We talk a lot about what data can borrow from software engineering. But on the biggest issue of all, the technology industry has a lot to learn from the analytics community.
It took a marching band to wake us up.
The last job I had before moving to Silicon Valley was at a think tank in Washington, D.C. In that job, I wore Jos.A.Bank BOGO khakis, my office was a windowless closet that I shared with two other colleagues and boxes of spare printer paper, and the biggest perk was that we could pick at the leftovers after the occasional catered event.
In 2012, I found myself in a job in San Francisco—and in an office on another planet. We wore whatever we wanted; we got two meals a day plus an afternoon snack; some days, the snack cart was followed by a liquor wagon. The office was full of nerf guns, video games, beer pong tables, and drugs. Every Friday was a party; every party was a bacchanal.
I was immediately hooked. The Kool-Aid was spiked, and I couldn’t get enough.
For me—white, male, unattached, and down to get a drink—it worked, socially and professionally. (And it’s scary, frankly, how quickly it worked.) But for the female engineer who had to develop in a codebase full of sexist ASCII art; for the junior sales rep who was told by a senior account executive that they should play the next game of beer pong topless; for the black manager who was asked to pose for every corporate photo shoot; for the recovering alcoholic who was invited to yet another team happy hour, it was somewhere between uncomfortable and dangerous.
At our company, the fever started to break after an annual holiday party that featured Cirque du Soleil performers, a full New Orleans marching band, two top-shelf whiskey bars, and multiple incidents of men cornering and harassing other employees’ dates. Within a few years, the reckoning came for the rest of the industry.
Despite the gradual improvements, I’ve never been able to escape the feeling that the raucous toxicity of the early 2010s wasn’t a phase, but endemic to the modern tech industry. The cultural aspirations of today’s tech companies are noble enough—reject hierarchies, energize stale office cultures, solve bold problems, pay people well for their efforts. The problem is that the recipe for achieving those goals cooks up a lot of problems as well.
Tech companies market themselves to ambitious high achievers, attracting the sorts of people born to good school districts, tutored to good test scores, and connected to good jobs—and who believe they earned it, on their own, every step of the way. They’re built on technical jobs that are incomprehensible to outsiders, giving those on the inside an easy out for dismissing criticism. They celebrate technical brilliance, encouraging people to reject seeing others as people, and to see them as employees to program, or attributes to put “on chain.” And their patron saints—Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk—are famously callous, megalomaniacal, and irreverent.
In the best case, this insulates the industry from its faults. Without more diverse members among their ranks, the tech elite affirm to one another that everything is as it should be. In the worst case, it creates a culture where people are blind to the difference between right and wrong, and routinely step—or launch themselves out of cannon—over the line.
Which is a shame. The tech industry is one of profound possibility and promise, in the products it could build and the careers it could create. But it can also be a poison. And I’ve never been convinced that, given the soil from which the industry has grown, you can have the former without the latter.
When we started Mode, we did it with two goals in mind: To build a hugely successful company, and to do it in a way that didn’t spread the same poison. Early investors, however, were interested in more tactical questions. What’s your wedge? How big is your market? Where will you find analysts to market your product to? Are there places they hang out that we could infiltrate? No, we’d say to the last question, but perhaps we could build one.
In Mode’s early years, we took a couple disorganized swings at building that community. For a variety of reasons, they didn't work. Eventually, with products to build, customers to support, and targets to hit, we moved on.
Several years later, the team at dbt Labs, née Fishtown Analytics, succeeded where we failed. They brought together a community of what’s now more than 20,000 members in a Slack that’s become the center of the analytical universe, a constant hive of conversation about data tooling, teams, and memes. If someone in the data industry reaches out to me, more often than not, it starts as a DM in the dbt Slack.
The Slack is more than a gathering spot, though; it’s a culture. It’s a place of untiring enthusiasm, relentless support, and a lot of emojis. And though my experience as a white man established in my career may not be representative of everyone else’s, it’s a place that also appears to do a remarkable job of including anyone who wants to be a member.
