All posts by Donn

My name is Donn, and you’ll find me working at the intersection of business and information technology, constantly looking for ways to apply IT to business and life to make things better. I’m a big fan of data analysis and its subsequent communication. It always gives me a thrill extracting meaning out of data through analysis, and figuring out the best way to present the findings for maximum impact!

Shipping like there’s no tomorrow

The concept of shipping as per Seth Godin is a beautiful thing. In essence it relates to the idea of getting something out (i.e. “creative output”; a “product”) without the need to achieve perfection before getting that something out. Ship, get feedback, improve; then ship again, get more feedback, and improve once more. Do this again, and again, and again.

In my role as an analyst, I create a lot of data products that many people use. Things like sales reports; spreadsheet tools and models; and data analyses. Not being one to stick with the status quo, I’m always looking for ways to improve the stuff I create (better interfaces, new metrics,  distribution methods, and more).

In such experimentation (which seeking improvement invariably entails) there’s always a risk that something will go wrong: calculation errors (especially common in complex spreadsheets of which aim is “simple for the user; complex for the developer if need be”); interface usability issues (I tend to work on a large screen that not everybody has or uses); software-compatibility (I use Excel 2013 as I need to know what’s “out there”; which sometimes proves problematic when I use a 2013-only function that 2010-users can’t use); well, the list runs long.

And I’ve had my fair share of failed “improvements” (the latest affecting a couple of very senior management, with my experimentation with Excel Pivot Slicers — very cool stuff by the way — breaking a couple of vital sales reports on their Macs*).

But without having taken these risks, without having shipped, there would be no way that I could be doing as much as I currently do, no way that I could have done as much as I have done. If I had listened to my fears and resisted stepping into the unknown; if I had thought to myself, “let’s not rock the boat, let’s stick with what we know works”, I would be a miserable little automaton working in a far less colourful sales operations environment. And many sales people would still be working with the tools they had in 2013.

Shipping like I do now, though, didn’t come overnight. At the start, I had to push the envelope a little by a little, testing the waters to see just how far I could go. Every little success inspired me further, and built up the all-too-important goodwill that proved useful whenever I messed up;  while every misstep gave me insight into how “open to failure” the environment in which I worked in was (I’ve got very accepting colleagues I must say).

It wasn’t always easy though. Still isn’t. Doubt is a constant companion. I remember once spending three weeks thinking and experimenting with a myriad of ways to capture and report sales targets, a job that I’d been tasked to do.

I was looking for a way that was as intuitive and as “smart” as possible. I must have found at least a hundred ways of how it shouldn’t be done. As the deadline approached, I started feeling like I was being too ambitious, and couldn’t help shaking off the feeling that it had all been wasted time. Maybe it doesn’t have to do all that I wanted it to do.

But I stopped myself. There was still time. “Let’s try,” I told myself, “and let’s ship.” And I did just that.

I shipped an initial “prototype” version, ran it past my boss. It was a rough-and-dirty version, but it showed the concept well. I further developed it, and shipped it past sales management. I showed them screenshots. I did a demo.

What they didn’t realise was that the demo focused on the 10% of what worked; there were plenty of bugs, plenty of things that I hadn’t managed to work out. The actual product was still days away (maybe weeks) from being completed, but I sold them the story, and they bought it. They were excited.

But I certainly wasn’t. I was worried. Worried as hell.

But there was no turning back now. I’d demonstrated what the cool new tool could do (more like what it should do, really). I had no choice. I needed to complete this.

Due over the next few days, I worked like a cow suffering from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (i.e. “mad cow disease”, geddit?) coding and re-coding; testing and re-testing. Eventually some of the most major issues that I had encountered I managed to solve. I shipped again, on the deadline, with 80% of what I had envisioned included.

And boy were they were happy (most of them, anyway). Which made me very happy.

Oh, and the other 20%? Repackaged as “future optimisations”. Which, yes, I eventually did ship too.

* I’m happy to announce that we eventually found a workaround, which appeased the Mac users. The Pivot Slicers remain and prove to be an extremely valuable addition to our reporting arsenal.

2015: Dare Greatly

Happy New Year! It is now 2015.

2014 has come and passed. It’s had its ups and downs — as had every other year preceding; and as will every other year succeeding, though in many ways this year has had a little more of the latter than the former.

As with the start of every year, it’s a great time to think about theme(s) that will shape the next 365 days. One theme that I think will shape my life in 2015 is that of daring greatly, going forth in the face of self-doubt, and pursuing success in the face of unintuitive probabilities.

Do nothing; say nothing; be nothing, and you will never be critised.What will your theme be?

Whatever it is, here’s wishing you your best year yet.

Wanderlust

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.

Attributed to  Augustine of Hippo, the quote above reignited latent wanderlust. If I had to be honest though, as much as I like the idea of Travel, the execution of the act of Travelling is very different.

