If there was ever a time when I was uncertain about the future of data, it’s now. I am not concerned about progress and not even remotely worried that current trends are a fad. My concern is that the future is so ripe with opportunity that I want to be sure I am making the right choices!
Big Data, Data Lakes, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Data Scientists, and other countless concepts are peppered into various articles I attempt to consume every week that by the time Friday rolls around, I feel like I did a CrossFit WOD (workout of the day) inside a Hadoop Cluster.
There I am, thrusting massive algorithms into the air in hopes of becoming a fit data practitioner. Unfortunately for me, I am not seeing a lot of muscle, just exhaustion. The reason for this is that many of the things I am trying to learn or understand are delivered by people who make them overly complex or simply do not understand the concepts themselves.
Perhaps I am being a little over-dramatic but hey, it’s more fun to read, right? The truth is that I am completely overwhelmed by the data jargon and the opinions that various “experts” have associated with said jargon. Putting myself in the shoes of those around me, who don’t have years of experience with data, I can imagine how frustratingly cryptic all of this is. Whenever I meet people in the business to try and understand their needs— not data needs but business needs— I am confronted with two things that occur in almost every meeting. The first is that much of what I have been hired to do is a black-box to those I am serving. The second is that as soon as we begin discussing needs, there is a knee-jerk response from the person I am working with in an attempt to create a solution to the problem. For example, if I were asking someone about whether or not sales information is needed to run their business more efficiently, attract more customers or make things easier for their salesforce, I get a rundown of what they think we can do based on the data available to them from the systems they use.
At first that may sound like a logical step to tackling the problem. I am the data guy and I am asking them what they need so clearly they want to help make it easier by defining realistic boundaries. Unfortunately, that does not make it easier for either of us. What happens on both sides is a phenomenon in which lines have been drawn around what is possible and we begin working from those boundaries inward.
If you have not already seen it, Simon Sinek has become a leadership god through his expansion on the idea of finding our ‘why.’ Why do we do what we do? You can go here to better understand that question or just freshen up on Simon’s cool TED Talk. The point of illustrating that concept is not just to make him seem like a cool and trendy speaker, but instead create a place where we should start many of the conversations we have, especially in business and particularly when it comes to data. Rather than limiting your goals to what you think is available to you, begin by reaching for the stars and figure out how to reach them after that. Imagine if, back in 1937, Walt Disney decided that he was going to create Snow White using traditional methods of animation rather than the studio inventing a multi-plane camera to create his masterpiece. Instead, Disney had a vision and he started with that idea and his “why”, which is to entertain the world, and moved forward from there. They had no way of creating the vision Walt had for that film so they had to invent a way. Inspiring, right?
The American flag, proudly planted on the moon might still be a dream if President Kennedy had not demonstrated the American ‘why” of being the greatest nation on Earth and promising we would be on the moon in a few years. Did he ask if we already have a rocket that can take us there? No (maybe he did), he said let’s go to the frickin’ moon and we worked forward from there and actually did it. We take for granted that this was impossible when we set the goal. We made it possible by inventing our own way there. Think about these examples the next time you discuss your data strategy. In fact, there really is no such thing as a data strategy!
It’s a business strategy and there is a way to support that with data. What do we want to do for our customers? How can we be the best company to serve their needs? It’s perfectly acceptable to think of things that may seem crazy to you. Crazy is good, believe me; I have been living it for twenty-five years now! Throw your ideas out there, document them, and insure that you understand ‘why’ that idea supports and then come back to reality to figure out what it would take to reach the goal. It’s that simple. And remember what Uncle Walt said: “If you can dream it, you can do it.”