This cultural energy reaches its crescendo during Coalesce, dbt Labs’ annual conference. The conference ostensibly takes place over a number of live-streamed talks, but its beating heart is on Slack. Every talk inspires a tidal wave of excitement, encouragement, and general good cheer. Every channel is the parents’ section at track meet: Ready to erupt when their kid crosses the finish line, and equally ready to hop the fence and pick them up if they fall.
Like the roar of a triumphant crowd, it's impossible to take in every individual voice. It’s only digestible as a vibe, as a delirious rave of celebration and sincere pride, as wild as any tech party I’ve been to, but fueled by a different drug.
That vibe, if I’m honest, isn’t for me. I'm a grouch, and grouches live in trash cans. I’m more Eeyore than Tigger, the parent in the empty section of the stands, taking unnecessary notes on every small misstep, more critic than cheerleader. The purple people I most associate with aren’t floppy goofballs with infectious smiles and indomitable hearts, but the purple minions, who, in four Facebook stickers, capture my full emotional range.
I like my lawn, and I prefer people to get off it.
At this point, with this year’s Coalesce wrapping up early this morning, I’m probably supposed to say that I’ve changed. That the persistent decency of the community softened me. That my small heart grew three sizes that day, that the true meaning of community came through, and that I found the delight of ten Christmas morning Scrooges, plus two.1
I didn’t. I’m just as ornery as before. I still hate emojis, and would rather die than “woo.” But if Coalesce didn’t fix my heart, it gave me hope for the industry’s soul.
The analytics community is, if not concentric with the tech industry, directly adjacent to it. Tech companies are the biggest employers of its members. Analytics is as demographically homogeneous as the larger tech industry. And analysts are just as inclined as software developers to wrongly turn emotional problems into empirical ones. The analytics community could’ve easily fermented into another toxic backwater, poisoned with everything from juvenile boorishness to dangerous misogyny.
But it didn’t. Though it’s far from perfect, it blossomed into something better, healthier, and safer. Among all the characters in the community—the jesters, the cheerleaders, the philosophers and deep thinkers, the educators, the entertainers, the eager learners—one is conspicuously missing: the arrogant jerks.2 And that makes all the difference.
Was it saved by the decency of its leaders and early members? By its distance from Silicon Valley? By its close connection to the R community? I don’t know. But it beat the odds, and we should all be grateful that it did.
The story, though, goes well beyond those in data. The analytics community’s success is proof that, even if software eats the world, software culture doesn’t have to. It’s proof that the good things about the tech industry—the ambition, the impact, the financial opportunity—aren’t the causes of the bad. It’s proof we can throw out most of the bathwater, and keep the baby.3
Given how much the data industry tries to learn from software engineering, maybe it’s time to go the other direction. Maybe it’s time for community leaders to push outward, into the tech industry and into its newer adjacencies, and to start teaching rather than learning. There are a lot of dark spots in tech, and what a light, my lord, is needed to conquer so mighty a darkness. But the best in this community have that brilliance. It’s time others get to see it.
Prior to my talk at Coalesce, Winnie from dbt Labs proposed a plan:
The gang could take me, they said. The team—the community—could break me of my fighting spirit. They could win me over, convert me, make me hopeful, turn me into a believer.
Though it may not always look like it—my spot is off to the side, heckling from the balcony—you and the gang already did, Winnie. You and the gang already did.
I know that I’m mixing my Christmas characters here. But after being (type)cast as Scrooge in a seventh grade play, I’ve always felt like more a Scrooge than a Grinch.
It also points to the flaw in arguments like these. The problem with crypto isn’t its primitives. The problem is the people it attracts. The tendency to convince yourself that you’re disliked for what you do, instead of how you do it, is exactly the sort of fiction that gives you permission to dismiss your critics, and to avoid the uncomfortable possibility that maybe they see something in you that you don’t.