Alain de Botton, in his beautiful book The Art of Travel, put it best, when writing about his much anticipated trip to Barbados during his home country’s winter:

In my anticipation, there had simply been a vacuum between the airport and my hotel. Nothing had existed in my mind between the last line on the itinerary (the beautifully rhythmic ‘Arrival BA 2155 at 15.35′) and the hotel room. I had not envisioned, and now protested inwardly the appearance of, a luggage carousel with a frayed rubber mat; two flies dancing above an overflowing ashtray; a giant fan turning inside the arrivals hall; a white taxi with a dashboard covered in fake leopard skin; a stray dog in a stretch of waste ground beyond the airport; an advertisement for ‘luxury condos’ at a roundabout; a factory called Bardak Electronics; a row of buildings with red and green tin roofs; a rubber strap on the central pillar of the car, upon which was written in very small print ‘Volkswagen, Wolfsburg'; a brightly coloured bush whose name I didn’t know; a hotel reception area that showed the time in six different locations and a card pinned on the wall nearby that read, with two months’ delay, ‘Merry Christmas’. Only several hours after my arrival did I find myself united with my imagined room, though I had had no prior mental image of its vast air-conditioning unit or, welcome though it might be in the event, its bathroom, which was made of Formica panels and had a notice sternly advising residents not to waste water.

I was just thinking back to the best holidays I’ve had. And though I was tempted to put down “the best holidays I’ve had were those I’ve felt most like a local” (because my need for control is so strong), it’s not true. The holidays that I’ve most enjoyed have had just one thing in common: beautiful weather.

Give me 5-20 degrees Celsius temperature, relatively low humidity, and you’ve got yourself one happy camper. It would be one page of the world I’d gladly read and re-read many times over.

Doing math as an analyst; work before school

  1. I pick up my pen and write down what I see on the screen: 600 out of 14000 rows are selected based on the criteria A = 2 (that’s 4%); if I switch over to A = 5, 135 out of 14000 are selected (that’s only 1%) — I now know the probability of several outcomes based on two possible inputs. I do this a few more times and determine the probabilities of several more outcomes based on more inputs, and in the process understand the data much better. I document this so my future self, and others who may use the data, are aware.
  2. Salesperson A should have a overall sales target 10% less than Salesperson B. Given sales targets for multiple products, I have to determine how much to allocate to Salesperson A and how much to allocate to Salesperson B. I make a few notes, writing  down in algebraic terms the relationship between the total sales target, the sales target for person A, and the sales target for person B. I perform rudimentary simultaneous equations and input the formula into Excel, quickly calculating the breakdown for each of the products.
  3. The variable component of a salesperson’s salary is 30%, and  30% of that is determined by subjective factors, input by the line manager; the rest is determined by performance against sales targets. I create a spreadsheet formula that allows the line manager to rate the salesperson from 0-100%, automatically adjusted to fit the weights of the variable component and subjective factors.

I had such a hard time trying to figure out why I needed learn math. That’s why sometimes work before school makes sense.

Perspective Matters

120. 130. 140. We were now at 150km/h and cruising past traffic on our left, traffic already exceeding the official speed limit.

Let’s be clear: I wasn’t the driver (let’s call him Mr. X) In another world, the world before the one I had just entered, I would have been one of those on the left, cursing the reckless driving of an imbecile speed demon.

An accident waiting to happen, I would have thought. Who are these people?

But I was in the car now. In the back passenger eat of Mr. X, one of these “imbecile speed demons”. One of these people whom I was sure I’d dislike if I ever saw them outside the context of the road.

It hit me then and there that this wasn’t a person I disliked. This wasn’t a person I’d not hang out with. This wasn’t a person whom I’d have thought of as an “imbecile speed demon.” I knew the driver. I knew him to be rather nice. I knew him to be rather thoughtful.

It was interesting to watch his behaviour on the road. Despite the excessive speed and tailgating, he  signaled when switching lanes; had no malice whatsoever when he gangstered cars out of the way (in a very interesting “it’s not personal; it’s purely business” type of way); and knew his place in the driving pecking order (“if a car can go faster than mine, I’d tend to leave it alone.”)

I also loved the fact that if another car cut him off at even insaner speeds, he’d just let it go. Despite my not being quite the speed demon, if another car cut me off I’d feel pretty pissed, and I’d throw a little tailgating fit. Who’d be the imbecile here?

Soon after the car ride I realised something: that having just had the experience I had, I’d never look at a speeding car the same way. Each time I saw one, I’d be reminded of “Mr. X”; a very decent human being who just had a  thing for fast cars, and give that car an imaginary tip of my imaginary hat.

As an analyst I have a thing for data; for numbers. It is my world. I use data and numbers to describe THE world in the best way I can. Despite my belief that numbers can often describe a world better than its inhabitants can, it is to my consternation that this belief isn’t very popular with the people who’s worlds I describe.

But like how the change in  perspective on those driving on the overtaking lane, going at what I’d describe as insane speeds, I’d thought I’d understood, but never really did. Maybe the numbers do tell a story. But it’s not the only one.

How vital it is for us to step into one another’s shoes every once in a while. To experience another world; to broaden our perspective — a perspective that even for the most open-minded of us is probably smaller than we  think it is.