What do you do? I’m an analyst.

“So,” my wife’s friend asks, “what do you do?”

I pause for a moment, prepare to say “business analyst”, but then decide not to because I didn’t think she’d understand what I did. I look at my wife and ask her, “what do I do?”, hoping she’d have a better answer.

My wife looks at me, then at her friend, and says, “he’s a business analyst.”

I look at my wife’s friend and she looks back at me. Silence. She gives me a puzzled look.

Food’s here. We eat.

The “what do you do?” question has probably been asked since the dawn of awkward social situations. Since when wives demanded husbands go out on social gatherings with their friends.

But despite it being such a predictable question, it’s something I never really had a satisfying answer to.

It wouldn’t have been so awkward if I was a firefighter, doctor, teacher, butcher, or astronaut  You know, easily definable occupations we all wrote about as kids and coloured in colouring books.

“Business analyst” just doesn’t fit neatly into pre-conceived notions of what a job should be like. It’s rather new-ish, relatively abstract, and not quite defined the same everywhere. Different companies have different meanings for the term.

But I came across an interesting post that contained a little nugget on what a business analyst does. The post is about building a web analytics team, but I think the article is really about building any analytics team, web analytics or not.

From the post: by Jim Sterne, founder of the Digital Analytics Association, about what an “analyst” does:

The magical person called ‘the analyst’ understands all the data and how it is captured and how reliable it is. But they also understand what optimisation is about and what the business process looks like and what the business goals are. The analyst is that magic place in the middle where they understand the desired outcome, they comprehend the big picture and can look at Big Data and ask the right questions. It is the creative part. But they also have to be really good at communicating their insights out to the marketing people and the business strategy folks because if they have a great insight and they don’t know how to communicate it, it doesn’t matter.

Here’s as good a description as any I’ve seen about what an analyst does. Unfortunately not quite the elevator pitch of a business analyst that I can give.

Colour Quiz

I’m a sucker for personality tests. Here’s one I haven’t taken (and believe me I’ve taken many) which though I wouldn’t read too much into its results, does seem in its own little way pretty accurate: ColorQuiz

(I suppose one reason I like personality tests is that I’m always amazed when they get things right, and I’m always wondering how they did it. I suppose one way you could go about doing this is just asking lots of people lots of questions, and depending on how they answered cluster them into one of several pre-defined categories, each associated with certain personality traits. Of course there could be other ways you could go about doing this, but in general there’s going to be data analysis and predictions and other wonderful things. Beautiful.)

On the Boston Marathon Bombings

I haven’t written about it. I didn’t think I would. But I think I should. The tragedy at the Boston Marathon has hit me worse than I’d thought.

(“Why do you look so sad?” the wife asked. “I don’t know,” I replied.)

I’m an avid runner, and one who has dreamt of qualifying for Boston for the past 10 years. Never managed it, but it didn’t matter. The anticipation probably gave me more joy than its actualisation will.

It was routine when I ran to have images of myself running down the streets of Boston push me on during my runs. Cheered on by friends and family and in peak condition.

Two breaths in. Four breaths out. Boston.

(“Maybe it’s work,” I said.)

But it’s hard to do that now. After what happened.

What a horrible, horrible juxtaposition. That of a planned and dedicated personal triumph, set against that of the randomness of terror and vulnerability.

Just thinking of it hurts. Makes me sick.

(It wasn’t work I thought.)

On my run last night I couldn’t help but think, “what’s it all for, what’s this all for?”

Automated out of a job

“Most of the time,” my friend told me,” they were just doing really manual work. Copying and pasting, doing very routine things that could have been automated. And they’d do these things for 8 or 9 hours a day, sometimes more. They’d come back on Saturdays just to finish their work.”

He was talking about the work some of his ex-colleagues were doing, and how he couldn’t believe the way they were going about doing it. “If I’d helped them automate that,” he said, “some of them, no, most of them, would be out of a job.”

I have seen my fair share of people doing what he described. Really bright individuals (some highly paid, I might add), spending an incredible amount of time doing incredibly inefficient work, copying and pasting data from one system to the next, or manually looking up values in one spreadsheet to another (as opposed to using Excel functions like vlookups or pivot tables). Half their day, I estimate, could be spent doing these types of low-level work because they didn’t know of any other ways to go about doing it.

It’s a sad truth that the work many of us “knowledge workers” do isn’t really dependent on any sort of higher-level thinking. Trained high school students could do the work many of us do (even those that require a bachelor’s or post-grad degree).

Sure, it takes a little intellectual skill to get the gears moving, to understand the process when things go wrong, but once that’s taken care of the main bulk of whatever work that’s left over is hypnotic, routine stuff. Stuff that could well be taken off in a fraction of the time through the use of technology.

I want to live a positively interesting life

Because that’s the best way I know of living a “good” life. To live the good life, I’ll want to live a positively interesting life.

There’s something I heard or read about before about performance measurement: that if you want to positively reinforce the behaviour of someone, you should not reward based on outcome, but rather reward based on the activity that leads to the outcome.

