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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


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