A couple weeks ago I attended SQL Saturday 499 (SQL #499)in Madison, WI. Overall it was a good, well organized event – well worth the time and several hour drive from Grand Rapids, MI and per my main priority I obtained several solid tips and insights on BI in MS Azure. My current project involves the common hybrid BI architecture with all data, processing, and modeling staying on-premises but being visualized by users in Azure. In the near future I expect more BI projects of different scale and deliverable to be all or largely cloud-centric. The vision, benefits, and ‘how to’ technical details of cloud based BI could easily be its own series of blog posts in the months ahead. However, for this post, I thought I’d just share an observation or concept from my experience in technology that two of the sessions I attended in Madison reminded me of. Specifically, and the quickening pace of BI & analytics innovation may be exacerbating this, I often encounter two wildly different profiles – The Cool Teenager and the Old Man.
Note: These are only two profiles that I’m choosing to blog about, there are many, many others and many individuals I’ve worked with either don’t fit any template or exhibit shades of multiple profiles (myself included).
The Cool Teenager
The ‘Cool Teenager’ is the BI and analytics professional, likely a consultant but maybe a BI developer or data scientist as well, who doesn’t have much experience (maybe less than 2 years) or even necessarily deep technical skill or knowledge but has experienced ‘something’ that somehow makes him impervious to direction and overly confident in his abilities. For example, one of the SQL Saturday speakers was a few years removed from college but spent at least 20 minutes of the 90-minute session talking about himself and his role on a recent project. The few projects or clients he’s worked on may have been deemed a success and may have used a particular skill or tool that is, at the moment at least, considered best of breed or just well marketed. Some examples that come to mind include dashboard and self-service visualization tools and advanced analytics with machine learning and R. The cool teenager is excited by the technology or science involved, the praise from the boss and/or client, and this enthusiasm is a good thing (properly channeled) but it should be noted here that in many cases the gap between the ‘current state’ of the client or business team relative to capabilities of modern BI tools and upgraded infrastructure is so great that it’s not necessarily the technical design and knowledge that’s delivering the value. (ie You didn’t invent the drill down and through features of the tool, you merely applied it to some common/important attributes via a few clicks and gave a demo)
The cool teenager doesn’t know how narrow or limited his experience really is. He may conclude that his experience in Project A is a completely valid basis for Project B (different client, different industry, different everything) or that the skill or knowledge applicable to Project A is ‘the’ skill or knowledge he needs to know. In reality, though there are common patterns and best practices of course, I’ve never encountered a project of any scale in which some new skill or knowledge or different combination of design, skill and knowledge wasn’t required – there’s never a copy and paste option that doesn’t severely degrade value or miss requirements altogether. The curious and enthusiastic teenager can become arrogant quickly without proper mentors and new challenges that force you to grow and branch out.
It’s possible that the teenager is actually correct in some measure and his ideas shouldn’t be discounted automatically. The optimal situation is remaining conscious of important gaps in knowledge/skill and harnessing that youthful energy and motivation to consume wide and deep chunks of information to close down these gaps. If a dedicated mentor isn’t available (which is likely the case – the mentor is probably busy with other projects) the cool teenager should be exposed to different areas and put in situations in which you’re forced to grow and test your assumptions. In my development (to an extent I was probably a ‘cool teenager’ at one point) I didn’t have a dedicated mentor but I was put in many sink or swim scenarios (e.g. delivery deadline with tool/technique you’re not experienced with) and simply looked around the conference room and the BI landscape at the knowledge/skills I wanted to develop. One skill or topic, one client or project at a time and you turn around and you’re definitely not a teenager anymore (though still and always hungry).
–“You should, like, definitely still build a data warehouse” – The Cool Teenager, BI ‘pro’ with 1+ years of data visualization experience
The Old Man
The ‘Old Man’ is the BI and analytics professional who’s been in the industry and/or with a company for a long, long time. This character has likely been promoted into higher levels of management and has strong or at least effective relationships throughout the organization. At some point, likely because of this relative success and ‘higher level’ responsibilities, the old man plateaued in terms of technical knowledge/skill building and generally found a peace and comfort level with tools and understandings and stopped growing and challenging himself. In this respect both the Old Man and the Cool Teenager can both be complacent and narrow minded as they think they’ve either ‘seen it all’ or that ‘everything is different now’, respectively. Both perspectives are only partially correct in most cases – some things have indeed changed and you need to accept and adapt to this but this new/current reality often rhymes with the past and past experience is almost always a benefit.
In many cases parts of the Old Man’s knowledge are indeed still relevant and many of his past projects have become standards/templates and contributed value far beyond expectations. One common scenario in consulting is the development of BI solution that grows in importance, users and complexity to a business such that the Old Man who helped build/design it originally can constantly leverage this knowledge of this one project for years. Despite documentation the learning curve is so flat or gradual that the expense and time of bringing on new teams to support it or migrating it to a different tool is so great that the Old Man is perpetually busy and providing value to be sure but isn’t really growing either as a BI pro. The Old Man shares this experience attempting to apply it to other projects and in a worst case scenario becomes somewhat of an island disconnected from everything else going on in the industry and with other projects.
In other scenarios the Old Man thinks he’s ‘moved on’ from all the critical details of BI technology and analytics. He knows more than the relevant talking points and buzzwords, but not much more, and since he isn’t accountable for delivering value directly anymore he sees little incentive to expand his knowledge. In many ways he’s now a ‘facilitator’ between stakeholders on the technology and business teams and though he’s a main input to technology decisions his perspective is largely driven by sentiment of peers, budget/resource constraints, and very high level overviews of projects and tools. In still other situations he’s simply developed other priorities away from work and though he wants to have a current skill set he’s not excited by technology or as curious as he once was and now desires a more predictable schedule and workflow.
At SQL Saturday Madison one of the consultant speakers gave a presentation that surely could’ve been used at least 2 years ago – both the Power Point slides and the insights and demonstrations offered. Despite the session being an ‘intermediate’, implying some level of depth to be shared, the consultant’s presentation was a very high level overview with minimal input on Microsoft’s roadmap or SQL Server 2016. (This bothered me as I looked around the room with nodding heads accepting largely outdated or incomplete ideas (at best) as truths)
–“SSAS Multidimensional is definitely the choice over SSAS Tabular for enterprise scale solutions.” – The Old Man who hasn’t learned or used SSAS Tabular, DAX, or reviewed SQL 16’
So to wrap up I think it’s healthy to blend multiple aspects of both personas. The mature, ‘battle-tested’ Old Man coupled with the exuberant and idealistic Cool Teenager makes for a fantastic combination. There are natural reasons why the Cool Teenager becomes the Old Man (promotions, family, etc) and reasons why the teenager thinks he’s cool (new tech, pure ignorance) so the challenge is to always stay humble and hungry – always anxiously looking forward and growing but with knowledge of history, awareness of your own gaps (they always exist) and respect for realities (resource constraints, org structures).