchange ideas with a community of their peers. Maybe it was the relative newness of data science compared to my previous roles with database technology, but the candid exchange was like nothing I’d seen before.

I knew we were onto something back then, and I knew I wanted to replicate something similar in 2020 at Domino.

Enter the Data Leaders Executive Lounge

We needed to reimagine the ‘data and cocktails’ concept for a virtual world. We brainstormed as a team and struck upon the idea of sending people a gift that they would use to interact with an expert for a ‘money can’t buy experience’ during the session.

With exec support from our EMEA lead, Colin Mitchell, we bootstrapped the concept with a quick landing page, personal invitation and RSVP form. We had no idea if people would be willing to provide their home address or even if they would be interested. We needn’t have worried as we flew past our target of 12 delegates in 24 hours and had 30 people attend our first event two weeks later.

An event that I’m eternally grateful to Graham Pymm for delivering a unique wine tasting experience with a highly engaging Glaswegian twist!

Why did Data Leaders choose to join us rather than established groups?

This is a question I’ve wrestled with for some time. I think perhaps we were early to market with an interactive gift idea that I’ve seen a number of other companies do since. But I don’t think that’s the main reason. I think what we’ve tapped into, is a genuine need for human interaction between peers working on similar challenges, but in different organisations, and bringing them together to share ideas, challenges, and sometimes be a shoulder to cry on!

Breaking that down further, I think these factors also played a role.

1. Exclusivity

We made it invitation-only, vetted every invite before we sent it, and double checked our RSVP’s before granting access to ensure we’d maintain the integrity of the group and its access only by data leaders. For example, you need to be running a data division, practice or team to join. In doing so we could keep our topics strategic and the conversations relevant to leadership challenges.

This group is one of the best alternatives to face to face meets I have been part of! Ideas here have really helped me scaling and automating model builds across my team of 60 data scientists. You are doing a great job!

2. Confidentiality

Whilst we’d use Zoom as the delivery platform, we decided from the outset that we wouldn’t record the sessions or even use the corporate webinar version of Zoom that tracks attendees. Instead, we ran it on my personal Zoom account and all that was required for entry was the invitation link and meeting password. We announced the meetings would be run to Chatham House Rule, with the aim of encouraging openness of discussion and facilitating the sharing of information.

3. Specificity and relevance

We created an entrance survey for the first event where we asked the members of the group what their top data challenges were and what format they thought would be most insightful to address them. Whilst they were happy to hear from Domino and our partners, they were most interested to hear real world talks from their peers and for us to create an open format for discussion and debate.

We’ve enjoyed talks from data leaders such as Harvinder Atwal and Ben Dias, but have since included the views of Forbes AI columnist and venture capitalist Rob Toews, author Caroline Carruthers and data staffing CEO Jez Clark. The best part though has been when we drop the mics and open up the floor to the audience. We’ve never been short of lively debate!

We’re delighted to be receiving unsolicited talk topics and offers to speak from our members because that really helps to keep things relevant and ensure we have a great re-attendance rate from our members.

4. Community and networking

During the pandemic when in person connections have been largely impossible and business models have been disrupted, we’ve sadly seen teams furloughed, made redundant, or even members lose their own positions. Data Leaders Executive Lounge has been a port in the storm during this period. At the same time, other teams have flourished and been hiring, we’ve seen some mobility between member organisations.

The Lounge has doubled in size with every edition and that growth has largely been fuelled by members referring peers from their network.

5. Fun

At the inception, I was very mindful that the increase in Zoom calls and decrease in personal contact was causing burnout. With almost all the in-person conferences switching to online, the last thing people needed was ‘another Zoom call’, no matter how well intentioned.

My personal favourite has been the ‘after hours pub lock-in’ with the hilarious James Kellow, where half the group stayed for over an hour after the end of the session, to talk data and taste beer!

We made the decision to elevate the event by bringing in a ‘select experience’ to open each meeting. This experience is of suitable quality to reflect the seniority of the audience, but with a physical element so they could play along. We’ve shipped people wine, gin, craft beer, chocolate and coffee, and brought in experts to lead a tasting session. It’s been a fantastic ice breaker that leads into the talks.

This is just the beginning of the journey

My co-host Dave Bloch and I are currently planning the next Lounge event. If you’re a data leader and think membership into this group could be valuable to you, please send me a private message and I’d be delighted to tell you more.

What initially started as a UK initiative has quickly grown to encompass most of Europe and last month, was replicated by our team in the States. The Data Leaders Executive Lounge is going global! We’d love you to be part of it!



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