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PHOTO: Joe Neric

For every company thriving amid the world of opportunity brought about by digital transformation, there’s another company struggling to find its way. For every company that’s taken off amid the mass migration of consumer engagement to web and mobile applications, another company has failed to keep up. 

At times both frustrating and confounding, this general inconsistency has largely defined the early stages of the digital era.

In trying to diagnose the source of this inconsistency, folks like me have examined virtually every corner of the business and technology landscape. Companies need to transform their culture before transforming their technology, we’ve said. Companies need to embrace modern cloud and open-source technologies. Companies need to think mobile first. All good advice, and yet, somewhat puzzlingly, many organizations, even some that have heeded that good advice, still struggle.

The ancient problem-solving philosophy known as Occam’s Razor holds that out of any set of potential explanations for a given outcome, the simplest one is usually the correct one. And when it comes to the company-to-company inconsistency we continue to see in the digital era, the simplest explanation might just be that some organizations have the right people in the right places, and some don’t. Some have created and filled the roles that drive digital success, and others haven’t.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at four of the most important and yet (mostly) unheralded roles in the age of digital transformation.

1. Data Scientists

I did say mostly unheralded, didn’t I? After all, there’s probably no single role in the tech world that’s been more heralded in recent years than the data scientist. But while the role itself has been suitably heralded, the actual output of data scientists is still largely misunderstood, and thus, in a way, largely unheralded.

Amid all the hype and excitement surrounding data scientists, a misconception has grown that their role is to apply statistics to make big, ground-breaking discoveries that change the face of a business overnight. And consequently, I still talk with many companies who don’t yet think they’re ready for or need a data science team. They often think there’s isn’t a business in need of the kinds of seismic discoveries data scientists are hired to uncover.

The reality though, is that math is subtle, and most of the time, so too are the discoveries of a data scientist. Data scientists are at their best uncovering subtle nuances and small tweaks that can, over time, have a big impact on even a small business. So, if you think you’re not big enough or complex enough to benefit from data science, it might be time to reconsider.

Related Article: One Woman's Path to Data Science

2. Site Reliability Engineers

There may be no more important role in the digital era than the site reliability engineer. Consider how many products and solutions are delivered to customers today as a service. The ability to keep that service available to your customers at all times isn’t just critical to your business — it is your business. That’s where site reliability engineers, or SREs, come in.

An evolution of the traditional IT operations role, SREs are responsible for managing their company’s SaaS offering. And a whole lot more goes into that than you might think. SREs make sure you have all the necessary infrastructure in place to deliver the service your customers expect. They identify, purchase, implement and help standardize on the tools developers need to actually manage the service and keep it up and running. They anticipate and model how the service will evolve in the future.

And when there is an outage (and there always will be — 100% uptime is a myth), guess who builds and executes a remediation plan, communicates and provides status reports to the organization, and delivers a post-mortem after the fact? SREs, of course.

Related Article: Salesforce's Major Outage Reinforces Pitfalls of Cloud Software World

3. SDETs

I’ve written in this space before about accelerated release cycles and their impact on testing. Increasingly, companies in the digital age can’t afford to have developers sitting around (unproductively) waiting for feedback from QA teams that operate independently. For digital transformation to succeed, organizations simply have to bridge the gap, both functionally and organizationally, between dev and QA teams. That’s why SDETs are so important.

Short for Software Development Engineers in Test, SDETs are test engineers who sit within and work as part of an organization’s development team. Their presence on the dev team, and more importantly, their combination of skills (most are former QA pros who then added nominal coding skills) makes it possible for organizations to shift testing left and conduct it earlier in the dev cycle. This emphasis on continuous testing leads to faster release cycles and a better digital experience for customers. If that doesn’t sound like something your business is delivering, it might be time to bolster your lineup of SDETs.

Related Article: This Is How We DevOps

4. Strategic Architects

Don’t spend a lot of time trying to look this one up, as the title tends to change from company to company. What’s less important than the title is the critical role this person plays in any digitally-driven business. In the digital era, we are inundated by data, analysis, dashboards and visualizations. Even those organizations that do a good job of gathering and analyzing data and information tend to do so within silos, with separate sales, marketing, and financial operations teams all looking after their respective houses. Something’s missing, and that something is the strategic architect.

An evolution of the traditional business analyst role, the strategic architect connects the dots between all the operations and analysis going within the various silos that exist within a company. He or she takes a much more holistic view of the overall business and works to deliver longer-term, cross-functional insight that can be used to drive change and transformation across the company.

Related Article: The Accidental Analyst

Give Yourself a Checkup

If you’re still struggling to get your digital initiatives off the ground and find yourself wondering what others are doing that you’re not, it’s a good time to give your org chart a checkup to see if you truly have the right people in the right roles. The four outlined here make for a great place to start.