Data for the people

I spent the last few years of my life building tools to help fairly technical people analyze data. The experience has given me a certain amount of perspective over what the landscape of data looks like. Let’s get the first thing out of the way, I’m not impressed with what we have achieved: while our ability to crunch data is better than ever, and many problems previously intractable have become daily routine thanks to our advancements in distributed systems design, the way those systems interact with the user still leaves a lot to be desired.
The business intelligence world is in my opinion the biggest disappointment of all, we had been promised “intelligence” and we got “systems and tools to produce charts from a collection of databases after jumping through hoops of variable size”. Business intelligence was supposed to make our businesses run better, to increase the amount of knowledge we extract from the information we have available… all we got is charts. Don’t get me wrong, data visualization is extremely important and the ability to produce visualizations is hugely valuable, but it’s not an end in itself.
I’m wondering if it’s possible to build data tools that communicate more humanly, more understandably and with the fluency of an artificial colleague. Most of the times when someone fires up Tableau, it might take a few hours and some knowledge of how data works to coax the tool into producing the results we already know we want. It’s been done, it’s been working for a while and now all BI tools do more or less the same thing: sure, the UI changes somewhat, the way data is accessed can be more or less powerful, computations can be faster or slower… at the end of it all though, differences are not that big.
What I’m looking for is a system that allows a sales manager to ask a simple question: “how are we tracking against our quarterly goals and is there anyone in my team that needs help?”. Descriptive, predictive and prescriptive BI are all nice, but I’m still looking for humanistic business intelligence.

A gun isn’t a tool

A gun isn’t a tool – it’s not a hammer or a drill that you can pick up, use to solve a problem, and put away until you have the next problem you want to solve. It’s an instrument, like a guitar or piano. It requires constant care, it requires checking and tuning before each use, it requires an intimate relationship with its mechanisms, with its parameters, with what it can do and what it should do and what it is meant for. It requires care and feeding. And it requires practice, near constant practice for you to be any good at doing anything with it.

— David Erik Nelson

On logo design

Surprising to many, the subject matter of a logo is of relatively little importance, and even appropriateness of content does not always play a significant role.

This does not imply that appropriateness is undesirable. It merely indicates that a one-to-one relationship between a symbol and what it symbolized is very often impossible to achieve and, under certain conditions, objectionable. Ultimately, the only mandate in the design of logos, it seems, is that they be distinctive, memorable, and clear.

— Paul Rand

A fragile democracy

Speaking with my US friends, I never detect any hint of fear for the current situation of the democratic system. There seem to be some kind of assurance that no matter how dysfunctional this country becomes, it could never backslide or change radically and become, let’s say, Putin’s Russia.

I am deeply worried that’s not the case, and that the constant dysfunction, our lack of attention to basic infrastructure, worker’s rights, human rights and respect for the will of the people (gerrymandering and secret money buying elections) are putting this country at a great danger, the greatest since the War of Independence.

Now worrisome things are happening, things George Washington warned us about:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension…serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

What can we do to preserve the American democracy?

Why clean data never stays clean

“Many companies implement large ERP systems only to find that the employees have drifted away from the software and back onto spreadsheets. As a result, investment in ERP software, process re-engineering, and training is lost within two years. ERP becomes a huge burden instead of the solution. The system must be configured and the processes need to be reengineered so that they match. If this is done properly, then the ERP system can be used to run the business. It is vital to provide training to employees and to enforce discipline to keep the staff using the software, preventing personnel from reverting back to spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are not integrated and data is not shared or visible to the rest of the company.”

Demers & Sathyanarayanan, 2003; Penn State University SCM 860, 2009

Cargo cultism and design

Cargo cult is defined as a religious movement that exhibit belief in the imminence of a new age of blessing, to be initiated by the arrival of a special “cargo” of goods from supernatural sources—based on the observation by local residents of the delivery of supplies to colonial officials.

If the cargo is expected by ship or plane, symbolic wharves or landing strips and warehouses are sometimes built in preparation, and traditional material resources are abandoned—gardening ceases, and pigs and food stocks are destroyed.

It’s pretty clear to me that in the ridiculous “design gold rush” of late, people from all walks of life with no real understanding of how design is really done expect salvific effects from the hollow repetition of design rituals they maybe have heard about once or twice (usually in an article about Steve Jobs).

I’m concerned about this situation, I’ve seen this kind of attitude before and it never ends well for the category under the spotlight. Failure to deliver miracles is always severely punished in cargo cults.
When is our punishment coming?

The Big Redesign In The Sky


This article was originally posted by one of the single smartest people in software development known as Uncle Bob on . Sadly his blog seems unreachable and has been for a long time, so I’m reposting the original content in its entirety as a public service. I make no claim I have anything to do with the creation of this article, I’m just preserving it for everybody to read. If you’re not ok with it, please let me know and I’ll take it down. Without further ado, here goes the original article.

The first rule of holes: If you are in one, stop digging.

Many software developers take this to mean that if you have a huge legacy mess in your software you should stop working on it and rewrite it from the ground up.

Continue reading “The Big Redesign In The Sky”

Focus on Now, forget Later and burn Never

Web startups have to overcome incredible challenges to become successful, the biggest of which is probably figuring out a way to prioritize a seemingly endless list of things you would like to do.

How do you prioritize effectively, balancing the business objectives, consumer expectations and your ability to deliver (resources)? Continue reading “Focus on Now, forget Later and burn Never”