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Are we human, or are we vendor?
We can talk about the tools, we can talk about the work, or we can take the third option.
“When was the last time you felt truly free?”
Given that most of you are likely here for frantic reactions to data conferences and harebrained product ideas, I’ll save my existential explorations of this question—the sort of unsettling self-reflections that ask you to stare into your deepest abyss and find out what is staring back at you—for the professionals that are paid to listen to me panic about such things. But not so far from that ledge, there’s a similar pit that many of us in the data industry should probably peer into.
Like lots of other people in the data community, I started my career as a “data practitioner” inside of a non-data tech company. Eventually—also like lots of other people in the data community—I found myself working for a data startup. This moved me from the edges of the data industry (such as there was a coherent one in the early 2010s) to its white-hot center. I wasn’t merely an analyst looking for like-minded friends and interesting tools; I was, by nature of working on a data product while hanging out with data people, a sales rep looking for prospects, a marketer honing their messaging, a user researcher uncovering jobs to be done, a product manager fielding customer feedback, an exec representing a team of people, and a founder “with a perspective.”
On one hand, it’s been a deeply rewarding experience. All things considered, analytics and data tooling is a pretty weird thing to be interested in. And yet, if I ever want to talk to someone about it, they’re an email or Slack message away.
On the other hand, mixing your personal interests with your professional ambitions certainly doesn’t make you feel free. For better or for worse, I can never take my affiliation with Mode off. Industry acquaintances have become customers, with product feedback and pricing concerns.1 Former colleagues have become partial competitors, turning open conversations into delicate ones. Friends are now technology partners and VCs, with whom every interaction is part pitch, part spin, and part yearning for a less complicated relationship. And everyone who used to be a person with an opinion about a shared interest is now someone with an opinion about the thing I’ve been involved in creating.
Mode finds its way into even the most inane question that I might get asked by other data folks: “How’s it going?” When I was on the periphery of the industry, I gave honest answers. Last month, I was working on a fun presentation about product adoption; this month, it’s annual planning season, and I’m mired in a political budgeting process. I’m frustrated with how we’re working the sales team; have you had to deal with that before? I still like my boss, but I don’t know about their boss. A few good people have left recently and I’m starting to look for something new.
Now, as a founder of a data company, and as a delegate of that company to our customers, competitors, partners, investors, and prospects, I typically trot out the usual sugar-coated Silicon Valley clichés. There’s a lot going on—what a time, right?—and it’s been so busy, from growing quickly, you know? I’m looking forward to what we’re working on next—you’ll see, it’s cool. There’s so much happening in the space too; I feel good about where we are; about the next phase; never a dull moment; the problems are always different; either way, it’s definitely exciting.
They're lame, vague, and alienating answers. More than opening the door for a conversation, I’m establishing a narrative. More than supporting a community, I’m promoting a corporate philosophy. More than finding a human connection, I’m protecting a brand.
If this angst just affected me, none of this would matter very much.2 But I suspect it’s a common experience. With more and more data people becoming founders, PMs, salespeople, solutions engineers, executives, and evangelists at data companies, I have to imagine that this dynamic defines the interactions across much of the data community. Friends blur into partners and prospects; our identities blur into that of our employer; we get lost in the purgatory between what’s social and what’s professional. Conversations about some neat new technology dovetail into explanations as to why that technology and the product we build will probably work together really well. Meetups double as market research for our stealth startup. Substack posts are mindful of the company line.3 Our anxieties about our jobs and careers are censored and sanded down to fit our companies’ press releases. Tweets that applaud competitors and opposing perspectives remain unsent.
In many ways, this was probably an inevitable evolution. Just as clothes are now sold by astroturfing Instagram influencers, SaaS data products are promoted by a number of the most prominent voices in the data ecosystem.4 Though our affiliations are less mercenary—we weren’t bought by our sponsors, but work for them or created them outright—they’re also more entrenched. Try as many of us might, I don’t think we can ever fully shed the bias that these associations introduce.5 The question is what do we do about it—both for creating a healthy community, and for finding ourselves in it.
Let me know, is your heart still beating?
