Embarking on a career journey often lacks a structured roadmap, especially when it comes to navigating from entry-level positions to leadership roles. In a world where systematic career progression frameworks are scarce, this book emerges as a beacon, offering invaluable guidance not just for fresh entrants but also for new managers seeking to cultivate and empower their teams systematically. Beyond its technical domain, its principles pivot on fundamental economic and career strategies, aiming to endure across time and technology shifts.
For this week’s CDO insights, we had with us the author of “Escape Entry Level:Your Blueprint for Raises, Bonuses, and Promotions”, David Coughlin, an accomplished executive director who’s navigated the complex realms of consulting and data science since 2006. His career trajectory not only embodies personal growth but also encompasses guiding numerous mentees out of their entry-level quandaries. With a wealth of experience in propelling his own career and empowering others, David stands as a beacon of knowledge and mentorship in the professional landscape.
AIM: What motivated and inspired you to transform your wealth of thoughts and frameworks into a book? What drove you to conceptualize this specific book?
David Coughlin: So, the genesis of the book came from mentorship. I had been mentoring early career data scientists for about eight years when I decided to write the book, and what struck me was that I kept having the same five conversations with almost every single mentee. And this was whether it was at CVS, whether it was a PWC, whether it was people I just met through my various journeys in life. Everyone had to have the same couple of conversations. And so that led me, being the math guy I am, to think, “Hey, there may be an algorithm underneath this, so let me write out that algorithm and share it.” The reason is that you think about it as five good mentorship conversations. That’s probably seven and a half hours. About 90 minutes each. And so that, with my career and family, that was not scalable, but a book is infinitely scalable. Anybody can get a copy of the book, and it’s almost the same thing as being mentored by me. So they gave me away to spread that out because you think about it. It’s going after entry-level Career professionals, and that’s the most numerous one. Every organization has 10 data scientists led by two managers and one director. There are so many of them, so let’s scale it with a book. So, one of my initial inspirations was formulizing what I had been doing as a mentor.
AIM: Could you delve into the genesis of the three-dimensional framework you’ve introduced? What drove its evolution, and in what ways do you envision this concept revolutionizing career growth?
David Coughlin: So, there are two metaphors I like to use. The first is to think of a box. You’ve got the length, the width and the height of the box, three dimensions. And the volume of that box is the product of the three dimensions. And so the bigger the box, the greater your career potential would be, and those three axes become the three dimensions of the framework. And each of those dimensions was motivated by a separate conversation with various mentees. The first dimension is your primary skills. And that’s what you went to school for. That applies to any job, whether you are a data scientist, whether you work in accounting, whether you work in. The point is that you went to school, studied something, or got a certificate. You were hired to do a thing. That’s your primary skill. The thing about primary skills is that people are very tempted to get more of them. More and more and doubling down and tripling down. When you’re a data scientist, it looks like maybe I’ll get my doctorate or find this even more niche and esoteric data science algorithm because then I’ll know something nobody else knows. It’s a really difficult game to play.
And so that segue is nicely into the second dimension, the complementary skills. The first thing I do is primary skills; hey, you are already good enough at that. Let’s focus on your complementary skills. Let’s widen the base of your pyramid, and that’s the second metaphor I like to make. The complementary skills are the things you do that are not in the job description but make you better at your job. This is the first light bulb, the first AHA moment that a lot of my mentees get, and I had to go through this myself, which was the stuff that fills out your Professional Profile which is what broadens the foundation that lets you build higher. If you’re a data scientist, it’s not getting on. I want to learn how to do deep learning, or I’m going to go and learn all this complicated AI stuff now. It’s more about whether you can give a compelling presentation. Can you structure and manage a project? Can you structure and run a meeting? Can I trust to put you in front of an executive, and you’ll be able to explain to them what you did? A lot of times, people call those soft skills. But the hard and soft paradigm is just a disservice to everybody because if you’re a non-technical person, you hear about hard skills. What do you usually associate with the word hard? Difficult. That’s intimidating. Soft skills: if you’re a technical person, it sounds like it’s beneath you. So, let’s take that whole framework. Throw that away. That way, let’s use complementary skills. So that’s the second dimension. That’s what helps wide in the base.
