Data Science Leadership: The Marine Corps Way

Jul 03, 2017

BY ALEX SORIA – DIRECTOR OF DATA SCIENCE

Immediately after graduating High School, I joined the United States Marine Corps; I joined the Reserve so I could become an officer after completing my college education. At the time of joining the Marine Corps, I didn’t realize the huge impact that it would have on my life, not just from a disciplinary angle, but also from a leadership perspective.

Becoming a Marine is a long and rigorous process, but once you are done and can claim the title of U.S. Marine, you join a very elite group of people. Do a quick Google search of past and present famous Marines and you might be surprised by who is on that list. As a Marine, you are taught to obey rules without question; the rules are there for a reason. You quickly begin to realize the traits of a good leader and how to distinguish them from a bad leader. There are leaders that you would gladly go to battle with and obey everything they say, and there are those that you might not want to follow into battle. The latter is obviously not preferred.

There are 14 principles of Marine Corps leadership, which if followed with discipline, can lead to a cohesive, strong team: Justice, Judgment, Dependability, Initiative, Decisiveness, Tact, Integrity, Enthusiasm, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty, and Endurance.

In my role at Elicit, I put these 14 principles into practice as a leader of the data science team. While all of these have takeaways, I will focus on just a few:

Dependability

As a leader in the data science field, there are many jobs you have to straddle including analyst, manager, translator, consultant, and storyteller. Being dependable is not only an important principle, but without it, you could potentially put the entire team at risk. Dependability is the foundation of sound and timely work, and our clients need to feel confident they can depend on the results of our analytics.

Decisiveness

In the consulting world, as well as data science in general, we are required to make decisions in an efficient manner. Both in my time at other organizations and as a consultant, I have noticed that many leaders find it difficult to make timely decisions. While I can appreciate the fact that the wrong decision may negatively impact the business, being indecisive prevents leaders from quickly learning from their mistakes. A common saying I like is, “fail often and fail quickly.” Failure isn’t a bad thing. The way I see it, you have to fail in order to improve.

Tact

A dictionary will tell you that tact is “the ability to say and do the right thing at the right time.” I remember a few different instances in boot camp when drill instructors had a difference of opinion with one another. It was very subtle and could easily go unnoticed. However, after learning more about Marine Corps principles, I discovered that during these times of disagreement, the instructors would table the discussion until they were not in front of the entire training unit. This was beneficial for two reasons. First, it allowed them to take time to collect their thoughts and not react emotionally in the moment. Second, and almost more importantly, it helped to maintain the respect of the recruits in boot camp. As data scientists and consultants, this means staying composed in front of our clients, and taking any internal disagreements about methods, models, or data “offline.”

Unselfishness

Out of the 14 principles, unselfishness is one that is personally important to me. In the world of technology, data science, or any business, really, it is essential to be a team player. Being selfish flies in the face of being a team player. Putting your own interests ahead of the team lets everyone down. Including you.

Knowledge

Know your trade, never stop learning, and constantly try to refine yourself. Absorb the knowledge from people around you. Every person that you come in contact with has something to teach you. Take advantage of being exposed to new ways of thinking, practice asking questions, and practice listening. By honing these skills, you will become a more efficient data scientist and team manager.

This is not a comprehensive list by any means; the other nine principles that the Marine Corps uses for leadership are just as important. But just as I tell my team, don’t try to do everything at once. Focus on a couple skills at a time. Challenging yourself to improve will not only help you, but those that you lead. Good luck!