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Getting Started with Big Data

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Being in Sales I have the opportunity to speak to a lot of customers and prospects about many things. Most are interested in Cloud Computing and Big Data, but often they don’t fully understand how they will leverage the technology to maximize the benefit.

Here is a simple three-step process that I use:

1. For Big Data I explain that there is no single correct definition. Because of this I recommend that companies focus on what they need rather than on what to call it. Results are more important than definitions for these purposes.

2. Relate the technology to something people are likely already familiar with (extending those concepts). For example: Cloud computing is similar to virtualization and has many of the same benefits; Big Data is similar to data warehousing. This helps make new concepts more tangible in any context.

3. Provide a high-level explanation of how “new and old” are different, and why new is better using specific examples that they should relate to. For example: Cloud computing often occurs in an external data center – possibly one that you may not even know where it is, so security can be even more complex than with in-house systems and applications. It is possible to have both Public and Private Clouds, and a public cloud from a major vendor may be more secure and easier to implement than a similar system using your own hardware;

Big Data is a little bit like my first house. I was newly married, anticipated having children and also anticipated moving into a larger house in the future. My wife and I started buying things that fit into our vision of the future and storing it in our basement. We were planning for a future that was not 100% known.

But, our vision changed over time and we did not know exactly what we needed until the very end. After 7 years our basement was very full and it was difficult to find things.  When we moved to a bigger house we did have a lot of what we needed. But, we also had many things that we no longer wanted or needed. And, there were a few things we wished that we had purchased earlier. We did our best, and most of what we did was beneficial, but those purchases were speculative and in the end there was some waste.

How many of you would have thought that Social Media Sentiment Analysis would be important 5 years ago? How many would have thought that hashtag usage would have become so pervasive in all forms of media? How many understood the importance of location information (and even the time stamp for that location)? My guess is that it would be less than 50% of all companies.

This ambiguity is both the good and bad thing about big data. In the old data warehouse days you knew what was important because this was your data about your business, systems, and customers.  While IT may have seemed tough before, it can be much more challenging now. But, the payoff can also be much larger so it is worth the effort. Many times you don’t know what you don’t know – and you just need to accept that.

Now we care about unstructured data (website information, blog posts, press releases, tweets, etc.), streaming data (stock ticker data is a common example), sensor data (temperature, altitude, humidity, location, lateral and horizontal forces), temporal data, etc.  Data arrives from multiple sources and likely will have multiple time frame references (e.g., constant streaming versus updates with varying granularity), often in unknown or inconsistent formats.

Robust and flexible data integration, data protection, and data privacy will all become far more important in the near future! This is just the beginning for Big Data.

The Power of Simplicity

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If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  – Albert Einstein

I actually didn’t care much for consultants in the first part of my career. My experience was that people would come in, tell you what to do, and then leave victoriously while we were stuck trying to implement something that just wouldn’t work. It seemed that they made everything seem so complex – often as a way to justify their cost.

Then, I met a really amazing consultant who shared something valuable with me. He explained what he believed differentiated a true consultant from a contractor (something I wrote about a decade later in a Tech Republic article).  He then made me aware of the Einstein quote above. This was one of those pivotal moments in my career.

Over the course of many years I have met many interesting people. Some seemed to try to intentionally obfuscate even the easiest things to try making themselves seem brilliant. Others took such a circuitous route that you sometimes forgot about what you were trying to understand and fix. And sometimes explanations were just so tangential that the main point was completely lost. There are likely many reasons for these experiences – some intentional and many not. The real lesson learned is that it wasn’t just consultants who have the ability to be incomprehensible, and that clear and comprehensible communication is key to effectiveness.

Just think about the power of a well crafted “elevator pitch” when you meet someone new, or the ability to quickly explain how your company differentiates itself from the competition (making you the better or safer choice in your prospect’s mind). Or, being able to articulate your business strategy in a way that people not only understand, but also so interests them enough where they want to learn more and be part of making that happen. This goes well beyond just having good communication skills.

The best consultants have this ability to explain something simply, as do the best employees, the best managers, the best executives, and the best business owners.  While this is only one attribute of success (likability, powers of persuasion, integrity, luck, etc. are others), it is something that can be taught, developed, and consistently applied.

The power to “explain it simply” is the power to make a difference.

Teaching & Learning in a Business Environment

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In the past I had occasion to teach technical courses, often to groups of 20 or more people. It was always interesting. There were the one or two people trying to prove how much smarter / better than you they were. There were the one or two people who were there just so they didn’t have to work. But most of the people were there to learn. You figured out who was who pretty quickly. Falling into the trap of labeling them and then only focusing on a subset can be problematic.

My teaching approach was to ask people about real issues (current or past), and use them as case studies for the class. This made  the lessons more tangible for everyone. People were forced to develop an understanding of he problem with incomplete knowledge, ask clarifying questions, and then offer suggestions that may or may not work.

The funny thing is that sometimes someone would suggest a solution that just seemed completely off the wall. You would want to understand their line of thinking so that you could show them a better way. Occasionally you would find that their unorthodox approach was really something brilliantly simple and/or highly effective  and very different from what you were expecting.

Every time I taught a course I would learn something. Different perspectives lead to a different understanding of the problems at hand, and that can lead to creative and innovative solutions. The best ideas sometimes come from the places where you least expect them.

Even with the most seasoned teams there are opportunities for teaching and learning. You may hear questions or statements that initially lead you to believe that someone doesn’t understand the problem or goal. It becomes easy to dismiss someone when you don’t feel they are adding value.