The third dimension is impact, and I can chuckle a bit at some of the impact conversations I’ve had with mentees over there. Still, it’s really about telling the story about why your presence, your effort and your work add value to your employer, and that’s the vertical axis. So you broaden the base. And you go upwards. The metaphor I like to use is if you ever spill a bag of rice, a bag of sugar, or a bag of flour. What does it do? It spreads out before accumulating upwards, which you must do as a professional. You just spread out, and then you can accumulate upwards. That’s the 3D framework in about a three-minute overview.
AIM: The book introduces a compelling idea: operating at the next career level before the official promotion. This “be there before getting there” approach requires a proactive mindset and consistent effort. Why is it crucial to adopt the mentality of performing at a higher career level before actually attaining it?
David Coughlin: So, I learned this a while ago. This is not something that I discovered. I mostly articulate the sort of things that are out there. The promotion is the lagging indicator. Just accept it. I understand why now, as a hiring leader, I can articulate why that’s the case. And so you think about the promotion as an official change in title, compensation, control, remit, etc. That comes with a lot of risk. Just like hiring a new person, it comes with risk.
And so when you’re operating at the next level and proving that you can perform at that next level, you’re risking the entire decision. So when the directors or whomever the vice president, whatever the next layer in the organization is, and they’re looking at candidates, okay, so, John Doe or Jane Doe, are they ready to be a senior data scientist, principal data scientist, or data science manager? They want to know if they are fully competent and capable of doing this so that there’s no risk because your spirit of influence gets bigger and bigger as you move up. So, the ability for you to have a downside goes up. They have this lagging indicator: they want to be at risk. That’s the most common reason people get their promotions denied initially.
Because the hiring powers will say something like I want to see more of them at that next level. They are articulating to you that you need to be at the next level before you get to be at the next level in front of title and compensation. And so that’s why the game requires you to do that and then how to do that and how to get there is to have that, like you said, proactive mindset. Look for opportunities to perform at that next level. And so what I like to say in the book is when I do conference appearances and teach classes. I call it the phrase that pays. What can I take off your plate? It’s proactive outreach to somebody who outranks you so that you can take some of the work from that next-level colleague, and then you can do it. If you’re a DS1 and you reach out to a DS3, ask what I can take off your plate. If it’s on your plate by definition, it’s DS3 work. And so now you’re completing DS3 work. and I could count out examples of mentees who did exactly that: they went to find the principal data scientist. Hey, what can I take off your plate? They break a little piece of that off. They deliver it, and we’re like, this person is capable of the next level, and then finally, the promotion comes right after that. So that’s how all kinds of things come together.
AIM: How do you advise navigating situations where career growth seems limited due to external factors or lack of opportunities within an organization? For professionals facing this challenge early in their careers, should they consider seeking opportunities elsewhere, or is it advisable to stay and persist despite the constraints?
David Coughlin: It’s not too early, but I would start with this type of question by ensuring that the mindsets are in the right place when it comes to moving, doing a new job, or even just testing the waters. Do you want to ensure you’re doing it for the right reasons? I like to say that you want to make sure you’re going towards something, not from something. From means like you’re in a bad spot. You got a bad manager, project, or whatever, and you’re like, I need to get out of this. What that does is it makes you less likely to scrutinize where you will go next. Be thoughtful about where you go next because you’re trying to avoid the pain. This often will put people in a position where they are constantly job hopping because they’re just going from bad to bad as opposed to very thoughtfully and deliberately making a jump where they think they will have some upside. So you want to make sure you’re going towards something. Now that we know that we want to make sure to go to something and are not away from it, when is it time to move to something new? So, in my career, I do this exercise every couple of months, roughly twice to three times a year, and I’ll ask myself. What are my goals? Where am I relative to my goals? I’m not there yet; why not? What do I need to do? Do I have a path forward, and then what will I do about it?
