Everyone has a personality. At the risk of over-simplifying, I’m going to argue that there are two types of PhDs in Industry. Front-Room PhDs and Back-Room PhDs*. The distinction is that some technicians and developers enjoy talking to business clients and some do not. Your back-room PhDs probably don’t want to talk to the clients anyways, they want to write code and wear really comfortable clothing. The front-room PhDs have a desire to communicate across disciplines and bring the two groups (developers and clients) closer together.
I first came upon this phrase while reading Competing on Analytics, by Jeanne G. Harris and Thomas H. Davenport. They spend a little time talking about how companies can use analytics to propel their business forward.
“The need is for analytical experts who also understand the business in general and the particular business need of a specific decision maker. One company referred to such individuals as “front room statisticians,” distinguishing them from “backroom statisticians” who have analytical skills but who are not terribly business oriented and may also not have a high degree of interpersonal skills.
In order to facilitate this relationship, a consumer products firm with an IT-based analytical group hires what it calls PhDs with personality– individuals with heavy quantitative skills but also the ability to speak the language of the business and market their work to internal (and in some cases, external) customers.” -Competing on Analytics Pg 144
I think the individual who can understand the technical details and successfully communicate those details to the business is a rare person. Usually it takes 2 different people to translate from technical speak to business speak. And these two people have to be really good friends and spend a lot of time talking to each other to get an accord. It’s like if you wanted to translate from a group of English speakers to a group of Japanese speakers, but the only language in common was Italian. So, you first translate your ideas into Italian and then hope the other person knows enough Italian to get the idea appropriately translated into Japanese. Small wonder things get lost in translation! The value of having a single individual who knows both languages is vast.
Aside from just reducing the number of steps in the corporate game of telephone, this person can add value and insights to the translation as well. They can say things like, “I know you really want this work completed by date X, but we’re going to have to reduce the scope of the project to get it complete by then. I can work with you to understand which pieces of your request are hard and which are easy to help create an appropriate acceptance criteria for a minimal viable product.”
The other major benefit has to do with the intrinsic value of having a seat at the table. There is a lot of conversation about how data teams can’t drive decisions if there is no one at the business table who can listen to what the client’s challenges are. It’s critical to get a seat at the table. PhDs with Personality are the ideal type of person for this situation. For, she (or he!) can sit at the table without pissing anyone off. She doesn’t get lost in the weeds of the technical details and she can speak about the results of the work instead of just the technical process. She can listen and show empathy to the clients, without giving up her empathy for the developers. It’s hard to have a seat at the table if your representative keeps derailing meetings and upsetting potential clients.
By having a good balance of back-room PhDs and front-room PhDs, a team can be much more successful and complete projects that are more like to move the needle for your clients.
*I’m using the term PhD loosely here . I don’t think this discussion is limited to just PhDs, because there are many people who work in the hyper-technical space who don’t have PhDs.