But, if you take the extra effort to drill-into their line of thinking you could be very surprised. If nothing else your team should feel more motivated and empowered with the process, and that leads to taking ownership of the problem and finding a solution. Results improve when everyone is focused on a common goal and they feel their contributions matter.

Everyone wins, as long as you give them the chance…

The People who Move the Dial

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Whether you are a business owner, a manager, or a parent, finding the right way to motivate your team is important to maximize performance and results. Each person is a little bit different, is looking for something a little different, and once you figure out what is important you can get the most out of them. Not everyone wants to be a star – and that is usually OK (as long as they have the right attitude, skills and work ethic).

But, there are those exceptional people that want to be the best, are willing to take risks, work hard, and “think different” in order to succeed. These are the people who are self-motivated, and continue to raise the bar for the entire team as part of a high-performance culture. These are the people who move the dial.

I’ve had the pleasure of being taught by people like this, working with people like this, managing people like this, and helping a few people become people like this. Every once in a while you have a few of these special people working together, and that is when really amazing things happen. These people are generally curious and wonder “why not?”  They are confident (not arrogant), intelligent, and passionate about being successful.

Back when I was funding research projects I had a trip scheduled to Philadelphia. I asked a friend at a local hospital to make an introduction to meet someone from “CHOP” (the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). They were always ranked as one of the top hospitals, and I wanted to see why. The introduction was made and a lunch meeting was scheduled. I was looking forward to the meeting, but had no real expectations for the meeting.

Much to my surprise, a half-dozen people in a large conference room with a catered lunch greeted me.  They gave me presentations on their various projects (which was unusual as they did not know me, but did know I was involved with research projects at other facilities). Everyone in the room was amazing, and the department head (Dr. Terri Finkel) was one of the most impressive people that I had ever met.

After lunch was over I told Dr. Finkel that I appreciated the lunch, but wondered why they went to so much trouble when I never promised to do anything in return for them. She just smiled and replied, “We love what we do, and love having the opportunity to talk about our projects and passions to people who have similar interests.”  That made a huge impression on me, and within about six months we were funding projects using a unique approach that Terri suggested in response to a question I had about getting the most “bang for my research dollars.”

Over the course of a few years this team did incredible things that had a tangible impact on Pediatric Rheumatology. There were many great researchers, but two of them really stood out (Drs. Sandy Burnham and Randy Cron – both continue to do amazing things to this day).  The results of this team were so much better than everyone else that we supported. They provided a huge return on my investment, and I can take pride in knowing that in some small way I made a difference through these efforts.

To me it came back to the basics. Intelligent people who were passionate about making a difference, who were confident enough to be challenged, and who were led by a visionary person who saw an opportunity to motivate her team and help me achieve my goals. It’s the best type of win-win scenario possible.

These people moved the dial back then, and continue to move it today. It is a thing of beauty to watch stars like this perform. These are the people who shine twice as bright and guide others down the path to success. And, you can find them in every industry and every walk of life.

Using Technology for the Greater Good

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For several years my company and my family funded a dozen or so medical research projects. I had the pleasure of meeting and working with many brilliant MD/Ph.D. researchers. My goal was to fund $1 million of medical research and find a cure for Arthritis. We didn’t reach that goal, but many good things came out of that research.

Something that amazed me was how research worked. Competition for funding is intense, so there was much less collaboration between institutions than I would have expected. At one point we were funding similar projects at two institutions. The projects went in two very different directions, and it was clear to me that one was going to be much more successful than the other. It seemed almost wasteful, and I thought that there must be a better, more efficient and cost-effective way of managing research efforts.

So, in 2006 I had an idea. What if I could create a cloud based (a very new term at the time) research platform that would support global collaboration? It would need to support true analytical processing, statistical analysis, document management (something else that was fairly new at the time), and desktop publishing at a minimum. Publishing research findings is very important in this space, so my idea was to provide a workspace that supported end-to-end research efforts (inception to publication) and fostered collaboration.

This platform would only really work if there were a new way to allow interested parties to fund this research that was easy to use and could reach a large audience. People could make contributions based on area of interest, specific projects, specific individuals working on projects, or projects in a specific regional area. The idea was a lot like what Crowdtilt (www.crowdtilt.com) is today. This funding mechanism would support non-traditional collaboration, and would hopefully have a huge impact on the research community and their findings.

Additionally, this platform would support the collection of suggestions and ideas. Good ideas can come from anywhere  especially when you don’t know that something is not supposed work.

During one funding review meeting I made a naïve statement about using cortisone injections to treat TMJ arthritis. I was told why this would not work. But, a month or so later I received a call explaining how this might actually work – Conceptual Expansion at its best! That led to new a research project and positive results (see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/art.21384/pdf).

You never know where the next good idea might come from, so why not make it easy for people to share those ideas.

By the end of 2007 I had designed an architecture using SOA (service oriented architecture) using open source products that would do most of what I needed. Then, in 2008 Google announced the “Project 10^100” competition. I entered, confident that I would at least get honorable mention (alas, nothing came from this).

Then, in early 2010 I spent an hour discussing my idea with the CTO of a popular Cloud company. This CTO had a medical background, liked my idea, offered a few suggestions, and even offered to help. It was the perfect opportunity. But, I had just started a new position at work and this fell to the wayside. That was a shame, and I only have myself to blame. It is something that has bothered me for years.

It’s 2013, there are far more tools available today to make this platform a reality, and it still does not exist. The reason that I’m writing this is because the idea has merit, and think that there might be others who feel he same way and would like to work on making this dream a reality. It’s a change to leverage technology to potentially make a huge impact on society. And, it can create opportunities for people in regions that might otherwise be ignored to contribute to this greater good.

Idealistic? Maybe. Possible? Absolutely!