All in one place
Let the good times roll, for as long as they last.
A long, long time ago,
I can still remember
how that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
that I could make those people dance
and maybe they'd be happy for a while.
Pass through enough WeWorks, and you’re bound to be asked, in bold block letters spanning some lobby wall, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Dream big, we're told, without contemplating the nightmare of failure. Imagine what is possible. Don't look at the trees.
Doubt, however, has its uses. The possibility of failure—of putting in time and effort, only to have success slip through our fingers—reminds us to pursue things that we want and that we want to chase. If we pretend we can’t lose, we choose to play the games that have the prizes we want the most, even if we have no interest in the game itself. We become entrepreneurs who want wealth and power, and start companies based on their likelihood of success more than our passion for the problems they could solve. We become social media influencers who hate the grind of creating and posting, but become addicted to the spotlight. We pick careers for where we imagine they could take us, rather than the daily work we have to do to get there. When we become fixated on a destination, the journey is an interchangeable means to an end, a disposable rocket booster that’s only value is to put us into space.
A far more interesting question we could ask ourselves is, “What would we do if we knew we would fail?” If we knew our company would eventually burn out or fade away, would we still start it? If we knew we’d never be famous, would we still post? If we knew we’d never make partner, would we still join the firm as an associate?1 By separating the work from the reward, we can be more honest with ourselves about why we do the things we do. Are we here because we like the job or believe in its intrinsic value, or because we want the payoff?
In its early days, the data community seemed to attract a lot of people in the former camp—they joined the industry and its social circles on the merits of the work and for the friendships it helped forge. They were here because of their interests, not because of their ambitions. Today, as the industry has grown, it attracts people with the latter motivation. They’re chasing cash and clout. Companies are vehicles for their founders’ success.2 And communities are merely distribution channels to be tapped.
Cynically, I’ve assumed that this is part of the inevitable circle of life. The lion eats the gazelle; capitalism eats the community; we can’t dance forever. But, this past week, I was reminded that the music hasn’t stopped playing yet.
Oh, and there we were, all in one place
a generation lost in space
with no time left to start again
After two years as a virtual event, Coalesce, dbt Labs' annual conference, went analog this week—it was held in-person, face-to-face, in New Orleans.3 On the surface, it was an unremarkable show: a few days of talks, vendor-sponsored parties, and gimmicky corporate fun.4
On the inside, however, I can only think of one way to describe it: It felt like being back in college.
For four days, my entire professional life was all in one place. Walking around the conference venue was like walking through campus on the first week of a new semester: You pass close friends and recent acquaintances. You rekindle once-promising friendships that faded years ago. You finally get to know that person you’ve heard about, but never met. You side-eye petty rivals and old grudges; you meet new people who become fast friends; you meet new people and make plans to stay in touch, but never keep them. Every walk has a nod hello; every room has a familiar face.
Of course, like college, there are also problems. There are cliques; there are exclusive parties; there are obstacles of distance and circumstance that keep worthy people away. But on the whole, in ways I haven’t felt since undergrad, there is true community. This is our school, these are our people, and, despite some periodic controversy or lingering bit of bad blood, there is a shared sense of fellowship that marries us all.
In prior years, I thought that the invisible force that bound Coalesce together was its attendees’ good character. That explanation no longer feels sufficient. The group has gotten too big—there are forty thousand of us in the dbt Slack—and its doors are too wide open for there to be such a meaningful difference between people who come to Coalesce and the general population of professionals from which they come. Something else must make it unique.
The answer, I think, is the obvious one: It’s dbt Labs.
In ways big and small, dbt Labs sets a cultural tone of enthusiastic inclusion. The major release of the conference started as a feature that was proposed and debated in the open. Talk emcees made every effort to make online viewers first class attendees. Vendors were encouraged to make their booths more than dull demo stations. Organizers elevated talks that embraced the community’s personality as much as its purchasing power, and sent cheering sections to root them on. With a drum so loud, the rest of us can’t help but follow the beat.
