A while ago I purchased a book whose titled promised to teach you how to create things that matter. It did not live up to that title. The author was so full of himself that he could barely go two full paragraphs without mentioning his accomplishments. The famous chefs he knew, his time teaching the young minds at Harvard, building small businesses in France and America. Ostensibly the book was devoted to building things that matter or laying, out steps that you as an individual could take to make a dent in the world. The work did not turn out as advertised. In one entire section, the author talking about how started a chocolate business with his Harvard students based on the premise that people would rather inhale their chocolate than eat it. I left a poor review.
This kind of book should exist. I do want to read about starting businesses that impact lives. And look, starting businesses where you smell your food rather than eat it can and should matter to people. But you need to package it correctly and talk about the foundational lessons of business building…not who you know and what they think you.
Maybe this book does exist somewhere, sitting under a much less pretentious title. The real lessons for how to create impactful businesses probably live in books that are considered the classics. They are classics because the lessons are timeliness.
By way of contrast it seems like the worst lessons are those associated with time and place. Happenstance.
We’re always told that the next Facebook will not do social media. The next Google will not do search. What’s the lesson here? Don’t study the specifics of these great businesses, study their process and the opportunities their founders recognized and then capitalized on.
Creating things that matter in the data space is particularly frustrating.
Often the result of our work is neither physics nor visual. You can’t smell it, taste it, nor touch it. Often you need to have a certain level of education, acumen, to even appreciate it let alone know that it exists. Still, there is so much data now and its value is becoming increasingly clear. There are many businesses beyond social media and search that are being built off the back of good data.
So how do we as data scientists and data engineers create value, create things that matter to real people in the real world?
I think we need to start with problems, not resources.
We must remember that we are still working to solve problems that real people are experiencing. It is exciting to work with large datasets and the latest tools. I do like experimenting within beautifully rendered interfaces. But all of these tools and resources are still tools and resources. Their value lies in relation to people. Their value is how much easier they make life for people. I try to remind myself of this first while working on my latest YouTube series about building an application off of data.
I can spend hours dreaming up new ways of collecting data, of visualizing it. But what problems am I solving when I play with dummy data? Ultimately, few to none.
I’m making myself believe I’m working on a problem when really I’m avoiding a reckoning with myself.
The latest project I’m working on pulls and visualizes YouTube statistics. Here’s a sample.
I believe there is value in it.
People want to know the content that makes a video get views, that make it go viral. Creators want to know what their competitors are doing that’s working. It will be valuable to them when packaged in an actionable format. But what I’m doing when I digress into a new tool framework is just that: a digression.
When you’re working on a new project, any project, really ask yourself: what is the problem I’m solving?
First principle’s Clarice
In my mind, first principles come back to what Maslow described in his Hierarchy of Needs.
If you’re making an offering, any offering, you’ll have a broader audience lower on the pyramid. The lower you are the more essential your service. Food, rest, security, safety — the necessities of life are the first two foundational layers of the pyramid. Then the need for belonging, friendship, the approval of other people. To be part of a group. It’s a component of humanity. We want a tribe, we want to be wanted.
Where does your problem fit on the pyramid?
The idea for this series is that using our insights our perspective our conclusions are drawn from hard data on thousands, hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos you will learn what it takes to earn views, you will become known and liked. Desired and respected. That’s the pitch. That’s the appeal. And if you can follow through and deliver with your service or product? You’ll be irresistible.
We’re just humans after all.
Data projects can help serve the needs of all along the hierarchy. Being data-driven about safety was a major innovation of Chief Bratton in the early days of community policing and it’s now commonplace amongst police departments across the country. It’s an approach that makes sense and gets results. Data can help supplement any of those needs you see in the diagram above.
And more of these services will go online. Even, they’ll be born online. Once there it’ll be easier to collect the data needed to improve these services. The cycle of innovation speeds up.
Back to creating things that matter in the data space: it’s about people. It’s always been about people.
So if you stop and look up from your work and you can’t identify the “who” in your task: who this product is serving (and hint: to say that a product serves “everyone” really means no one) then you’re headed in the wrong direction.
After all of my rambling that is my conclusion, it’s about serving people and always has been. That’s how you start creating things that matter.