Where do we find the Unicorns?

I’ve just returned home from an exciting two days in London attending and speaking at the Data IQ Summit 2015.

Data specialists from around the country – and further afield – gathered to listen, discuss and debate a wide range of views and opinions on the “state of the Data Nation” over a 2-day period.
One theme which very quickly emerged and that I had actually been invited to speak about on the second day’s break-out stream sessions was that of human capital talent acquisition.

In other words, where do we find the unicorns?

The “Unicorn” – a word being used more and more frequently to describe “Data Scientists” – is, obviously, a mythical beast. The inference is that these fantastic animals are as rare and difficult to find as the unique skill set that any modern day Data Scientist must possess – and that organisations are attempting the impossible in trying to find them either within their own organisations or externally in the marketplace.

Is this true?

The skill sets of a Data Scientist (comprising mathematical or statistical expertise, programming knowledge and experience and the “softer” skills of visualisation, business acumen and engagement) are definitely difficult to locate, no debate on that particular front, but this is the industry I’ve worked in for the last decade and a half and, to be frank, it’s never been “easy” to recruit in the Data Space – hence the reason why myself and other Data focussed recruiters have been engaged by organisations so readily for so long.

Obviously, there are distinct differences between the varied disciplines in Analytics – and the emergence of Social Media data over the last decade or so has placed new demands on the capabilities of Analytical professionals within the industry – but is there any real change in either the high standard of skill and capability required in a modern day top-tier Data professional or the high demand that these individuals are held in by the market in general?

Is the hunt for the “Unicorn” a new experience?

I placed my first “Data Analyst” with a client in 2002. A CRM analyst with a statistical background, knowledge of retail systems and an engaging client-facing manner seemed, to me at the time, just as hard a hunt as today’s “Unicorns” must seem for many organisations. However, just as my CRM Analyst existed back then (although she did take quite a while to find!) – so the Unicorn exists today. Finding them has NEVER been easy. Then, as now, successful recruitment in the Data Space requires a holistic talent acquisition strategy.

In my discussion piece during the panel discussion around this topic I illustrated a number of techniques or approaches that individuals and organisations might embrace in order to “find the Unicorns” – approaches that we at MBN Solutions have utilised and refined over many years of operating at the highest level in the Data space.

Please note – engaging with an experienced Data specialist recruiter like myself or my colleagues at MBN Solutions will increase your chances of successfully hiring Data professionals – but no strategy guarantees success every time!

Some of the guidance we would issue to our clients looks a little like this:

Business Leaders must develop relationships with external specialist talent hunting agencies (recruiters, etc) by themselves in addition to utilising internal Talent Acquisition/Recruitment Teams. The classic internal HR-led approach to hiring would appear to be struggling with the challenge at this point in time. The complexity of the skill sets and experiences required, the expediency and flexibility required when engaging with highly sought after and valuable candidates and the conflicting agendas and priorities that impact upon most HR teams are all factors that can jeopardise any potential candidate engagement. We see the most success when we work on behalf of Business Leaders or engaged Recruitment teams who take control and share ownership of the challenge themselves – rather than those who wait to be “HR-led”.

Specialist external talent acquisition partners like MBN Solutions do exist – you just have to find them. Many organisations, particularly larger companies, have a recruitment supply chain that is not designed to deliver to the Data space. Data is NOT Technology. They are symbiotic, but not the same. If your recruitment supply chain is geared towards Technology recruitment, you may not have a Data specialist on board who has access to the type of candidates that you need.

Advertising for vacancies in the Data space has never been easy. As above, Data is NOT Technology. The online job boards who do such a good job in hosting advertisements for Technology roles do not always attract the type of individual who is looking for their next move in the Data sector. Social media has bridged this gap, to a certain extent, but there are still square Data pegs being forced into round Technology holes when it comes to advertising vacancies. Do not limit your online recruitment advertising to your company website and online job boards. More and more specialist recruitment organisations are now closely scrutinising their online advertising spend as the outlay is not reflected in the quality of candidate response.

Brand promotion and Though Leadership are key tenets of a successful talent acquisition strategy. Blogging, articles, opinion pieces and event/speaking participation can help immeasurably when it comes to positioning your company as a place that rare Data talent can aspire to work within. Simply put, if you are not championing your brand (and the company behind it!) then how can your voice be heard in an increasingly noisy Data talent acquisition environment?

Event Hosting – have you considered utilising your internal Sales & Marketing team to organise an event aimed at raising your profile (and telling the story of what your company are doing with Data) to the Data community? We have seen great successes where we have co-hosted events with our clients or organised events on their behalf. This link gives an example of exactly this type of approach. As mentioned above, the “stick out an advert and wait for the response” model does not guarantee success in today’s market. Bring potential employees to your offices, show them around and let them hear your story over a beer or a glass of wine!

Are you reaching out to your local Universities? Again, we have seen great success in approaching Department Heads and Principals within relevant academic streams. With a format designed to give students an opportunity to ask Data professionals exactly what their career has consisted of to date and what opportunities might exist within their organisation for Data focussed individuals upon graduation, we have seen real success in this space over the last year or two. At my panel discussion, ¾ of the delegates described themselves as “hiring managers” in some capacity – NONE had visited a University for this purpose in the last 12 months.

A holistic talent acquisition strategy embracing a variety of methods, such as those detailed above, over a sustained period of time should help you to uncover a “Unicorn” or two. These individuals may potentially turn out to be the perfect hire for your organisation. As was the case a decade or more ago, they will very rarely be “easy” hires. However, the strategies that we at MBN Solutions have developed to succeed in this most competitive of hiring landscapes can help you with this challenge. Should you be looking for an initial consultation around the challenges that you face in “finding the Unicorn” then please get in touch with me – I’d be delighted to share my experiences with you.

Robin Huggins