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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Technological Breakthroughs and Trusting Your Team

Russ Olsen advises technical people not to discount the human element. Without it you'll never pull off a real moonshot.

If you think your data science problems are challenging, you should try pulling off a real moonshot.

That's the advice Russ Olsen likes to give to data scientists, data engineers, software developers, and other technologists who work with very challenging problems. Olsen is a vice president with Cognitect, a provider of information management products and services.

The moonshot he has in mind is a very literal one: the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission that landed astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon. The Apollo space program was historically unprecedented in terms of cost and scale, bringing thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people together to tackle a series of seemingly impossible problems. Its success depended on brilliance, creativity, hard work, and a host of other intangibles -- especially trust and goodwill, Olsen notes.

Olsen will deliver the kick off keynote at TDWI's upcoming Accelerate conference, which will be held in Boston in early April. With deep-dive tutorials, presentations, and opportunities to network with luminaries such as Olsen, Jana Eggers, Michael Li, and Claudia Perlich, among others, Accelerate bills itself as "the leading conference for analytics and data science training." Olsen's keynote should start things off with a bang -- a moonshot, if you will.

Inspirational Challenges Still Face Human Problems

"I think of the Apollo moon landings as this example of an enormous challenge that inspired lots of people to work together to achieve the impossible," he explains. "It's a great example of why people get into hugely complicated technical endeavors such as data science or even software development."

Many technical people would prefer to ignore people and process issues, Olsen notes. However, one lesson of the Apollo program is that the human stuff is every bit as important as the technical stuff. Whether it's intra-team conflict, resistance on the part of recalcitrant stakeholders in or outside a team, or a need to work with other teams in good faith, the human stuff matters, he says.

"Technical people want to focus on technical issues: is this a good programming language, how fast will this workload run on that platform, [etc.] Fundamentally, a lot of what stands between us and what we want to do are human problems: issues of motivation, working together, how people cooperate," Olsen argues. When it comes to working together effectively, particularly in complex endeavors, human emotions and ambitions can complicate things -- even among geeks.

"We talk a lot in business and technology about leadership, but in too many cases we have too much would-be leadership and not enough of what I like to call 'follow-ship,'" he comments.

Follow-ship, as Olsen defines it, isn't necessarily a matter of subordination; it has more to do with trusting in one's colleagues and peers. "It's saying, 'That person over there knows what they're doing. I have faith in them -- and they have faith in me. I'm going to focus on the way I can contribute to the success of the team and the project as a whole.'"

Trusting Your Team

Trust and goodwill are essential components of any high-functioning team, Olsen says. He cites the example of the apparent computer glitch that almost caused NASA to scratch the Apollo 11 landing just minutes before the lunar module was poised to touch down on the surface of the moon.

"There was a moment about three minutes before the first moon landing when it looked like the computer had crashed and everyone in Mission Control just looked at computer engineer Jack Garman, who said, 'Go! Go!' because he knew the system was doing what it was supposed to be doing. It came down to trusting this one person who knew the software inside and out," he explains.

Garman, too, had to trust that his team had it right. His trust was all the more remarkable because it cut against the ingrained prejudice of the time: the team that developed the flight software for Apollo 11 was led by a woman, legendary MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton. Her team has since been credited with developing one of the first "ultra-reliable" software designs.

This is follow-ship in a nutshell, according to Olsen. It's a kind of trust that's able to cut through prejudice, bias, jealousy, fear, and other negative emotions. "Follow-ship is one of those things you need for any large, complicated, technological project. Do the people on your team have faith in the other people on your team? Have you built a team where this person over there is doing their part and I can just assume that they're doing their part so I can move forward with my part?" he asks.

There's another message Olsen wants to impart to Accelerate attendees: data science is exciting on a personal level, but it's even more exciting when you're working with other people who feel the same way about it that you do. Don't lose sight of this, Olsen urges. "If you're on the technical side, people train you not to think about this stuff. You are not encouraged to talk about it, to be aware of it, because you're supposed to be very analytical," he concludes. "There is this enormous feeling of excitement people get when they're really into this stuff, and that's one of the best things about it."

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a technology writer with 20 years of experience. His writing has focused on business intelligence, data warehousing, and analytics for almost 15 years. Swoyer has an abiding interest in tech, but he’s particularly intrigued by the thorny people and process problems technology vendors never, ever want to talk about. You can contact him at [email protected].

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