• People

Leading with curiosity and creativity in data science

8 February 2024

JUMO’s Head of Data Science and Analytics, Niklas von Maltzahn, is the innovative mind spearheading prediction at JUMO. Niklas tells us about his leadership journey, relative to his field, and the lessons he’s learnt about being a leader along the way.

‘Leadership in data science is not just about managing systems; it’s about fostering a culture of curiosity, creativity, and collaboration.’

My journey to being head of JUMO’s data science and analytics  team was shaped by my background in actuarial science, quantitative finance, and a keen interest in computer science and statistics. I initially joined JUMO in 2016 as an individual contributor, driven to automate and systematise processes. I never really had any clear career aspirations; my focus has always been on doing what I enjoy, learning and embracing new challenges. When I stepped into the leadership role, my priority was to transform our team from a group of individuals into a cohesive unit that collaborates and supports each other.

I found building and managing systems was one thing, but managing human beings was a whole other ball game. When I stepped into a leadership role, I had to wear the hat of a coach, constantly encouraging and motivating my team.

Building a cohesive team

Building a team in the realm of data science is unique in that it requires a balance between deep business domain expertise and strong technical skills. In my early days as a leader, I attempted to mould everyone into a perfect hybrid of these two, but I soon realised this was impractical. The key lies in composing a team with diverse strengths – a mix of business experts and adept software engineers.

At JUMO, we have successfully blended these two worlds, which has been pivotal to our ability to move quickly and seize opportunities. And that’s because we’re so selective when bringing new people on board. It’s not just about their skill sets; it’s about cultural, role and team fit. We look for individuals with a deep passion for data, but equally, those who gel well with our overall ethos. Diversity in thought, background and approach is our strength.

Leading from the front

Although it’s become a bit of a cliche, this adage is still relevant. My leadership style, as I’ve mentioned, is akin to a coach or mentor rather than a traditional manager. I see myself at the forefront, leading by example, cheering on the team, while still being actively involved in problem-solving. This approach is especially vital in the data science industry, where hands-on involvement and maintaining momentum are crucial. I am very intentional about fostering an environment where curiosity, creativity and collaboration thrive. In our team, we also prioritise constant learning and remaining informed.

Advice to my younger self

Reflecting on my journey, the advice I would give my younger self stepping into a leadership role would be to be patient – with others and myself. Transitioning from an individual contributor to a leader means learning to be comfortable with a certain lack of control and trusting the process and the people.

It’s a bit like being a parent, really. One of the most profound realisations I had was the uncanny resemblance between the dynamics of leadership and parenthood. Both roles require you to guide, support and, sometimes, let go. I’ve had to learn to embrace unpredictability and thriving amidst uncertainty. It’s now become almost second nature to me, both as a leader and as a parent.

Embracing team diversity

A vital lesson I’ve learned is the significance of every team member’s contribution. Embracing the diversity of thoughts and ideas within a team is crucial as it leads to more comprehensive solutions and innovation. It’s essential to recognise that while individual brilliance is valuable, a team’s collective strengths are what drive substantial progress.

United strength for global impact

When I reflect on my time at JUMO, it strikes me how our collective efforts, rooted in diverse perspectives, have been the cornerstone of our success. And that is why I think leadership is less about directing and more about harmonising the unique strengths and visions of each team member. It’s this blend of varied insights and experiences that propels us forward, fuelling innovation and guiding us to deliver data-driven insights to fulfil JUMO’s mission to bolster financial inclusion and empower people by giving them sound financial choices, especially in Africa.

Connect with Niklas