Key lessons I have learned interviewing experts in diverse fields.
By: Yadira Y. Caro
Over a year ago, I started a series of interviews with experts and rising stars in various industries. Driven by curiosity to learn from people in related fields, my goal was to share these mentorship sessions. This would allow anyone to benefit from the tips shared.
As I look back, here are some key lessons I have learned.
Business Analysis and Project Management are not concepts that make us think of comedy – at least not often. For Kupe Kupersmith, these terms are associated, if you want to be better at your BA or PM job that is. As a keynote speaker and coach, he uses his “improv advantage” to teach better methods of collaboration. He knows all of these fields well: aside from working for over two decades as a BA and PM, he was also an improv artist for many years.
In his quest to help make people “more awesome” as he describes on his website, Kupe also co-wrote the book Business Analysis for Dummies, alongside his former colleagues at B2T training. Aside from his training and speaking engagements, he is also a consultant helping organizations in collaboration and strategy.
In this interview, Kupe talks in depth about his “improv advantage” and shares some details about his career.
Did you start as Business Analysis, Project Manager, or were you first an improv artist?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do going into college, so my dad’s like, “You like math, you might as well become an accountant.” I wasn’t really excited about it, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. So I graduated, thought I should use my accounting degree, became an accountant for an organization and failed the CPA exam miserably. I decided, “This is not for me, it’s not what I want do,” but I still didn’t know what I wanted to focus on. I had this creative itch: I actually tried stand-up, didn’t do that well in it, but then auditioned for an improv troop. They brought me on, trained me, and then I performed in Atlanta for about 10 years. Within those 10 years, that’s when I transitioned.
I was a subject matter expert for financial applications at Turner Broadcasting and I was working with project teams. At the time, we were going from Excel docs and Access databases to an ERP system. I was on the business side helping the IT project team. I really enjoyed working on projects so as there were openings, I kind of slid over into a BA position as being a subject matter expert in Financial Applications. So then I did business analysis, project management and kind of stayed in that space.
How did you realize that you could combine your improv skills with project management and consulting?
In 2006, I decided to join a training company, B2T Training, that focused solely on Business Analysis training. Our goal was to try to help people get better in this role. I thought, “Why did people wanted me on their teams? Why did I enjoy being part of a team and help out?” Then I thought, “Wow, there’s all these improv skills that I’ve learned on stage that made me a better collaborator, that have made me a better team player. They’ve allowed me to be more empathetic.” I started to figure out, “I don’t perform on stage anymore, but how can I bring these skills to the people that we’re trying to train?”
What is a key skill that you have taken from improv that anyone could apply?
There’s a concept in improv that there’s no denying. Since there are no scripts, in improv you get ideas from the audience and you start acting out a scene. The actors on stage don’t have scripts to go back and forth with, so you can’t deny when somebody says something. If I’m like, “Yadira, let’s go play baseball” and you responded with, “No, I don’t want to,” that would kind of kill the whole scene, it would be boring, right? So if I say, “Let’s go for a run,” and you’re like, “Yeah, give me a second. I got to put on my shoes and yeah, let’s go,” you keep the scene moving forward.
How does that translate? One of the games we play to work on this is called “yes and.” The concept is that when somebody is having a conversation with you, you never deny. This happens all the time in the stuff that we’re doing. When we’re brainstorming with people on solutions, people typically will get frustrated, or somebody will have some idea and they’re like, “That’s a crazy idea, that’s stupid, let’s not work on it.” So try to have this “yes and” mentality in the office.
When I do this at keynote presentations and workshops, I have people play this game: I give them a topic, people pair up, then one person will start with a sentence and then the next person will be like, “Yes, and… ” and add to the conversation. I get them in the mode of going back and forth saying, “Yes, and… ” and adding on to what the previous person is saying. In those examples, you can get crazy: for example, you’re going to build a vacation home on the Moon, so have a conversation about that. People start building pools on the moon and they’re coming up with all these crazy things.
In real life, we have real constraints: we have budget constraints, we have time constraints, so we can’t do everything. But if somebody has an idea, you can’t just deny that idea. To them, it’s real. To the person, their idea is not crazy. They wouldn’t have said it unless they thought it had some merit, right? So it’s really putting it back on you that you don’t understand yet enough about that idea.
Listening is the other (skill). In improv we don’t have scripts so if I’m not listening completely to the other actors and what they’re doing and saying, then I might respond with something that has nothing to do with what they said. That’s the same thing with our conversations. If you’re interviewing me and your mind is elsewhere, you’re just hearing me talk and then you just follow up with another question, I’m going to be like, “Uh, did she even listened to what I was saying?”
As a Business Analyst and Project Manager, we’re facilitating constantly. If we’re not focusing on what’s happening in the room, really listening, paying attention, and adapting our style to how we communicate with others, then we’re not going to be as effective.
If somebody has an idea, you can’t just deny that idea. To them, it’s real. To the person, their idea is not crazy. They wouldn’t have said it unless they thought it had some merit.
What is another key skill that would be good for either a Project Manager or a Business Analyst?
Curiosity is probably number one, especially in the BA profession where we’re trying to uncover what the real need is and how can we solve it. If you really don’t understand, don’t just take a note and say, “The customer wants a blue button over here.” Tell me what is that blue button going to help us with. How does that get us to our end game?
Being empathetic is the next one. I talk about empathy by comparing it to sympathy. Sympathy is kind of understanding or feeling for someone. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I see your job is really tough. I understand that. We’re going to try to help you.” I think we become sympathetic when we have one-on-one interviews or group interviews where we’re just talking to people. But empathy is about feeling with the person. You actually know what it is they’re going through.
I think especially in the BA profession, we have to be doing the work of our stakeholders or our customers to really understand what they’re going through to come up with good solutions. Being with them, observing, doing the work with them, to really understand what’s happening.
I joke a lot of times that I think people are liars. If you’re just interviewing someone, they’re going to lie to you. If I ask somebody, “What are the steps to do your laundry?,” someone will say, “You get the dirty clothes, put them in the washing machine, put soap in, turn the washing machine on and we’re done.” So I would ask, “Well, where do you get the clothes? Do they automatically just appear in a pile somewhere or do you have to go room to room to get them? How many trips are you taking to get the clothes from all these rooms? Do you sort the laundry that you put in? Does everything goes in? I didn’t hear you say you actually closed the lid? Do you just throw the clothes and put soap in and turn it on. So the lid is open and water is splashing all over?” You don’t know if those gaps are missing.
We have to be doing the work of our stakeholders or our customers to really understand what they’re going through to come up with good solutions.
Earlier in my career, people would say, “wow, you really get us.” I think that’s what as project professionals, we’re trying to go for with our customers: being empathetic because you’re in there with them, you’re doing the work.
The ability to build relationships (is another skill). Everybody talks about what tools and techniques to use. “Do I draw a context diagram? Do I write a user story? Teach me how to write user stories. I need help using JIRA.” To me, that’s table stakes. I could teach you that tomorrow. (Focus on) how are you getting the information. Are you getting the information from the right people?
If we have a good relationship, communication is going to be easy. It doesn’t matter what tool is used: we can do requirements over chat if we had to, because we have such a good relationship and we know each other. If you have a good relationship, the communication, the conversations are going be deeper, people are going to open up more. I think both Project Managers and BAs need to focus on building real relationships with the people they work with.
In term of terms of books, resources or podcasts, what are your recommendations?
There’s a number of books by Patrick Lencioni. I recommend all of his stuff. He really has good things to say around team work. Daniel Pink has a book called To Sell Is Human that I recommend. There’s another book called Drive that I recommend as well. More specific to some of the stuff that we do, there’s a book I recently read called Outcomes over Outputs by Joshua Seiden. I am reading now An Elegant Puzzle, Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson, because I’m working on this agile transformation or how the organization is delivering work. He’s got some good ideas.
My take on podcasts and books is that as professionals, if we’re trying to improve stuff, read as much as you can and pull out different concepts that make sense, that feel good to you, that feel good for your organization. Don’t look for something that’s the silver bullet and the best practice. I think that there’s a best practice in a particular context. Your context is going to be different than what this person’s context was when they wrote it.
Since you are an improv artist, who are your favorite improv artists or comedians?
I think overall my favorite is Robin Williams. He was a stand-up comedian, an improviser, and he was just unbelievable. Growing up what got me interested in comedy was probably Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, and Jerry Seinfeld. Ellen Degeneres too. I think why someone like Ellen and Jerry Seinfeld are so funny is because they can take everyday moments that you and I do every single day, twist them around and somehow make them hilarious
At an early age for me what got me into comedy was probably The Carol Burnett Show. It was sketch comedy but they improvised a lot too. They would be cracking themselves up on stage, so they’re trying to hold back their laughter. It was just so good.
Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!
Data Science has become very popular term in the world of technology careers. But what does this term really mean? How can you start shifting your skills to become a data scientist? Kristen Kehrer wants to help with that.
With a Bachelors in Mathematics and a Masters in Statistics, Kristen has worked in fields such as Health, Communications and eCommerce. Her roles have included analyzing data, conducting research and developing technical models as coder. When she started, she did not knew these were roles would be ascribed to a Data Scientist.
In this interview she describes what Data Science is and shares some of the required skills to get into this career.
How do you describe Data Science and what you do? This completely depends on the context and who I’m talking to. The definition I typically use for data science is: “It is the understanding and utilization of tools, data and methodologies that enable you to effectively solve problems utilizing data.” Someone who self identifies as a “data scientist” is often using machine learning and writing code, however the umbrella of the “data sciences” also involves analysts and other data wranglers.
