Building Data

The internet gives you the sense of data culture to be a single, cut-from-solid-metal intricate mould, where looking directly at it defies all understanding of how anything so complex can be the creation of mere humans.

But for me, a data culture is a catch all umbrella, which for clarity sake, I’d like to split out and group into 4 sections.

My own personal catch all mini-umbrellas.

And this is where the story begins about my opinion and experience on Building Data.

Photo by Stephen Dawson on Unsplash1.

Building Data InfrastructureEvery company seems to want or need a Data Engineer these days.

What this person does for the company varies to a large degree depending on the industry and data maturity of the company.

This can span across startups to large been-around-forever type enterprise companies.

My primary role was to fix problems, support people and build an infrastructure.

But not in so few words, it was more likeTo simplify, consolidate, manage, maintain and provide reliable data to all stakeholders within the organization, but first fix, remove and/or replace what’s not working — A typical startup Data Engineering needThe concept is pretty straight forward but there’s always a gotcha and one of the them is to remember the company still has to function while you’re tolling away building infrastructure.

Meaning, the company’s current and short term needs must still be supported, stakeholders still need metrics to view and BI analysts still need dashboards and charts to analyze.

This is where ridiculously good priority skills, multi-tasking skills, communication and expectation management skills come into play.

If you have none of those, then becoming the first (or one of the first) data engineers at your company was probably a bad idea for you and your company.

A close second to the “gotcha” list, is how hard it is to fight want vs need and the real need to balance building for the future but not the distant future.

Unless you’re specifically a “data” company, or perhaps an IOT company, your first foray with a data infrastructure shouldn’t be the much hyped data lake.

This applies to your data tools as well, I’m looking at you Looker.

Think baby steps or perhaps not baby steps but toddler size steps.

There’s no need to spin up a kubernetes cluster to run your two Python scripts in Docker containers.

But that doesn’t mean your infrastructure starts with cron running on a server under your desk.

A good, simple and typical starter batch processing infrastructure may look like AWS S3, Redshift, Airflow on EC2/hosted (or AWS Glue) and your BI tool(s) of choice.

You may also want to add on a monitoring stack, be it Prom+Grafana or just AWS CloudWatch.

With this setup you can easily scale up and out, replace parts or move the whole thing to another provider (limited vendor lock-in).

You can also easily add on workflow tools for the Data Scientists or Data Analysts, which at this point, your company probably doesn’t have yet.

And a company with their first data engineer is now probably expecting some data democratization to happen (that’s “synergy” between data and democracy for those not in the know) and with that comes the much hyped self-serve BI platform/analysis tools.

The phrase “self-serve” is like fools’ gold or perhaps a pet snake or the scorpion and the frog, basically anything that looks great at first and then bits you in the ass the first chance it gets.

The Scorpion and the Frog – WikipediaA scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river.

The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the…en.

wikipedia.

orgSelf-serve BI, aka democratizing data, is when someone imagines a world where tools with intuitive drag-n-drop interfaces are actually intuitive for all, people only ask questions they can’t answer themselves and everyone knows SQL.

Users who do excel would have most likely done so with any tool provided the right resources were available to help.

These are users who are enthusiastic to learn more about the tool and data, and don’t mind the learning curve associated with the reward.

However, in reality, creating a self-serve analysis environment gives you a mixed bag of mass confusion, greatness and stupidity such asUsers who think the old way of Google Sheets was betterA lot of great new questions are askedA lot of not-so-great already asked questions are askedEveryone hates SQL.

EveryoneExplaining how drag-n-drop interfaces workSelf-serve will overwhelm you and underwhelm your stakeholders.

If you’re not prepared with a lot resources — people to help, documentation, time to kill — this venture will kill any productivity you had as a data engineer, and maybe even your soul.

You’ll be much better off working closely with one or two key members of other teams, helping them learn the new systems, and discover the data, letting these semi-data people help work directly within their own teams then opening up the flood gates know as self-serve BI environment later down the road.

2.

Building Data TrustIf no one trusts the data you’re providing, it’s not worth providing it.

I learned quickly that a semi-great looking infrastructure spitting out data isn’t enough.

People need to use that data to view results and gain insights into anything from marketing campaigns and conversion rates to A/B experiments and user in-app behaviour.

If your end users simply don’t believe the metrics you’re providing, they’ll quickly stop using your data.

And if you’re lucky, they’ll at least tell you that they don’t trust the data— and yes, that’s being lucky.

The only thing worse than end users not trusting your data, is users who don’t trust your data, stop using it, find alternatives and never tell you about it.

Single (one) source of truth is a good way to isolate the good and the bad when it comes to data trust.

In information systems design and theory, single source of truth (SSOT) is the practice of structuring information models and associated data schema such that every data element is stored exactly once.

Any possible linkages to this data element (possibly in other areas of the relational schema or even in distant federated databases) are by reference only — WikipediaIn English, and in context, having your metrics rely on one table or process gives you two great things 1) single point of failure but also a single point for fixing that failure and 2) if the metric is wrong, everyone using that metric is wrong by the same degree.

I think my first point is pretty simple to understand and appreciate.

If something breaks, like it inevitable will, it can only break in one place and you’ll only need to fix that one place to get every downstream process and report using the correct metric again.

