Data team culture should start with a great mission

By Ariane Bernard


New York, Paris


News of tech layoffs are a big culture shock for Silicon Valley but also for industries further afield, like ours, where we think of tech’s unshakeable job market as a bellwether (DotCom bubble bust, anyone?) 

When you’re not a hot start-up soaked in VC money, our experience of hiring for technical roles is to fight an uphill battle with more roles than people to fill them. And while this is true across the spectrum of technical roles, this is particularly acute in data. 

When hiring for their data team, media companies have a leg up by being mission driven.
When hiring for their data team, media companies have a leg up by being mission driven.

But hiring for data in media was never just a numbers game. 

Sure, it’s tricky to compete with Google’s millions, but media does manage to hire for technical data roles. And while the current wave of layoffs may be good news for your recruitment team, there are still plenty of roles across the industry that will be offering more foosball tables, more cash, more company-paid team-building trips to some skiing destination.

So yes, not just a numbers game.

So the question is: How do media companies create team cultures that are attractive and meaningful for data folks? 

The war for talent is made of several distinct battles. Yes, a competitive compensation package is going to matter. We will leave this one for a different newsletter though (or maybe 10 newsletters). But if the recent developments at Twitter have shown us anything, it is that folks will absolutely leave their well-paying jobs if company culture doesn’t align with where they are. The tech labour market isn’t quite so broken that money takes all.

So what does news media offer that can win over that in-demand data person? 

A great mission. And, hopefully, a company culture that is evolving in a manner that puts data in key decisions.

“The easy thing about working for The New York Times: We are a mission-driven company,” Kendell Timmers, the SVP and head of data and insights at The New York Times, said at the Monte Carlo Impact conference last month. “We seek the truth and help people understand the world. You’ll notice this mission is very journalism centric. But everything about the mission and the values have a data equivalent that we can use when we think about how we hire.” 

(Sidebar: We’re lucky to have Kendell as one of the advisors of the Smart Data Initiative here at INMA.)

And to augment this, consider that this is something I had personally observed throughout the tech organisation at The New York Times (she says, a 14-year veteran of the joint): I can’t tell you how many developers I knew at this organisation who joined specifically for the mission to inform society. Engineers who had also worked on their college newspapers. Data engineers who took sabbaticals to go on Trust & Policy fellowships in academia or join advisory bodies to contribute to the great work on privacy. 

You’d think this is just at The New York Times, but many of these folks eventually leave The Times to go and join other institutions precisely because they want to support these other organisations, understanding that being mission-aligned is a big driver in their own motivation and happiness. 

So what are these mission-driven values that you’d weave at the organisation-level but also in the data team? 

“Curiosity, respect, collaboration, excellence — these feel very common to to any organisation within the company,” Kendell said.  “So how does that work in the data world? Independence originally felt like a very journalistic focus. But in the data sense, we focus on unbiased analytics and fact-based recommendations. So I’m not going to provide something that’s the answer you want to hear. We need to provide the answer that’s the actual correct answer. Otherwise, we can’t make great data-driven decisions.”

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About Ariane Bernard

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