Culture, however, isn’t the only thing setting the tempo. Over the last six years, amid the building war in the data ecosystem, dbt Labs has managed to not only be an enemy to none, but an ally to all. This puts other vendors who are competing with one another on their best behavior. In dbt Labs’ demilitarized zone, there’s a strong incentive to play nice, and to work with the community, rather than against your competitors.
The combination of the two has turned Coalesce into one of the last honest gatherings in the data community. As one new analytics engineer put it to me last night, inside of Coalesce and the dbt Slack, she can find and talk to people across a range of roles and experiences. She is welcomed, as are her questions and outreach. Without dbt Labs, all she has is trade shows, sales pitches, and the impossible swirl of Twitter. This isn’t a community, but a broadcast, with talking heads and commercials, and an audience wondering if they’re allowed to participate.
And they were singing bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing, "This'll be the day that I die."
This will be the day that I die.
One day, dbt Labs will die. Not fully, probably, but the company that it is today will die. Just as the size and scale of the data industry corrupted us, the size and scale of dbt Labs will one day corrupt it. As they add more enterprise clients, community-led product development will give way to dollar-driven roadmaps and exclusive advisory boards. As they try to find new revenue streams, they’ll build products that antagonize partners. As their position in the data stack grows more complex, they’ll struggle to remain neutral. If they go public, Wall Street will see the community—and Coalesce along with it—as an asset to monetize.5
I genuinely don’t know if the eventual evolution of Coalesce can be stopped. No community lasts forever, and the business success that makes Coalesce possible today is the same force that will one day compel it to become something different tomorrow. Perhaps dbt Labs eventually spins out a community entity that’s removed from its for-profit core? Perhaps Coalesce picks up “founding” sponsors, and it becomes jointly owned? Perhaps it’s actually easy to keep it exactly as it is, and none of this matters? Regardless of these answers, can we, the generation of data people who’ve reaped the rewards of dbt Labs’ community building, protect it for the next generation?
These are important questions—but questions for another day. For now, as we scatter ourselves back across the world, the best thing to do is simply not take it for granted.
For the third year in a row, Coalesce gave us a reunion. It gave us a chance to finally meet, to celebrate, to discover, to learn, to bicker, to gossip, to stare down your nemesis, to realize your nemesis isn’t so bad, to reflect, to grow, to regress, to put a personality to an avatar, to put a story to personality, to blow the party budget, to under-prepare, to over-deliver, to give your first talk, to give a talk to the biggest audience of your career, to give a talk to a raucous audience that wants nothing more than your joke to land, to land the joke perfectly, to botch the joke and be forgiven, to skip the dinner you should go to, to crash the dinner you shouldn’t go to, to meet your mentees, to meet your mentors, to realize your mentors’ resumes aren’t so daunting, to know, no matter the problem you have, frustration you’re feeling, or weird thought you’re stuck on, that someone else has been there, is there, and is waiting, just like you, to talk about it.
For as long as that lasts—one more year, three more years, for decades to come—we should be appreciate it while have it. Because even if we could predict the day the music dies—even if we knew, with absolute certainty, that the audacious ambition of Coalesce would “fail”—we should be grateful that dbt Labs did it anyway.
When asking myself this question, I’ve found it useful to assume I failed for reasons beyond my control. I obviously wouldn’t take a job if I knew I’d perpetually underperform and slog through the corporate career ladder for years. But would I take the job if I knew, right on the cusp of that big promotion, my company eliminated the position? That’s a much more interesting thought experiment.
To be clear, I probably joined it somewhere in the middle of this shift, and for reasons on both sides of the line. I made weird charts for fun; I also started a company to make money and write a blog to shill for likes and follows.
The CIO of Home Depot will give a keynote address. Cigna will win customer of the year. Someone will say that they are “very excited” to announce that dbt now supports multi-cloud deployments. The swag will be a branded backpack with too many inside pockets.