The unhelpful answers are to invite more “practitioners” into the space, or to better moderate vendor content. Sure, more data people from non-data companies would be great, but people at data companies are practitioners too. Moreover, the problem isn’t that vendors are present in our space; it’s that vendors are present in us. As Drew said, we are the traffic.
The cynical answer is that we do nothing. The merging of professional and personal lives is how the world works;6 something something late capitalism; competition like this, with companies slugging it out on whatever battlefield they can, is ultimately what’s best for the consumer.7
Elements of this are true—and we should do a better job of acknowledging it. Despite the overwhelming pressures to remain polite and pleasant, one of the awkward consequences of so many data people joining data companies is that many of us, whether we like it or not, are in direct conflict with one another. No culture of congeniality changes the fact that we’re trying to take money from each others’ pockets and cause genuine harm to each others’ careers; no amount of professional appreciation changes the fact that our community is one in an active and sincere war with itself. Increasingly, when it comes to conversations about tools, there is no common ground. There is only scorched earth.
We can still build a thriving community in this world; it just means it needs to be built on a different foundation—one that’s a little more human, and a little less vendor.
We already have a few examples of what this might look like. It’s Ashley Sherwood grappling with the different types of problems we encounter both in and beyond our jobs. It‘s Stephen Bailey reminding us that we have to get lost to figure out where we’re going. It’s Erica Louie braving the anxieties we all have when we’re trying to balance our careers and our lives. These blogs aren’t valuable because they’re written by practitioners, or because they talk about “the work;” they’re valuable because they remind us that our shared experiences go well beyond the tools that we use or the companies that we work at.
Furthermore, these connections last a lot longer than those with our employers. As attached as many of us are to the places that we work, boredom, burnout, bankruptcy, an acquisition, a layoff, or the LinkedIn campaign of a relentlessly cheery recruiter from a high-growth (😤!), VC-backed (💸!), Silicon Valley rocketship (🚀!) eventually comes for us all. We may play for the name on the front of our jersey, but we keep the name on the back.
This doesn’t mean we need to discard all of the conference reactions and harebrained product ideas.8 But if this community is to survive the squeeze, we (read: I) should remember that it’s ok to also share a bit more about ourselves, to sometimes be comfortable shedding the scraps of our employer, and to look for places where we can let ourselves feel truly free.
To the people I’ve hung out with recently who could’ve done this but didn’t—who could’ve turned our time into a quarterly business review, but instead let it be a fun conversation about local politics and weird stuff on the internet—a heartfelt thank you.
Material for the abyss, perhaps.
Sub-footnote 1: I really want to know what Peter Sarsgaard’s stage direction was during that kiss. Mark watches them make out for a moment, grimaces slightly, and slowly turns his body back toward the abyss. His eyes, however, remain fixed on the paperthin romance developing beside him.
Sub-footnote 2: Name a more mid-2000s Youtube video title than “Garden State - Infinite Abyss.mpg”
Sub-footnote 3: Marvel: Infinity War is the most ambitious crossover event in history. This blog post, on Garden State and never nudes: This.
Sub-footnote 4: Good god, Zach Braff is 47? 47 years?
Of the 55 “influencers” listed on ModernDataStack.xyz, somewhere between 35 and 40 are closely affiliated with data companies. Though this is a messy stat for a lot of reasons, I don’t think it’s a terrible representation of who dominates the Discourse.
Importantly, the issue isn’t that we are all financially motivated and acting in the best interest of our stock options (though that matters too). The problem is that, in Silicon Valley, it’s easy to blur the lines between professional associations and personal identities. And no matter how much we genuinely value the community, when push comes to shove, we’re likely to root for our team over the “what’s good for the league.” If you’re someone who, like me, is part-time community participant and part-time company shill, given the choice of building, writing, or saying something that makes the community better, or doing something that makes your company better (where your personal clout or whatever is boosted equally in both cases), which do you choose? Most of us, I think, would choose the latter.
And why are we here, if not to produce consumer surplus?
Look, I can’t just throw out the entire draft list, ok? I need this. I’ve already been “relieved” of every other job at Mode; if blogger doesn’t work out, that’s strike…about eight.