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I work as part of a tech team team that handles database applications for various business statistics. Our database platform is somewhat dated, but the business application that runs on it uses sophisticated statistical methods and generates very complex models.

There's a data science team at my company, who are supposed to be the "mad scientists/skunk ops" group, and are developing algorithms that perform the same business function that our team's software performs. They are using the latest trendy development tools and languages and running their code on the cloud as opposed to on premise servers.

However, the actual models they are generating are rudimentary and they are nowhere near achieving the functionality or scale that our application is capable of, despite how dated our platform is. Moreover, both myself and my team have more experience with the business area that we are working on than they do.

I want to collaborate with them for two reasons:

  • They could actually use our knowledge and experience on the subject, to the benefit of both teams and the company as a whole.
  • I would like to add some experience in the above mentioned trendy tools to my resume, for my own professional growth.

They have been unresponsive in my attempts to communicate with them. And from the way they talk to us, and from rumors circulating around the company grapevine, I get the impression that we are looked down on as mere technicians supporting an obsolete legacy app compared to the cutting edge development work they are doing. I also feel that the company higher-ups have a similar impression of our respective teams.

Questions:

  • How do me and my team breakthrough this perception issue and communicate to senior management and the company at large that what our team does is actually pretty advanced compared to what they are doing? (my immediate manager is aware of what is going on, as well as some of the business partners we deal with, but somehow this isn't bubbling up to the directors and VPs)
  • How do I break the ice with this team, and convince that we can benefit from collaborating, and that we actual know a lot more about the subject than they think we do, without seeming confrontational or petty?
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How do me and my team breakthrough this perception issue and communicate to senior management and the company at large that what our team does is actually pretty advanced compared to what they are doing? (my immediate manager is aware of what is going on, as well as some of the business partners we deal with, but somehow this isn't bubbling up to the directors and VPs)

By stating what you've explained in your question.

They are using the latest trendy development tools and languages and running their code on the cloud as opposed to on physical servers.

However, the actual models they are generating are rudimentary and they are nowhere near achieving the functionality or scale that our application is capable of, despite how dated our platform is.

Moreover, both myself and my team have more experience with business area that we are working on than they do.

Frame the issue not as a technical or theoretical issue (which you love and understand) and rather, as how it affects the bottom line.

  • Quantify: "latest trendy development tools...running their code on the cloud as opposed to on physical servers" mean that it is potentially unreliable. What is the cost of downtime? If you can demonstrate that unreliability costs the company $X dollars, leadership will listen and react to $$$.
  • Relevance: "actual models they are generating are rudimentary and they are nowhere near achieving the functionality or scale that our application is capable of" What is the actual product being bought by your customers? An old, but trusty Hammer or a New-Thing-a-Bob hasn't been tested and trusted?
  • Customer Support: "both myself and my team have more experience with business area that we are working on than they do" Everyone hates to wait. If the new product has 0 support, then why bother to use it? No matter how fast the new car is, if there are 0 mechanics that can work on it, why should I buy it?

How do I break the ice with this team, and convince that we can benefit from collaborating, and that we actual know a lot more about the subject than they think we do, without seeming confrontational or petty?

Some Ideas:

  • Food and Drinks after work: the best way into a person's heart is to offer food and drinks in a non-work setting. Get to know the people and be diplomatic. Frame the issue not as Us Vs. Them, but rather how can the both of you combine your strengths and weaknesses (Old but Reliable and Advanced yet Untested) that the Company can offer as a new product at a limited scale to work out the kinks and integrate it to your regular product line.
  • Ask for help: Franklin Effect Stoke their Ego by asking for help. Although this might seem counter intuitive. Admitting your weakness and asking for help improves their view of you. "Wow, he/she must thinks that I am good at X, if he/she is asking me for help". Unless they are a jerk. Jerks will belittle you asking for help. Ignore jerks and find someone who is an adult.
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    I upvoted. However with this Data Science hype, I think all bottom line rational discussions are doomed to failure. (for now). I think your suggestions to gain influence with the team are great and it will help opening up the discussion between OP and this team – NegativeJo Oct 24 '17 at 9:45
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The obvious place to start would be with whoever is responsible for running that team - the team leader or manager. Although before this it would be wise to have a talk with your own team lead/manager to sound out their opinion on any collaboration. After all your own team already has business tasks to be doing and I'm sure they wouldn't want any proposed collaboration to impede their completion.

