What you need to know about client projects - The practical side (Part 1/2)

by Timea Demeter

We just finished our 6th client project and after each one I felt that I have a better understanding of how these work and how to make the best of them. 

So I compiled a list of tips that might be useful to future DS-ers or anyone who is working with projects that need to be completed in a relatively short amount of time.

But wait, what are client projects? 

As part of our training at the Data School, we work on projects for real companies. We usually have the kick-off on Monday, that is when we meet the client and gather the requirements. Then we have around two and a half days to work on producing something and present back to them on Friday. 

Sounds pretty straight forward right? And sometimes it is, but most times it isn’t. The reason for this is that in some cases the data doesn’t arrive in the format you would expect it to be in or is not at the ideal level of granularity, or it’s not for the right time period. Also, sometimes the requirements aren’t very clear, or in alignment with the amount of time you have to complete the project, or sometimes the data isn’t mapped out in a way that can be easily understood. These are just a couple of examples and in reality every project has its unique combination of challenges. 

In addition to the challenges coming from the client we also have training so not all the time and energy can be dedicated to the project. There are also the “technical” challenges which refer to the way in which certain things can “be done” in Tableau and/or Alteryx. Although we improved our Tableau and Alteryx skills significantly in the past couple of months there are still sooo many things that we don’t know how to do yet. Therefore learning some the technical skills that are needed to deliver the desired dashboard or workflow might also become part of the project. 

There is also the challenge of delivering the results in a way that is understood by the client, making sure that they can get real value out of the work.

And all this should happen within a week. 

I have to admit that when I first heard of the client projects I could see only one purpose for them, and that is to deliver a smashing dashboard and make sure that the client is happy. As we started working on them I realized that their true value lies in teaching us how to tackle and balance all the above mentioned challenges. How to set expectations (in front of the client, from the team and from ourselves), how to manage the time we are given and how to prioritize. 

Because you can be sure that the data will never be perfect, the time will never be enough, everything will seem “very important” and you will feel overwhelmed at some point. 

Although this may sound a bit daunting at first, there is joy in trying to “untangle” the challenges and delivering the best possible output in the given time.

So now that you know a bit more about client projects, I want to share a few tips that can help you make the best of this experience.

Leading the project

I haven’t mentioned earlier that every project is led by someone within the cohort. This role changes from one project to the other until each of us have a turn at this position.

In my opinion, this is the most challenging role within a project. The reason for this is that the project manager has to oversee the project and be the link between the team and the client. This can mean going back and forth with questions that need clarifying , sharing the answers, organizing the work, finding help when needed and so on.

It also falls on the project manager to make sure that whatever is delivered is in alignment with the client requirements and that the client receives is a consistent piece of work created by a team and not by seven individual people.

As a result the project manager is usually under a lot of pressure during the week and feels completely drained by the end of it. So as advice to future PM’s make sure to relax the weekend before and if you have exams or teaching sessions while you’re PM-ing prepare for those in advance.

If you received the data in advance, it is also very useful to start familiarizing yourself with it before the kick off meeting. This will give you a basic idea of what the project is about and will also help you formulate questions that the client can answer on Monday.

Assign time to understand the data you are working with

Before our first project I naively assumed that during the kick off meeting we will fully understand everything we need to know about the data and that we’ll jump straight into prepping the workflow and making the visualizations.

That’s hardly ever the case. 

Sometimes it might take a couple of hours, sometimes it can take an entire day or it might be a continuous process throughout the week. Either way, it will take up a significant amount of your time and should be taken into consideration when planning the week.

Be part of the team

Working as part of a team is not always easy, especially if you are used to working mostly on your own. Sometimes you might feel that instead of explaining your thought process to others it’s just quicker to crack on and do it by yourself. But keep in mind that as a team you can always achieve a lot more than as an individual. This is especially important because you have such a short time frame to deliver the project that the contribution of every team member has a huge impact on the final result.

Something to keep in mind when working in a team is sharing with your project manager and also with your team members what you are working on, what are your challenges and what you’re planning to do.

This is important because if your other team members don’t know what you are working on you might end up duplicating work within the team. Sharing your challenges with each other can help solve them a lot quicker and you might find that there is someone else who has already struggled with a similar challenge and that they already know the solution. This can save a lot of time and almost always leads to generating new ideas.

Check in with the client

At the end of the day, the client will be the one who will use the product of your work and this is why it’s really important to ensure that they understand how to use it and that they are happy with what you created.

You might be tempted to just work on the project and show everything to the client on Friday, but it’s always better to check in with them just to make sure that the outcome you are creating is the same as the outcome they had in mind.

Another reason why you should check in with the client is because you might come up with questions that you didn’t have during the kickoff. In reality most questions arise after exploring the data set, and once you start working with it. So in order to avoid misinterpretation or drawing the wrong conclusions it’s always better to ask the client to sense check your work. There might also be cases when you have multiple options and can’t decide which one would be best. So the best person to ask….yes, you guessed it… is the client.

I know I keep repeating myself but this is just to emphasize that you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable when asking questions. If anything they will appreciate the interest and remember, they want this project to succeed as much as you do.

You will never be fully ready

As a perfectionist this was one of the hardest thing for me to accept. Because of the very short time frame I eventually had to get used to the fact that things will not always come out perfectly polished and that there will always be room for improvement. From the client’s perspective it’s also very valuable to know all the things that could be added in the future and what could be done on a longer term.

Because it’s highly likely that someone else will pick it up and implement some of the next steps you suggested it’s essential to develop a good documentation.

Rehearse the presentation

I cannot stress enough how important this is. It not only makes your presentation more fluid it also gives you extra confidence when you’re standing in front of the audience.

Before the presentation you might also be nervous and this may cause you to lose the chain of your thoughts. By rehearsing, chances are that you will remember a lot quicker what you want to your speech will flow better and it’s going to be better structured. All this will have a better impact on your audience.

Now that we covered most of the practical side, will talk about the emotional journey in part two.

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash