Bursting out of the data bubble

Is your professional community your comfort zone? When was the last time you went outside it?

These questions and more have nagged at me for a few years. As a developer, project manager and all-around data person, I was struck by how little my fellow “techies” understood.

Not technology or how to do their jobs but how few really understood the businesses they worked in.

This will be a familiar story to anyone who’s worked a development role in certain types of organisations: Manager decides something needs to be done. They talk to a business analyst who creates a spec. Who talks to the systems analyst who creates another spec. Who hands it over to the project manager who gets a high-level estimate, maybe from a tech team leader. Who parcels out the work.

This “Chinese whispers” method was how I go most of my work when I started out. It was no wonder tensions ran high when the people actually doing the job came to do a user acceptance test and declared: “No, doesn’t work”.

Agile was meant to change all that.

How? By bringing the people with the need in contact with the people with the skills. For this to work, you do need to speak enough of the same language. That means you need some understanding of how the business works and they need some understanding of how the technology works.

What motivates the people you’re working with? What do they actually mean when they say “x”? Are you actually developing “y”? How realistic are their expectations? How realistic are yours? To be fair, this isn’t limited to tech. Breaking down silos in any institution means playing outside your bubble, your team, your comfort zone.

These days, I work for myself. Mostly because it is a rare thing to find an organisation that wants you to work “with” not “for” them. One where you have autonomy, challenge, reward and support to be the best you, so they get your best work. So, these days, breaking out of my tech bubble isn’t about popping into other departments and spending time with them to understand what they do.

These days I go out of my data community comfort zone.

I pop into the Leeds Creative Timebank to meet creatives: artists, photographers, dance coaches to learn what they do, how they do it and in turn fine-tune my language. This means I must keep translating “techie” concepts into useful, tangible tools that mean something and do something.

I speak with everyone: students, barbers, waiters, managers, farmers and for the next five days, enthusiastic readers and writers. Data, information and the knowledge that provides is for everyone, so why keep it to ourselves? Why make it such a complex, mythical thing, others can’t get as excited, inspired and buoyed up (but practical) as we are?

It helps that I’m fascinated by skilful competence and the potential for incorporating them into my practice. All in all, it makes me a better person, a better “techie” and boosts my understanding of how data can work for them.

Knowledge for everyone? Yes. As long as we don’t keep it to ourselves.

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