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Wayne Eckerson

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The Spanner: The Next Generation BI Developer

To succeed with business intelligence (BI), sometimes you have to buck tradition, especially if you work at a fast-paced company in a volatile industry.

And that’s what Eric Colson did when he took the helm of Neflix’ BI team last year. He quickly discovered that his team of BI specialists moved too slowly to successfully meet business needs. “Coordination costs [among our BI specialists] were killing us,” says Colson.

Subsequently, Colson introduced the notion of a “spanner”—a BI developer who builds an entire BI solution singlehandedly. The person “spans” all BI domains, from gathering requirements to sourcing, profiling, and modeling data to ETL and report development to metadata management and Q&A testing.

Colson claims that one spanner works much faster and more effectively than a team of specialists. They work faster because they don’t have to wait for other people or teams to complete tasks or spend time in meetings coordinating development. They work more effectively because they are not biased to any one layer of the BI stack and thus embed rules where most appropriate. “A traditional BI team often makes changes in the wrong layer because no one sees the big picture,” Colson says.

Also, since spanners aren’t bound by a written contract (i.e., requirements document) created by someone else, they are free to make course corrections as they go along and “discover” the optimal solution as it unfolds. This degree of autonomy also means that spanners have higher job satisfaction and are more dedicated and accountable. One final benefit: there’s no fingerpointing, if something fails.

Not For Everyone

Of course, there are downsides to spanning. First, not every developer is capable of spanning. Some don’t have the skills, and others don’t have the interest. “We have lost some people,” admits Colson. Finding the right people isn’t easy, and you must pay a premium in salary to attract and retain them. Plus, software license costs increase because each spanner needs a full license to each BI tool in your stack.

Second, not every company is well suited spanners. Many companies won’t allocate enough money to attract and retain spanners. And mature companies in regulated or risk-averse industries may work better with a traditional BI organization and development approach.


Nonethless, experience shows that the simplest solution is often the best one. In that regard, spanners could be the wave of the future.

Colson says that using spanners eliminates much of the complexity of running BI programs and development projects. The only thing you need is a unifying data model and BI platform and a set of common principles, such as “avoid putting logic in code” or “account ID is a fundamental unifier.” The rest falls into the hands of the spanners who rely on their skills, experience, and judgment to create robust local applications within an enterprise architecture. Thus, with spanners, you no longer need business requirement analysts or requirements documents, a BI methodology, project managers , and a QA team, says Colson.

This is certainly pretty radical stuff, but Colson has proven that thinking and acting outside the box works, at least at Neflix. Perhaps it’s time you consider following suit!

Posted on October 21, 2010


Wed, Dec 14, 2011

We were doing this at Yahoo! 10 years ago however the PHD level engineering folks decided it was not the right thing to be doing. Victims of industry marking no doubt.

Fri, Oct 14, 2011

I disagree with this approach. It is irresponsible approach. A one-person show is prone to errors, not following enterprise guidelines, architecture. The end product may be difficult to maintain and poorly designed withouth a review process. There needs to be a check and balance, either through a process minimally or working with others that have the knowledge and skillset.

Thu, Jun 23, 2011 Zafar Nadeem UK

We have an agreed architecture, and within that framework all the members of the team are 'spanners'. This setup allows us to deliver a solution much quicker than the supposed traditional setups. It can however, get v political in the sense that the IT department and their hoardes of requirement analysts, change controllers and testers etc may feel threatened..

Mon, Feb 7, 2011 Patrick

Also, does this mean there would be no bus architecture vs. CIF DW Architecture discussions? perhaps some slight modifications to the spanner concept would work better for larger organizations.

Mon, Feb 7, 2011 Patrick

Where in the organization does the spanner reside? for that matter where do you feel the DW/BI organization should reside? to me BI is a hybrid that does not belong tucked away in an IT department and the most successful BI implementations are the result of a very close partnership that being w/n the same organization will help facilitate

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