For example, let’s say that you know for a fact that a student who studies (assuming you can properly define what “studying” means) for two hours each day performs better in exams than a student who doesn’t study at all.

Let’s say that there’s a particular student whom you have an interest in, and that you want this student to do as well as possible during the upcoming exam. So you try to motivate her by saying that if she receives a B+ and above for the upcoming exam, you’ll be willing to reward her with an all-expense paid trip to Hawaii (I’m assuming the student’s a girl and that she likes going to Hawaii. If it’s a guy, I’m thinking he’d want a Ferrari or similar).

She works really hard, studying two hours or more a day for the exam. Unfortunately for her, nerves get the better of her and she doesn’t do well, despite putting in the hours (possibly due to the murder she witnessed that morning and the fact that her dog died the previous day). Whatever the case, no B+, no reward.

Dejected, she thinks to herself, “why should I work so hard if it’s all going to come to nought?” So she rejects the notion of studying, and does even worse in her next exam.

Now, imagine there’s another student whom you also have an interest in. However, instead of rewarding the student for doing well in the exam, you decide that as long as the student was willing to put in two hours on average a day of studying during the months leading up to the exam, you’d reward her.

Let’s say that she, too, flunks the exam like the first student, receiving a paltry B-. But because she’d put in the hours, you reward her as promised. For her next gig, you put her up for a similar reward. She continues to work hard, studying on average two hours each day, and on the day of the exam (which turned out to be a lovely day) she puts in a masterful performance, receiving an A+.

Studying for an exam is measurable and can be rewarded relatively justly, and it increase the chance for a good outcome (good exam results).

The outcome from all that studying (the examination results), however, is often dependent on chance.

(And let’s not be evil, worldly people and say that it’s a lesson in life to learn how to deal with crap that comes our way, where we may lose everything in a single bad turn of events.)

A positively interesting life, dare I say, is also doable. And measurable.

If I attempt to live it, I might just have a better chance at living the good life.

No GPS: Learning your way around through running

I wrote about a (wonderful) run I had a couple of weeks ago while holidaying in Perth. During that trip, I had had a very hard time figuring out the roads.

Singapore, Western Australia
Singapore, Western Australia

Though I could travel the same route countless times (especially those close to where we were staying), my brain would for some reason or another refuse to learn it (GPS dependency, anyone?).

Then came the run. And mental maps of the roads came much easily to me after that.

There’s something about running that makes a foreign place feel oh-so-local. I remember when I was on my business trip in Montreal, Canada. I’d always felt like an outsider, with cars always travelling on the wrong side of the road, until I went for the first of a number of runs I had there. It was like *boom!* I’m local.

The transformation was sudden. And it was magnificent.

I’d recommend it to anyone.

On Making Plans

There’s a saying attributed to Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” The first time I’d seen it, it made me laugh. Not because it was funny (though it was), but because it was true. It was a nervous laugh. Here’s another quote from the book Rework, written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (the founders of 37signals; love ’em!):

Unless you’re a fortune-teller, long-term business planning is a fantasy. There are just too many factors that are out your hands: market conditions, competitors, customers, the economy, etc. Writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t control.

Why don’t we just call plans what they really are: guesses.

Now, as much as agree with those quotes above, there is something to be said about the act of planning. Dwight D. Eisenhower said it best: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

The act of planning gets you thinking about things. About where your priorities are. About the general direction you want to go.

Even the founders of 37signals, with their disparaging remarks about plans, probably will agree.

37signals is “an intentionally small company” (according to the founders). Somewhere down the line in setting up their business, someone decided that small was better for them. If they hadn’t planned to be that way, it is unlikely they could say that they’re “intentionally” anything, because they wouldn’t have had anything to aspire toward.

The act of planning though, is different from a plan. As I said above, planning forces you to think about things that (theoretically should) work at the time of planning. A plan is just what you think will get you to where you think you want to go, at the time of writing.

Making a plan and immediately burning it is infinitely more useful than not having made a plan at all. But like the 37signals people said, making a plan and then following it to the letter may be just as bad as not having had a plan at all (or worse).

Exceptional talent is about hard work

Saw an article by Entrepreneur.com on Facebook about a section in Robert Greene’s book, talking about how exceptional talent is about hard work:

He says that there is no such thing as being born into superior success. Rather, those politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, athletes and artists who rise above the rest in their field, achieving what he calls a “high-level intuitive feel” for their specialty, have an unyielding focus and work ethic.

Image of Kangaroo wearing a crown
“I was born to be King.” – King Kangaroo

This makes me feel better about my lot in life, because it makes me think I am able to achieve far more than I have if I just wanted it enough. The problem is this: I’m not born with an inclination toward wanting anything enough for my achievements to amount to anything. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps some of us we born with a propensity toward character traits that propel us to whatever-we-define-as-success.
Think about it. Between person A and person B, all things being equal, what if one of them had a greater inclination toward hard work?

And if the person with the inclination did achieve whatever-we-define-as-success (if you’re wondering why this odd hyphenated mess of words, it’s because I think success can mean vastly different things to everyone), would that not mean that he or she was “born” with an important trait for success?