This past winter, I developed a passion for adventure racing in Vermont. The races are single- or multi-day competitions in which teams are given only the maps and stages at the beginning of the race. There are basic coordinates to hit, but no clear paths are provided, and teams must decide on the routes and sequences early in the race.
Teammates rely on each other a lot. Within the race there are multiple disciplines: cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, post-holing in deep snow with only boots, and a ropes course that involves heights, climbing harnesses, and carabiners. Tough stuff.
Actually, it reminded me of the challenges faced by big data teams.
To succeed, big data and adventure racing teams require a distinct combination of skill sets and demeanors. They both have to overcome limited information at the outset, must navigate significant strategic decision making early in the process, and require team members with a complementary set of strengths and disciplines.
Facing the (Known) Unknown
As you start a big data project, these might be some the “known unknowns” you will face:
- The technology is evolving very quickly, and with so many new products and approaches (i.e., Pig vs. Hive, Java vs. Scala, Python vs. the rest of the world), there is no one “perfect” approach.
- Invariably, there is contention between the “old” (traditional relational data warehouse) and the “new” (Hadoop, NoSQL, NewSQL) approaches to solving business problems.
- There is an urgency to deliver results, but it’s hard to pull in all the necessary skills.
- The pull between privacy and security vs. innovation and open access must be addressed. A “data first” approach does the job, but it needs to be done responsibly.
Find the Right Team Members
The solution is to build your analytics team with some fundamental characteristics, yet still maintain the mandate to solve certain business problems. Generally speaking, everyone on the team needs to understand the business, be fascinated by technology, and always be on the lookout for how technology can solve the businesses’ problems. Most importantly, they treat data like a product for which they know others will clamor.
Here are the team members that make it work:
The Navigator. This is your business sponsor with financial pull.
- She has clear directives for what she wants. This may be as simple as having a specific analytic in mind (i.e., a 360-degree customer view with data lineage), and a Hadoop data lake is the only way to put all of the data into one place.
- Owns a budget and is willing to outsource strategically and develop fresh talent from within.
- Technically minded but owns the business vision. The navigator is not afraid to wade into technical conversations, but knows that many of the key strategic decisions are made as a team.
The Motivator. If there’s someone marginally resembling a project manager on the team, it’s this person. There might be checklists and a first-hand accounting of project risks, but fast-acting, successful big data teams know what has to get done, and the motivator knows when to get behind a team member when the challenges are hardest.
- This person has a player-coach mentality, hands-on knowledgeable about technology, and is willing to assume work where it is needed.
- Understands the business and can relate the business problems and timelines to the technical team, but also can relate the technical concerns and decisions back to the business. Can communicate problems but is more apt to speak of solutions first.
- The motivator is not focused on checking off tasks on a project plan or process. Big data projects are fluid, and when there is an emphasis on who’s making sure the team members are all providing value, the emphasis is placed on being positive and making progress.
The Energizer. A technical business analyst who gets excited when he sees a certain function or analytic return valid results.
- This person has a solid understanding of the business. He revels in knowing arcane business rules and might cite product codes from memory.
- A teacher of the business. Understands who the competition is and can set expectations early on for what the numbers shouldlook like.
- He has connections throughout the business. Need to know who the CRM system administrator is? Done. Curious about how transactions are reversed in the point-of-sale system? Done.
The Thinker. The innovative-thinking engineer who is an unfailing optimist.
- She works closely with the business analyst community.
- Highly technical, and is at her best when learning new technologies. She’s happiest when hacking together a script that will automate some basic process.
- Always ready with two or three solutions. Instead of bringing problems, she brings answers. She specializes in directing the specialists (contractors) and keeping the environment humming.
The Innovation Mandate
Companies with a mandate to innovate need to assemble a special set of skills and attitudes. Specialists will shuttle in and out of the project as it evolves from standing up the environment to deploying and validating to delivering product. The core members will sustain the energy that was imbued from the early days of the initiative as different players come and go. Maintaining a constant gaze on delivering value to the business is paramount as the big data project matures and evolves.
It’s a big data adventure, to be sure, one that many organizations are betting on big. And it’s much more likely to succeed with the right mix of team members filling these complementary roles, with the skills to back it up.
Chael Christopher is Senior Principal and Practice Lead, Business Intelligence for NewVantage Partners, a world-class provider of data management and analytics-driven strategic consulting services to Fortune 1000 firms, and the industry leader in big data strategy consulting, thought-leadership, execution, and business value realization.
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