Human Resources

Typical 24: Sean Owen, Director of Data Science, Cloudera

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  Name: Sean Owen

  Job title: Director of Data Science

  Company: Cloudera

  Location: United Kingdom, London

  Years’ experience: 13


What time do you reach the office each day?
10 or 11am. My immediate team is not in the London office (not yet!) so I have the luxury of spending 2-3 hours each morning in the kitchen clearing my inbox of items from the day finishing on the west coast of the US. I live so close to our office in Shoreditch that there’s no good excuse for not coming in at some point though.

Is your job varied?
Yes. We do at least three things: advise customers about data science strategy and project planning, occasionally get involved in execution, and then work on Cloudera’s own software platform. There are three of us to go around, and plenty of customers, so I jump in and out of data problems in new industries several times a week.

Is your job creative?
In the sense of requiring divergent thinking instead of convergent? No. Customers actually need little help in imagining a hundred magic things that data will do. We are the ones who push to converge on a few data project ideas that will succeed, quickly, and help cut away what’s not going to matter to making it work.

In the sense of involving aesthetics? Definitely, and it is not obvious, and comes from the software engineering side. At a top tech company, the developer output is certainly expressive and has symmetry, style, and coherence of its own. I’m glad my job still entails a bit of software development, as it satisfies that creative urge to make, for me.

What do you spend the majority of your time doing?
We still make software, but that’s maybe 30% of the time. The rest is all communicating, and mostly ‘in person’ on videoconferences. Most of it is with customers: listening to a need, evaluating the data and people available, talking through what’s possible and how, and advising on how to deliver. We also spend time thinking internally about our own strategy. So: we actually are talking most of the time.

Do you personalise your desk?
Nope, I like spartan and clean. Einstein said something about an empty desk and what it says about the mind, but I forget.

Would you describe yourself as creative?
See 3 above – if making good software is creative, and I think I can do that after a decade, then yes I think that counts as creative!

Do you have any quirky daily rituals?
A year ago, I wouldn’t have woken up before 9:30, and my wife would never drink coffee. Now she’s a doctor and gets up at 6:30, in need of a boost. So we got all the proper coffee gear and every morning we won’t do anything before brewing to wake us up. Hardly unusual, but certainly a ritual.

Do you tend to work on your own or with colleagues?
Each bit of work is typically in collaboration with 1-3 other people – with our other data science people in the context of strategy and development, or marketing in context of a speaking event, or account exec in the context of a customer pitch, or a customer team. That said, it usually looks like I’m working alone when sat in our office, as usually these people are remote, either in our California offices or on customer site.

How many hours on average do you work a day?
It’s hard to say, because work happens in bits and bursts over the entire waking day. Given the remote nature of work, different time zones, and typically self-managing tech company culture, you might be on a call at 6am or 8pm, but have hours in the afternoon to run an errand. It’s comfortable, and I’d estimate adds up to 9-10 hours per day plus some at the weekend.

Roughly how much time do you spend each day on email? Taking calls? In meetings?
Emails are easily 3 hours a day, with another 1-2 hours of customer calls or visits. Our small team has a 1-hour daily meeting, and that’s my only one. The company has a culture of avoiding meeting overload; it’s forbidden to schedule meetings with engineering on Wednesdays for example!

Do you use social media much for work?
Would you believe I have no Twitter account? And almost never log in to Facebook. I use Quora as a good way to watch what people in large-scale learning and data science are thinking about in the industry. And I answer questions to encourage people to follow what I / we have to say in this space as Cloudera.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
“Data science” is the center of attention in our industry this year and attention is fabulous. We often get to be the dessert, the payoff, the punchline of a long process – a company has invested years in building its data infrastructure and we get to be a part of finally cracking into its value.

What type of music (if any) do you listen to at work?
I can’t listen to music at work. I like music plenty but I can’t write with words in my ears.

What do you do for lunch?
Given our differing schedules, we all usually grab our own sandwich and eat in. Shoreditch, for some reason, has a lot of Vietnamese restaurants; so I in particular eat bahn mi (Vietnamese-styled sandwiches) most days.

Do you socialise with work colleagues?
Yes; in our small London office however most of us are out or traveling on any given day, and most of us are still quite new. I could get away many days with working from home, but it’s important to come in just for the chance to overhear and socialize about what the other people are up to – account execs and solutions engineers have a different perspective and lots of good information about what customers are really doing.

Are there any tasks (through your career) you’ve been especially glad to get rid of?
Does anyone remember UML? It’s like a way of describing software with stick figures and lines. When I started in the early 2000s it was still assumed to be an essential design step between idea and code. In reality it took ages to draw and communicated little detail. Imagine converting driving directions to London into a back-and-forth cartoon flow between you and your car. It’s hardly seen anymore and I’m glad we have much more realistic approaches to iterative design today, as I’ll never draw UML again.

What is your last task of your day?
Certainly e-mail. I’m an inbox-zero person and love to stay at 0 messages waiting for my reply. The last task is trying to clear anything that I possibly can that is waiting for my response today.

How do you like to relax after work?
I actually read about statistics to ‘relax’ but maybe we shouldn’t advertise that.

We have just moved back to east London after a few years in a much quieter, leafier part of England. We’re comparatively spoilt for choice for restaurants and bars now, and at the moment we entertain ourselves post-work by trying a new restaurant in the neighbourhood most nights. Truly one of the benefits of living right in London.

Do you keep checking email through the evening?
Evening? I check e-mail from bed.

Do you take work projects home with you?
Given the remote nature of much of our work, and the differing time-zones, and living so close to work, the boundary between home and work time is fuzzy. I certainly work at home at times, like right now. I’m not sure if I recommend it but it’s the truth.

What would you say to your 20-year old self?
I’m not the first to say it, but I think it’s a good bit of advice for young technology people: you’re much more likely to take too little risk than too much. Your worst-case scenario is a staid, well-paid technology job in any major city. The better question in career choices is, “what’s the best that could happen?” instead of “what’s the expected outcome?” High variance beats a good average outcome. 

If you could try out any job for a day, what would you choose?
I have a strange answer for this one. I’ve always wanted Michael Buffer’s job. He’s an announcer who opens high-profile boxing/wrestling matches. His job is to stand up for 2 minutes in a tuxedo, and deliver essentially a catch-phrase: “Let’s get ready to rrrruuumble!” He’s done it for 30 years, instantly recognizable, and as celebrity as anyone in Hollywood. Seeing Michael Buffer just makes you feel pumped up. Amazing! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvufFwdqMzg

What device did you use to answer these questions?
MacBook Pro

Do you use your own personal device for work?
No, Cloudera’s gear is much nicer!


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