Do I have a path forward when I decide if it’s time to move or stay? The goals can be dynamic. But I’ve always pretty much had a fairly ambitious career goal. I have always come back with no, I’m not there yet. And so then, okay, What can I do about it? And do I have a path forward? And so, if you pull my resume or my LinkedIn profile, you could say I did a bit of zigzagging at the beginning of my career because it’s trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up where I think everybody has to go through a little bit of that. But then take this utilitarian approach to work. Go full speed, but now, am I still progressing relative to my objectives? And where could I get more traction and succeed if I’m not? I like to compare it to pilots and flying. If I’m flying from Boston to Chicago, I’m not willing to compromise on Chicago. I can’t not go to Chicago, but the pilot who’s got to get us there might change their altitude to get smoother air if the air’s stopping. What I do professionally is I’m trying to move forward. I have a destination in mind, but if I have to get smoother air, I might have to change and look outside for an opportunity. And so that’s how I encourage other people. So you’ve been working for a year or two. You have to take an assessment. Are you making forward progress?
Are you in an environment with only three layers because it’s a very small company or a very flat organization? Promotions might be very far apart. But are you making incremental progress? The other thing is, what could you do better or differently to make forward progress? Have you squeezed every drop out of that? For a lot of early career people that I mentor, there’s a temptation to blame stuff, blame the economy, blame your manager, blame your co-workers, blame this, blame that. Some of it is correct, but a lot can be pulled back and asked, what can I do differently? What can I do better? And so look at that and be able to say, Yes, I’ve squeezed every drop out of this and for me, there are two main reasons where you kind of squeeze every drop out because they’re so big that just one person can’t fix it. The whole sector is just going down or declining. That’s a very big headwind. It’s a steep climb because, technically, if everybody loses, you can’t be a winner. It’s very difficult to be a winner when everybody’s losing.
The second is there are truly intractable political situations. You’ve got a rival team, and they’re making it impossible to get traction. It’s a great example of finding an organization more conducive to growth. If you hit those, you want to look elsewhere; otherwise, keep trying to make progress. Have a goal, too, because if you don’t, you’re just kind of rudderless in the ocean.
AIM: What common challenges have you noticed among entry-level professionals in data science roles? How can these individuals effectively address these predominant themes to navigate their early career stages successfully?
David Coughlin: So the whole concept of trip wires in the book is these are things that they’re like booby traps. But they don’t get you fired. They delay your promotion. They drag it out. So you think, in a perfect world, you show up, do good work, and get promoted in 12 to 18 months. But you can step on these tripwires, and then 18 months becomes 24 months becomes 36 months, and so on. You’re not doing anything overtly wrong; you’re not getting verbally reprimanded or threatened with termination. It’s just you’re doing stuff, like banging into things because, again, many early career professionals don’t fully understand the rules of the game, and then they just thrust into it. So there’s a handful of ones that I see quite a bit.
So the first one is being a boss hater. There’s a natural human behavior of bristling towards authority, but your boss is the most important person you work with. Because they’re the ones that are going to help advocate for your promotion. So, if you’re not constantly trying to make that the best relationship possible, are you pushing your promotion further down the months? Why would you do that to yourself? So I tell people that even if you think you have a good Poker Face, eye-rolling, sighing, outright Rebellion, I will do it my way. Why are you doing that? Your boss has way more influence over your promotions than you do at certain points in your career. So don’t be a boss hater. Have some maturity and work with them. That’s an important relationship, and they can become a great mentor once things start moving well.
The second one is what I call the job description adherence that someone says is not my job. Data scientists are very tempting because that’s like shutting the door on complementary skills. Think about that. I am here to model and chew gum, and I’m all out of the bubblegum; it’s like, hold on a second. There are other parts to delivering data science. So you’ve got to make the deck and take the notes and the meeting. And so somebody who says that’s not my job, it’s okay, but technically, that promotion you want is not your job either because you want a whole new job description. That’s what a promotion is. You’re an individual contributor, and you get promoted to manager. It’s a completely different job. So if you’re saying I’m only going to do what’s on this job description, fine, but then I’m not going to let you do what’s on this job description. That’s kind of the Tit for Tat that you get into. So don’t be a slave to your job description. I did some of the most career-accelerating things because I said yes to something completely separated from my job description.
