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Talking Data with Non-Data People

If non-technical people don't grasp why good data management is important, argues Linda Powell, chief data officer with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, IT people and data management practitioners have only themselves to blame.

At O'Reilly Inc.'s Open Source Convention (OSCon) in Portland last month, Linda Powell, chief data officer with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), tackled that thorniest of subjects: how to talk about data with non-technical people.

By "non-technical" people, Powell meant one's boss or bosses, and by "talking about data," she meant talking about data management (DM): i.e., educating non-technical people about the importance of data quality, data lineage, consistent metadata definitions, and other data-related topics.

In most cases, Powell conceded, non-technical people don't understand or are unable to appreciate the importance of good data management; she refused, however, to let attendees off the hook. If non-technical people don't understand why DM is important, she argued, IT people and DM practitioners have only themselves to blame. The upshot, she urged, is that IT and DM need to do a much better job of marketing themselves to the line of business, emphasizing who they are, what they do, and why what they do matters.

"We have to approach the business folks in a way that is not intimidating to them or not distracting to them," she argued, stressing that this also applies to the ways in which IT people come across in their interactions with line-of-business stakeholders. Powell used a counter-example -- the t-shirt-and-jeans chic of most OSCon attendees -- to drive her point home. "I was packing last night to come here … and I went into my closet and I took out my usual suits … and threw them on the bed and I looked at them and said, 'I'm not wearing a suit to OSCon, I'll look like an idiot!'

"When I'm talking to an audience or when tech folks are talking to an audience, you don't have to wear the [same] suit that your business partners are wearing, but you do want to wear something that they're not going to find distracting. It doesn't matter so much what you're wearing or how you're doing your presentation ... but you have to not be distracting to the business partner."

Business people are distracted enough as it is, after all. In the context of the consumerization of IT -- with the advent of technologies such as bring-your-own-device (BYOD), cloud, and user self-service -- it's easier than ever for them to go out of band around IT and to shift for themselves. More to the point, there are plenty of voices (from peers and co-workers to sales reps to the kid in the electronics section at Best Buy) telling them there's no reason for them not to do so.

For IT folk, Powell concedes, this can be both depressing and dispiriting.

"The users are saying 'I can go to Best Buy and buy one terabyte of storage for $100, why is this database or warehouse going to cost me so much money?' On a good day, I'll have an answer for that," she said, "and on a bad day, I'll say, 'Why don't you go buy a ream of paper while you're at it, because that will be about as valuable for [managing] all of your reports!'"

On balance, Powell suggests, the best way to educate users is probably to use sample analogies, which help to put things in context. The terms DM practitioners use to emphasize the importance of what they're trying to do and why they're trying to do it -- terms such as "inconsistent," "inaccurate," or even "dirty" -- are too abstract; they become concrete when they're linked to specific (bad) outcomes. She uses the example of spreadmart hell, which is a problem at CFPB, too.

"We use Tableau at work and we're using Tableau off of spreadsheets so I'm always trying to explain to people why you don't manage data in a spreadsheet," she confirms. "Rather than trying to get into the explanation about why that's a bad idea, I say, 'Well, when you're running Tableau against those spreadsheets that are all linked together, [and] doesn't it break a lot?' They reply, 'Yeah, it's always breaking, then somebody's [got to go in and fix those dashboards]."

Concrete examples aren't always enough, however. In another case, Powell explains, she used obvious examples -- the inability to generate consistent reports, the lack of labeling, the fact that "nobody knows what anything is" -- to make the case for a centralized metadata repository.

Ultimately, she used a piece of pop art to drive her point home.

"It finally dawned on me [that] I'm just not getting through," she says, "so I took the Andy Warhol picture of the soup can with the label getting ripped off [and I told my business sponsors] 'Soup is the actual data. The can is the database, and the label is the metadata. Picture your pantry with a bunch of cans and no labels. It's really hard to make dinner. What we're asking our end users to do is to do analysis without knowing what's on the label. People got that, no problem."

The point, Powell said, is that DM isn't in any sense a self-evident discipline and that DM practitioners must be both patient and resourceful in their efforts to educate the line of business.

They must also embrace the importance of marketing, she argued. Marketing might seem distasteful to IT and DM types, but it's a necessary evil -- a means to an end, she said. "You must be willing to do some marketing. It's a good idea to have some elevator pitches in your back pocket for when you're talking to the business side of the shop," Powell maintained. "You never know when you're going to be on the elevator with someone who can actually help move your program forward. Whether you're a developer or an application programmer or a data geek like me, being able to quickly and easily tell people exactly what you do will help you with moving your program forward."

The liveliest portion of Powell's presentation was its conclusion, wherein she helped attendees develop and refine their own elevator pitches -- starting with their job titles. Nearly half a dozen attendees participated in this segment of her session. In most cases, Powell helped them both to strip their job titles of technical-ese and to recast what they did in language that business people could intuitively grasp. As time ran out, several t-shirt and/or jean-clad attendees clustered around a business-casual clad Powell, ostensibly to ask her to help them refine their own elevator pitches.

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