It is certainly a multi-disciplinary field including a bit from programming, statistics, and business. There are no unicorns, everyone has their own strengths in the field and may be doing quite different tasks depending on industry.
What are some of most common misconceptions about it? Again, the misconceptions depend on who you’re talking to. There are people who think everything is “AI”, there are the people who aren’t as data literate but still making decisions based on data, potentially the most dangerous (people). There are those who do not understand what the real pipeline looks like and only focus on machine learning.
I think there are a whole lot of misconceptions and it’s exacerbated by the “hotness” of the field. Lots of buzzwords and hype that make it difficult for people to fully grasp what the reality looks like. There is a huge focus on machine learning, but this is one tool.
I often hear people say “I need to hire a data scientist.” This is an incredibly broad statement. Think first about what you really need someone to help you with, nail down how they’ll contribute to strategy and what skills that will actually require, and then hire for those specific things, rather than listing the kitchen sink in terms of skills on a job description.
Why did you choose it as a career? I definitely didn’t know that I was seeking out “data science.” The term wasn’t really being used when I started my career. I had finished a BS in Mathematics in 2004, realized I was in a dead-end job and decided to go back and pursue a MS in Statistics. I had seen that statisticians made good money. Then it was through a series of job changes and career moves that I really found myself in the data science space. It also involved some rebranding, as I considered myself a statistician who does “advanced analytics”. Then one day it was “oh wait, I’m a data scientist”.
Can you describe a project you worked on which you enjoyed or learned from? The amazing thing about this field is that I’ve found most of the projects enjoyable. This industry requires continuous learning. Even after I’ve implemented an algorithm one way, the next time I go to do something similar there is probably a new library or package that makes data cleaning or model building easier, so I learn those.
One of my more favorite projects was using customer’s subscription data to find customers with seasonal usage patterns. So instead of saying “hey, these customers are using our product less and may be a retention risk,” I was able to say “hey, this customer has a seasonal business and we expect less usage from them in these months, we can use this information to speak to them differently and infer there needs.”
I used the TBATS algorithm to take these people as seasonal or non-seasonal. Although I’m very well versed in econometric time series analysis and forecasting, this was my first time researching this algorithm and the pros and cons that went along with it. It was also sort of an off-label use case for the algorithm. That is where I find the most enjoyment: developing a methodology that will work for a problem I haven’t solved before.
Because Data Science is so interdisciplinary, there are many competencies that transfer well from other careers if you position them for the Data Scientist role. I want to educate others to be able to use this to their advantage.
What drove you to focus on helping others with resume building? I was laid-off in 2017 a week and half after returning from my second maternity leave. Although I was quite happy with my resume as is and was frequently getting calls from recruiters, I picked up some amazing additional tips from a career coach. I saw so many people trying to “rebrand” themselves or make a career change to data science. These people would ask me to review their resume and it was clear that they were highlighting the things they had done previously, but not how that would translate to them being an effective Data Scientist.
Because Data Science is so interdisciplinary, there are many competencies that transfer well from other careers if you position them for the Data Scientist role. I want to educate others to be able to use this to their advantage. People often bring fantastic skills to the table that they’re not highlighting to their full potential.
What trends do you see coming up in the field? Well I hope that there will be more of a standardization between terminology, roles and responsibilities so that we can all use a common language and understand each other. I think as Data Science matures it will be clearer that it is a team sport and not a single person sport.
What are two of the absolute must-have tools you use in your day-to-day for your job? I always say that SQL is a must. People often get distracted by shiny objects, learning new algorithms, etc. But on your first day as a data scientist you’ll most likely be told about your new job’s data warehouse. That is where you’ll extract your data from. Although you can do joins and connect to a database from R or Python, you’ll still need to understand relational databases to navigate the schema where your data lives to be effective.
I also like to stress the importance of communication skills. Give your deliverables love and care, think about how to best present to a non-technical audience. Your ability to build relationships where stakeholders trust your work and see you as a valued partner will be instrumental in your career.
What are some of the plans for near future? I’m currently working on a book Mothers of Data Science with Kate Strachnyi. I expect the book to be available in 2020. I’m also teaching a course through UC Berkeley Extension called “Practical Data Science.” This is a foundations of Data Science course in R. I’m also currently consulting and offering in-office training for Analytics/Data Science teams that want to take their skills to the next level. I also intend to keep blogging at https://datamovesme.com.
What resources (books, podcast, websites, etc.), do you recommend which have helped you in your career? I try to give useful tips on my personal blog https://datamovesme.com. I also think finding a community on LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social platform helps you to keep up with the trends, new programming libraries that will make your life a little easier, and help you to gauge what might be most relevant to learn next. Because again, it is continuous lifelong learning as a Data Scientist that will help you stay relevant. You can also become involved in things like “Makeover Monday” or “Tidy Tuesday” and the community will give you feedback on your work. This is one of the greatest forms of visibility, and networking is diving right in and contributing.
Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!