It is common for technical product companies to call themselves “data-driven” these days. The idea is that metrics are used to drive decisions. Sounds easy enough, and compatible with a technology landscape that is enamored with data science, etc.
But something didn’t always feel right to me. Strange, right? If you follow this blog or know me, you probably know that I have been steering my career in a data-centric direction. I coordinate the Cleveland R User Group, and have spent most of my personal technical time with a variety of tools to do analysis and modeling.
Maybe it’s a deeper understanding of statistics and related skills that lies at the center of my problem. Many people view these fields as black and white. “Show me the numbers”, people say. As if they are stone tablets chisled with the truth. Creating summaries, graphs, models, etc. requires understanding the domain, and subtle interactions. The tools are getting better, but we still need people to drive the tools and frame the questions right. To correct mistakes of causality.
In explaining this, the example that hits home for me is a dashboard for a product. Have you ever tried building a B2B software product without one? Good luck when sitting in front of an executive board and you can’t show them a dashboard they can monitor. Never mind that for all of your existing customers that dashboard is the least used page in your analytics. It’s key to the sale. But if you ignore that, and just look at user data to drive all of your decisions you’ll miss that.
So maybe there’s nothing wrong with being data-driven, it’s just that you have to be willing to mix in some decisions based on strategy and experience. And you have to ask your customers the right questions in the first place.
To be a great firm, a company should find a sophisticated middle ground. You can’t rely on a visionary employee to drive all decisions. Many founders think they are Steve Jobs and can divine all customer needs. Steve Jobs is an outlier among outliers. The answer, however, is not to turn in your brain because you started gathering data. The metrics are a tool, and you can still choose how to use your tools. A feature (or page) may still be legally required. Or it may be used rarely, but of tremendous value when it is. Data provides clarity for the many mundance decisions. It should still be up to a person to set the strategy. Otherwise, you’ll be selling a product without a dashboard. Heaven forbid…