I wouldn't be too quick to jump to the conclusion that this team's reticence is driven by malice or by a lack of respect for your team, obviously I don't know them or your company but it's not infeasible that this seperation is a chinese wall of sorts. Put in place to prevent the lure of the shiny new projects from distracting you team from the far less interesting tasks of keeping on with the development and maintainence of the "legacy" platform.

As for how to approach the idea with this "skunkworks" team's manager, I'd go with something along the lines of how you feel they could benefit from having input from people with more experience of the business area and the more involved models that you deal with as a result.

While your goals to gain skills in using the newer technologies are admirable and something that most managers would approve of in general I'd steer clear of mentioning it overly much in this situation - it risks coming off very much as "I want to play with the cool toys" and that might not go down so well. If you do mention it I'd frame it in the context of how if these new technologies are ultimately intended to form the foundation of a replacement for the existing platform that it makes sense to upskill the existing BAU experts in them ready for the transition.

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I upvoted Frank FYC answer.

However you need to know the following:

with the ongoing Data Science hype you are unlikely to have buy-in with the upper management that you perform similar functions to this new fancy team and that you would be complementing each other skills.

I am very familiar with your situation and those new data science teams are usually created to satisfy shareholder appetite for this new big data/ai hype so they can feel they are on that train. Therefore as a result they want to create new teams with "data scientists" ignoring the fact that very often they already have some of the expertise within the company wether it's technical, statistical and very importantly domain expertise.

Higher level management will ignore or even worst not know that there is actually a fair amount of overlap with existing teams but want to market it to their customers and shareholder as something new and revolutionary. Usually with little actual results but with a notable marketing impact.

You would have to wait for the hype to be over and for this to stabilize to be able to have some more productive interactions with that team.

This is highly reminiscent of the late 90's when companies would higher "Webmasters" and have them build a web presence and strategy ex nihilo without involving anyone else within the company. Nowadays webmasters almost completely disappeared because it takes a lot of different skills and involve many business units to manage an online presence. I think the same thing will happen with data strategies. But it will take time.

If you want to get exposure to those technologies and actually contribute actively to their betterment I would say : use the advice of Frank to break the ice and actually get hired within that team.

I would also suggest that you could -take some coursera classes on those technologies -practice data science and technological aspects on Kaggle or other data science competitions

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How do me and my team breakthrough this perception issue and communicate to senior management and the company at large that what our team does is actually pretty advanced compared to what they are doing?

That's not the approach you want to take. You are working on a legacy system. Regardless of what that really means, to a non-tech person it means you are a dinosaur. Rather than try and convince them that you can build a space shuttle with bronze age tools you need to convince them that your team has critical business domain knowledge.

Which begs the question - does your team actually have that business knowledge? In other words would the new team gain better insight into the industry you're in by speaking to your team or by speaking to the business experts at your company? If you still have to rely on business experts to provide complete direction then the answer is no.

Honestly, your team manager should have been at the forefront of this update before management even got the idea. Which, to me, says that (s)he isn't paying attention to what's going on business wise and likely isn't close enough to senior management to have their ear.

How do I break the ice with this team, and convince that we can benefit from collaborating, and that we actual know a lot more about the subject than they think we do, without seeming confrontational or petty?

It would be far easier for you to try and join this new team as an individual member than to get them to simply collaborate with your entire team if there are other non-tech domain experts in the company.

Make no mistake, this is a political war. I've been on the "mad scientist/skunk ops" side of things before and if you guys weren't consulted ahead of time about this new group then you are already on the losing side.

  • "Rather than try and convince them that you can build a space shuttle with bronze age tools" this isn't the correct analogy. More along the lines of: They have a minimally functional one passenger electric car, while we have a full featured SUV that runs on a diesel engine. – Alex Kinman Oct 24 '17 at 23:06
  • @AlexKinman: Fair enough. I'm sure that SUV of yours wasn't built all at once. Their stuff will evolve as well. – NotMe Oct 25 '17 at 0:31

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