But let me dive into point two(2) a bit as no one likes getting wrong data but it sounds like I’m saying that’s a good thing.

I’m not.

I’m saying it’s a good thing that everyone is wrong by the same degree.

In my experience, one of the worse things that can happen to have a working pipeline processing data incorrectly; however, worse than that, is having downstream processes and reports requiring the same metric but having different wrong answers.

When you realize the problem, it’s one of those times where you sit silently staring at the screen, take a deep slow breathe in and out, then say “Shit.

That’s not good”.

And that’s were SSOT comes in.

You can use different data sources, transform and wrangle your data together but in the end if your metric is using one table, set of tables or process as its base, and all other processes utilizing its output as their own base, you will never get a metric giving a different wrong answer across pipelines.

Hard to believe but this all goes back to data trust.

If stakeholders don’t have or lose their trust in the data, it’s hard to bring it back.

SSOT helps prevent that from happening, so spending a lot of time here would be well worth it for any data engineer but particularly one who’s entrusted with building a culture reliant on data.

3.

Building Data AppreciationAppreciation.

Not in the sense of needing people to appreciate the work you do but the data itself and how they can use it to achieve their own goals.

Data appreciation needs to fostered among team members and the company as a whole, without this a — so what? — attitude will always get in the way of people utilizing everything you’ve provided.

If a data engineer creates discover-able, reliable, trustworthy data-marts but end users don’t gives a shit, was the data engineer really successful?This is probably more of a company culture topic but if you’re given tools to help you succeed in your role would, you use them?.This is where data appreciation comes in, where your end users care about what you’re doing and more importantly they care about why you’re doing it.

You and your infrastructure exist for one reason — provide business insights, either directly or indirectly, your infrastructure must facilitate this.

If users can’t, voluntarily or by other means, appreciate those wide dimension tables or those time-series metrics you’ve painstakingly provided, you serve no purpose.

Period.

At a startup (or any company at an early stage of data maturity), your role as a Data Engineer probably means you have to not only build an infrastructure but also build this “appreciation” for data, to evangelize data within and throughout the organization.

Failing to do this efficiently would result in your own overall job failure.

Build it and they will use it, does not apply here.

4.

Building Data (driven) DecisionsData driven decisions or any iteration of this theme is basically the concept of business users utilizing data insights to make, verify and/or validate their decisions, before they action them.

These decisions could be the foundation of a hypothesis for an experiment or an explanation of a failed marketing campaign or the reason to invest in a particular product feature.

The point being, you rely on data to help you make decisions, this facilitates a more efficient process and allows you to work on things that matter, things that bring value to you and your organization.

While many people love the notion of data driven decisions and beg for more data, others push back.

It’s natural wanting to keep doing what you’re use it, I myself do it from time to time which is why I mentioned earlier that I’m a strong proponent to the top-down approach of data culture and here’s why — imagine you’re a Sr.

Manager of a feature team who just deployed a great new feature into your amazing product.

Answer these questions for meHow many customers using your cool new feature?What’s the frequency at which your feature is being used?Are you going to build cool feature v2?Pretty simple questions that you could probably guess at with a big YES to Q3, because why wouldn’t you fix a few bugs and enhance a few things to a feature that’s already in production?.But what if your boss, in a great top-down fashion, demands that any decision you present to her must come backed with data?.Now you have a whole set of new questions like, “did I even instrument this new feature to capture the data required to answer the questions?” or maybe “why is the data showing me very few customers are actually using the feature but my gut tells me doing great?”.

Version 2 is going to be a tad bit hard to justify now that v1 has no data supporting its success.

Many more questions and insights, both good and bad, come when you’re referencing data but none of that is possible if the data driven culture doesn’t come from the top down.

You’re either pumped about getting your hands on data, or you’re not.

And if you’re not, it’s just too easy to ignore the extra effort required unless you’re gently pushed into the right direction.

And although you’re not the person making those data driven decisions, we’re talking about a situation where you’re the only data person at the company and everything data related falls onto your shoulders.

And this is probably the hardest (and most important) part of the role at any company when you’re building data.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on UnsplashBuilding A ConclusionAs a story about building data, you might have had the impression or anticipation for some technical diagrams, an example Airflow DAG code block somewhere or at least some pseudo code.

But I think all of those things come and go.

Either the industry changes, the role description changes or more often than not, the technology, process and technique changes.

Plus, there are PLENTY of Medium stories out there already talking about how to build a data infrastructure, or how to use Airflow with K8s.

For me, and in the context of this story, building data is a lot more than just the tech stack X for company Y at startup stage Z.

At some stage of acompany’s life, they need their first employee to help code a new feature, first IT guy help provision all those new laptops, first HR member and somewhere down the line, their first data person.

That data person, the first real full-time data person, the data engineer, will inevitably have do more than just write a couple of cron jobs, python scripts and connect the dots from one tool to another.

In order to not fail, that person will need to build a data infrastructure, she’ll need to build trust between end users and the data she provides, she’ll need to build user’s appreciation for the tools they have and the data that can facilitate them reaching company goals, she’ll need to build a data driven decision making mindset among her peers.

And as the data person, as the Data Engineer, all of this is encapsulated into her role, all of this is encapsulated into creating a data culture at a company that starts from zero.

All of this encapsulated into building data.

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