What I talk about when I talk about data

LONDON, ENGLAND, 1-Aug 1996. A young man tried to get a job in a factory today. Human Resources took one look at his nascent skill set and pointed him towards the sales floor. Had anyone from the department been available for comment they would have said something like: “we need someone to work The Computer.”

That’s how I got my first job in data. There really was only one PC and when I had to go and get raw data I obtained it from a black and green behemoth un-ironically known as The Other Computer. The pile of floppy disks on my desk was generally referred to as The Data as in: “What’s that, Pete?” “The Data, Sir”. Given they’d employed me to look at The Data it is somewhat surprising that’s as far as most conversations got.

With 20 years hindsight, these incurious luddites look ridiculous now, relics of a less enlightened time. Only one computer? Backward! Bliss maybe, but backward nonetheless. Calling a pile of floppy disks a database? How quaint. As for the fact that they had to get a 19-year-old in to talk to The Computer? Ah, bless ‘em. We’re just so much more advanced now.

Or are we?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND, 1-Aug 2016. A not-so-young man tried to do his job today. His MD collared him first thing about speed of The Database. A spokesman for the company was quoted as saying: “Pete just needs to fix the f***ing thing.”

It is tempting to think of today’s technology workers as the cats who got the cream, the geeks who inherited the earth. Whilst I don’t dispute this statement, it covers up a deeper truth. Replace that green and black behemoth with The Cloud (or, as likely at time of writing, The Server) and those floppy disks with any of The System, The KPIs or even plain old The Database. For The Data, read The Data. Now ask yourself: just how much more advanced are we now?

The reason the sales floor wanted me back then was because they had very specific questions that they suspected they could answer with data. Note the chronology here – they already had the questions – inspired by real life, and set in stone. The notion that data could maybe solve them was very much an afterthought. Nowadays the opposite is more often true: we have the data but we don’t know what questions to ask of it. This is a deep and fundamental change in the way businesses – all businesses – are run.

Back in 1996, what happened next is telling: I looked at the data and painted some future scenarios. The questions from the sales floor went from “tell me this?” to “what if we changed that bit there?”. The data became part of the conversation. Part of the conversation. The four vastly experienced sales guys were the other vital parts.

When I talk about data I always hark back to those other vital components. The best databases in a business are often stored in brains, not bytes. The Data is the whole darn shootin’ match: the storage, the system, the sympatico with those who know and care the most. And the whole darn shootin’ match is what I talk about when I talk about data.

(brain header image from http://www.olyfloat.com/the-seven-theories-of-floating/)