Client projects are an important and exciting part of the Data School training program. Working as a team towards a common goal, utilising the skills you have all accumulated thus far to solve a problem for the clients, all within a tight timeline—what’s not to like? Excitement aside, it could always be a little bit daunting when you are going to lead a client project for the first time. After all, you are spearheading a team of your peers who have gone through the same training as you, and you are supposed to lead them (the horror!).

Well, fret not! In this post, I will share some of my thoughts and tips that should help you be a little more ready for the role.


Preparation is Key

Client projects only run for a week, so time goes very quickly. Tasks that usually take days might need to be done in hours. To make sure your team can hit the ground running, you should make sure the work ecosystem is all set up and ready to go. This includes the Teams channel, scrum board, and any tools that your team needs. If they need to use Excalidraw to make dashboard sketches, set up “Live collaboration” sessions so that everyone can see (and maybe work on) the same sketches. If they need to access a SQL Server somewhere, make sure the credentials are available as soon as possible.

All of this information, and including what you already know about the project, should be made easily accessible to your team (e.g., pinned to the top of your project’s Teams channel). The less time they spend on looking/asking for things, the more time they have for doing productive work.

Come to think of it, you could (and probably should) start your preparation even before you meet your client for the first time. For example, think about what you want to ask them and write down a few main points that you do not want to forget.

In short, remember the 5Ps and make this your mantra:

Nick Cummins saying "preparation prevents piss poor performance"


Know Your Tools

To be clear, you should not expect yourself to be an expert on everything and have all the answers all the time. Having said that, do challenge yourself to understand the tools you are asking your teams to use. If you could answer some of their questions or give them some time-saving tips, it works to the team’s benefit.

This extends to some of the applications that you might use (e.g., Lucidchart to draw entity relationship diagrams), and what restrictions there might be for the free-tier (or whichever tier you might be on).

A screenshot of a message from Lucidchart that says, "You're out of free shapes for this document"

Not my finest hour.


Set Your Goals

What type of goals you can have would likely be constrained by the scope of the project and what your clients want. Regardless, do not let it stop you from setting some goals, both for yourself and for your team. It doesn’t matter if the goals seem trivial. As long as they do not contradict and are specific and achievable, they would help guide the decisions that you have to make along the way (and there are plenty). If it suits, communicate them to your team at the start of the project so that everyone has a better understanding of the said decisions when you make them.

For reference, some of my goals were: (a) to prioritise quality of the deliverables over the completion of all requirements, (b) to set aside at least one full morning for presentation rehearsal, and (c) to finish at/before 5pm everyday (note: I acknowledge that this may not be possible for some projects), and they definitely helped clarify my thinking when I was planning out or making changes to our schedule.


Plan, Plan, Plan

As the team lead, you need to be at least a step ahead of your team, all of whom would likely be buried deep in their assigned tasks. This might mean that you are not able to demonstrate your Tableau skills or design talents, but that’s not your job in this project. Your job (or part of it, anyway) is to keep planning for what might happen next, and ensure that any potential obstacles are identified and addressed early.

As you can imagine, there often are plenty of uncertainties and that’s fine. You do not have to take it upon yourself to foresee all the possible ways that things could develop (unless you are Dr Strange). Even just having a broad plan for one or two possibilities will help you pivot that much quicker when something unexpected crops up.

GIF of Dr Strange looking into all possible futures, with the caption, "Actual footage of client project planning"


Be Ready to Adapt

Following on from the previous point, you need to maintain a degree of flexibility. There is not a single plan that could be applied to all situations, so do not be surprised or feel deflated when you have to change course. There is nothing else to do but to adapt and move on, and if you have done your homework (refer back to points 3 & 4), you will be well positioned to do just that.


Keep a Cool Head

I recognise that this is something that is easier said than done, but you are the leader, and you need to keep your cool. And what I’m about to say next is purely my own opinion (i.e., does not represent what anybody else expects, etc.): Do not expect someone else to bail you out if you lose your head. Maybe someone would, but do not expect it. What this effectively means is, you should be prepared for things to become hectic, for plans to be thrown out of the window, and for pressure to mount.

However, if that should happen, remember that you are still not expected to have all the answers all the time, but you should be prepared to find a way to work through the mess. So, if you find yourself in a bad headspace, excuse yourself and take a few minutes away from everyone. It’s not a life-and-death situation, and you do not need to have The Answer® immediately. And remember, the coaches and your team are there to help (but not to take over your duties).


Lastly, and most importantly,

Remember: You Are Still in Training

All I have written so far represents an ideal state of preparation. It is therefore very important to recognise and remember that you are just weeks into your training. And the most important thing about being in training is to allow yourself to make mistakes, and then learn from them. I’ve said this a lot, but I’ll say it again: You are not expected to have all the answers. Be brave, take a chance, and do not avoid doing things just because you are afraid to fail.

This post ended up being a little longer than I had imagined, so congratulations if you read through all of that. Again, these are just my opinions and reflective of my own expectations (“prepare for the worst and hope for the best”) but I certainly hope you found something useful for you. Our first project week certainly went a lot smoother than I made it out to be, and we all went home happy at the end of the day. You probably would too.

All the best!


Picture of the project team, with everyone smiling next to a presentation slide

Happy days.

J Tay
Author: J Tay