The third one was the most dangerous for entry-level people. I call it being the bad politician, but it’s just getting looped into disparaging commentary.
So there are two flavors to this. There’s the obvious one: you say something bad about another person. Don’t do it; it’s way too risky. The second is when you accidentally agree with someone saying something bad about someone else. That’s called tacit approval; your failure to object is almost like an endorsement. Everybody knows don’t be the one that says, Hey man, that guy Joe is an idiot. You don’t want to be that person because you never know who heard you, you never know who wrote it down, You never know who recorded it. You don’t want Joe to find out you think he’s an idiot. If you don’t stop the discussion immediately and say hold on a second, I can’t come with you on this one. I’m going to talk to someone else to be like, hey, so I was talking to catch up, and we both agree that someone’s a jerk. You didn’t say anything, you didn’t co-sign that, but now you’re a co-conspirator, you’re an accessory to disparagement. It’s a terrible place to be. This is so tricky for junior professionals. They don’t feel like they’ve got the clout, political standing, or whatever they think they need to push back on somebody. It feels better to just go with the flow. Don’t ruffle feathers. But if you do, you co-sign somebody’s disparaging comment; you may end up reporting to someone after you agree that he was a jerk. So I coach people on that you can acknowledge that somebody feels a certain way because there’s nothing wrong with feelings, but then you have to say, but it doesn’t match my experience. I can’t agree. I think I’ll acknowledge that you felt that way, but I can’t agree with you. So I usually say, “I hear you; I acknowledge that you’re a very real experience, but I haven’t experienced that. So I can’t agree.” I’ve done that in conversations with people in professional settings. It’s a little awkward and doesn’t feel good. It’s awkward but prevents more of that stuff from entering the discussion. So those are the three big ones you want to watch out for as an early career professional.
AIM: Is it crucial to explicitly declare non-involvement in office politics, especially at an entry level, considering that getting entangled in such dynamics can significantly complicate navigating the office environment?
David Coughlin: Especially the negative sides of politics. There is a fundamental amount of politics in corporate environments. Anytime you’ve got more than three people in a room, it is politics, whether you know it or not. We are social creatures. But stay out of the negative stuff. Because you’re going to have to do the positive stuff to get promoted. But if someone’s going negative, say I’m not part of this negativity. You might feel that way. Your feelings are real and valuable. I can’t cosign that because I haven’t experienced that. I haven’t felt those feelings.
Your work can’t speak for itself because you work with an inanimate object. If I build a model, the model doesn’t do anything. Model scores things. So this goes to that third dimension of the framework, but one of the most important things I teach my mentees is you’ve got to tell that impact story because if you don’t have a good impact story, you don’t have any impact. You don’t have any impact, you don’t get a promotion. A real-world example. When I was at CVS, we built an app that supported prospecting. So, the first ingredient was building a data set that had every prospect in the country. If you stop there and say nothing, you let your work speak for itself. You get no credit because data doesn’t sell or make deals. So maybe we’ve wrapped that data in a beautiful app, and that app allows people to find the best prospects. Does the app sell anything? No, the app doesn’t make any money. So, if you just stop there and let the app speak for yourself, it’s got a beautiful UX. You’re still not going to get promoted because you haven’t sold anything yet. Let’s talk about usage data. So, some salespeople log on to that beautiful app and find some prospects. Does the act of finding a prospect make money? No, so you still can’t talk about that. So you can’t even pull up a utilization KPI. Still not going get promoted.
But then Joe from the Florida Market signs on and identifies Acme Corporation in cells Acme Corporation. And Acme Corporation was worth two million dollars. Finally, we can discuss the data that powered the app and the sales users that powered this deal. Now you’ve got a story. That’s the kind of good politics you’ve got to get good at if you want to get promoted, especially at an entry-level level, because these organizational layers will separate your work. Think about any finished good. I’ve got my AirPods, which somebody made that little plastic piece that sits in your ear, but that’s not worth it. I’m not paying a hundred or 200 bucks for that little piece. I’m paying for the whole thing put together.
So, if you’re trying to get promoted because you designed the little earplastic, you must talk about how it made a fit better. People bought more of them, and now you’re out selling other Bluetooth earpods. You have to put it in a story. And then get people to say yes to that story. Ultimately, it’s politicking. But that’s the good kind, and that’s the fun kind.
AIM: What are the top three pieces of advice you would offer your younger self as you embarked on your career journey, particularly in the context of data science professionals, and could you provide examples to illustrate these suggestions?
David Coughlin: So the first thing I could write a letter back to my 2006 self when I started working is that non-technical people are not dumber than you. They’re just oriented differently and trained differently. They have different skills than you do. I can remember being at CVS. And doing deeply technical work and being frustrated because people couldn’t understand the technical work. And sort of stamping my feet, why aren’t you like coming over here and learning about risk and hazard ratios, regression, significance and chi-square? Why don’t you know all of that? I have a monopoly on the truth because I’m the math guy.
And that was career stunting. And so the pivot there is, okay, if you’re going to talk to business people or not technical people, you want them to make a behavior change and take action. It’s got to be in their language. It’s got to be in terms that matter to them, and you have to remember that what makes you excited does not make them excited and vice versa. So, if you want them to get excited, you’ve got to put exciting things for them in your articulations of whatever you’ve been doing. So they don’t care about significance. They don’t care about R square. They care about more customers and greater lifetime value. That’s the first thing that non-technical people are not dumber. They’re oriented differently, and you have to go where they are if you want to succeed.
The second thing is that it doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t make dollars. You’ve got to be able to tell that impact story. You must be able to follow the work you’re doing through the organization to the bottom line. Every job exists because it provides greater economic value to the company than it costs. You’re generating at least 200 grand value if your salary is a hundred grand. Otherwise, the job wouldn’t exist. And so you’ve got to be able to tell everybody how you did that because if you don’t, you’re just a guy pecking away at the keyboard.
The last thing is you are the author of your career. It’s different from school. In school, you do good work. You just move to the next level. You do the work at the level you’re at. So if you’re a fourth grader, you do good fourth-grade work, you get to become a fifth grader like clockwork, which happens every year. Then you start working, and you’re like, why am I in the same role for two years? I thought I was doing good work. So you can’t wait for the promotion to be handed to you. If you have to advocate for yourself, you must do positive politicking. You’ve got to tell those impact stories. You’ve got to build a relationship with your manager to get that advocacy, and you’ve got to go out there and drive it because you can’t just ride in the passenger seat professionally. So I had that mindset early on in my career: if I just do good work, I’ll get promoted, and it took me several years before I was like, wait a minute. No, I have to go put myself up for this stuff. Those would be the three things not technical people aren’t dumb, focus on the money and talk about the money and drive it, you can’t wait for it.
AIM: Is this book helpful beyond entry-level roles, and will its principles endure over the next decade without needing frequent revisions?
David Coughlin: I would say this book has value to anybody who’s an individual contributor and anybody who’s new into management that wants a framework that they can use to help kind of cultivate their people. Because many but not all organizations lack a systematic way to go from the very beginning of your career up and through the middle of the career and then keep going up after that. So if nothing else it’s a recipe that you can use to put a little bit of your own spin on it, but it gives you a way to cultivate a team if you’re new into leadership and you don’t have that sort of machinery in your organization.
It also potentially works for non-technical people as well because what happens is the primary and the complementary just switch. As far as timelessness goes, I’m willing to make a wager that the core of the book will be timeless. And the reason why I would say that is at certain points fundamental economics and marketing. It’s like doing good work, articulating that good work, getting the right people to agree that you did good work, focusing on what matters, creating profit for the company or advancing the mission. This stuff is an articulation of the way things have been working for at least the 20 years that I’ve been working, likely the 20 years before that.
Maybe we won’t use automated candidate management in the future. Maybe it’ll all be ChatGPT. Maybe that piece of it changes or the proper nouns might change but the concepts of broaden your base and having an impact that’s going to last forever.