Data, So Mom Can Understand

Dear Mom,

I’ve been in the data management industry for over 20 years, and you’ve always been very supportive of my career – even though you admit you have no clue what it is I do for a living.  So here’s my best shot at explaining what I do so you can more accurately brag about me to your friends! J

 I’ll start by explaining data.  Data is not as complicated or technical as it sounds. Data is simply a thing you might want to remember that’s saved somewhere for future use. 

  • Your phone number? Data! 
  • My address? Data! 
  • Dad’s birthday? Data! 
  • The date, time and location of your next doctor appointment? Data!  

You collect and save this information and a lot more in your phone, in your calendar, in your address book – and of course in your head. 

Organizations like your favorite clothing stores, your insurance company, your doctor’s office, and even the government collect huge amounts of data.  They do this so they can remember the people, businesses and other organization they come in contact with, as well as the important interactions they have with them.    

Examples of what these organizations want to remember and why:

  • When you bought that lovely plaid cardigan at Target for dad, the Target store remembers when you bought it, which store location you bought it from, how much you paid, and how you paid for it.   Some reasons why target saves this data:
    • If Target knows you bought that cardigan, they may want to send you an offer in the mail or email for a 20% discount if you wanted to buy the matching knit cap.
    • If you want to return or exchange the cardigan, it’s easier to do so if Target can prove you actually bought it from them and not from Craigslist.
    • Target really wants to know how many cardigans it sold for the entire month. If it’s a popular enough item, they’ll keep it in stock; otherwise they may choose to get rid of it.
  • And how about when you go to your doctor’s office?  They collect a ton of data about your health.  Every time you show up they check your height, weight, blood pressure, temperature and other vital statistics.  But they also remember every medication they ever prescribed, every allergy they’ve identified, and every test they’ve ever performed on you.   Why save this data?
    • It’s pretty important they remember this information, because they use your medical history (e.g., data about you) to guide their recommended future treatments.  If the Doctor remembers you’re allergic to penicillin, they won’t risk prescribing penicillin for you again.

So hopefully now you understand why companies care about data.  But now you may be asking how I and so many others manage to make a career out of this data thing.  Well the short answer – data is harder to remember correctly than it might appear. 

To explain why it’s so hard, let’s recall that time at the mall when you forgot where you parked your car.  You always try to park your car near the South entrance, but you couldn’t find a spot so parked it near the North entrance instead.   After a full day of cardigan shopping you forgot and got stressed out because you couldn’t find your car in your usual spot, right?

Well believe it or not, that sort of thing happens with data all the time at big companies.   In a big company, there are often multiple “versions of truth” about what different employees and systems remember about data. 

For example, you bought your cell phone from the Verizon store last year and that store collected your home address among other information.  But you just moved to a new home last month and called the Verizon billing center to give them your new address over the phone after you moved.   Well the computer they use at the store to remember your home address is a different computer than the one the call center agent used to update your billing address.  So now when Verizon wants to mail you an offer to upgrade your phone, they may not have figured out which address they should use.  Just like you recalled the wrong information about where you last parked your car, Verizon may not remember which address is the one you wanted them to use – which stresses out their marketing department.

So data management professionals like me work with all types of organizations to help them figure out how to use their data most appropriately – and hopefully in a way that will make your experience with them a positive one.

There’s a whole lot more to it than this of course, but I just wanted to give you small view into my world.  I know if I spend too much time talking about data your eyes will start to glaze over, so I’ll stop here!

Love, Rob

PS: Tell Dad I’ll help him troubleshoot his printer problem next time I visit.

PPS: I’ll take a crack at explaining metadata in next year’s Mother’s Day card….

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28 Responses to Data, So Mom Can Understand

  1. Rob, with your permission I’ll plaguerize and forward this to my wife. She thinks I sell a thing called an informatic. Something like a pneumatic version of a Cogswell Cog from the Jetsons. Great “momified” explanation. Thanks, Lee.

    • Rob Karel says:

      Hi Lee – It’s not plaguerism, it’s “Data reuse,” right? :-)
      By the way, can you let me know when there’s a “buy two informatics, get the third one free” deal? Glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. Shraddha says:

    Its hard to digest seeing Moms so outdated of technology. Lets bump up their class guys!!

  3. “Moms” aren’t outdated. I appears from the post that Rob’s mom is not familiar with the data profession. So a good, personalized post to one human. This isn’t a generic post on why moms don’t know anything about data, right, Rob?

    • Rob Karel says:

      Hi Karen
      Of course this wasn’t a gender attack – or a Mom-attack for that matter. It is equally relevant for dad’s, husbands, wives, brother’s, sisters and children who are also not in the data industry. I simply chose to write a letter to my mom as a personalized vehicle to provide some clarity since she has been joking with me for years that she hasn’t a clue what I do for a living. And I can’t tell you how many conversations with colleagues over the years share the same stories – that their families have no clue what they do.

      This isn’t a post about mom’s. It’s a post recognizing that those that haven’t dedicated their lives to the world of data could use some help simplifying a complex topic in a context that would be relevant to them.

      I hope you’re comfortable with that additional background.

  4. Nishtha says:

    Very simple and nice introduction of the complex world of data!!

  5. Very clever Rob!

    I remember trying to explain hardware software to my Mom when I started working (30 years ago!). So this approach made me a good chuckle. Thank You.

    I certainly I hope I don’t miss the next few letters to your Mom ;-)

  6. Vijay says:

    Truly a down to earth way of explaining importance of Data management. I was looking for writing something like this for a session that i was supposed to take. Now, “Data Reuse” would be the mantra. Thanks Rob. Will await for the Metadata article. :)

  7. Wendie Karel says:

    Your Dad would have also liked to get a pair of matching gloves with that cardigan. He never goes out of the house without em.

  8. Ruth Coleman says:


    Perfect! I have a whole list of people who could benefit from this letter – and not just my mom! :-) She’s proud and just says I do ‘something with data’. I’d like to see the update on metadata. Do we have to wait until mother’s day? Is her birthday coming up anytime soon?

  9. Rob Karel says:

    Thanks to everyone for such a postive reaction to my post! With so many comments here and on LinkedIn asking, it looks like I’m on the hook for a letter to my mom to discuss metadata!

    I promise I will work on that and publish soon – no need to wait for next mother’s day!

  10. Michele says:

    Love it – the examples are particularly poignant. Well done!

  11. Barbara says:

    Very nice! I remember having a similar discussion with my mom 29 years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter. I’m sure she was telling her bridge group with pride that “her daughter was pregnant with her first grandchild!” and their next question was probably, “oh, great! So what does she do?” It was the first time in my life that she tentatively asked me what I did for a living. I think I used an example with a credit card. Nostalgic, and brings back fond memories.


  12. Erwin Dral says:

    Great read Rob!
    I’ll keep an eye out for your post on metadata,
    been struggling to explain that to people glazing over for the past 20 years.
    And not just my mom….

    • Clare Cunniffe says:

      Speaking of Metadata — President Obama just this week – when explaining the what the Federal Govt’s was doing with the data from Verizon, actually used the term “data and metadata”. Now inquiring minds following this latest Washington discourse, want to know – what the heck is “metadata”?. It’s up to you, Rob, to clear this whole thing up.

  13. Colin duSaire says:

    Loved it. This works for all family members, not just Mom…and sometimes even friends who are same generation.

  14. Indrayan says:

    Simply Awasome.Looking forward to hear about metadata…..

  15. Keith says:

    Thanks Rob,

    Great introduction to the issues.
    Very tempting to replace ‘Dear Mom’ with ‘Dear CEO’

    All the best with the metadata version


  16. Monique says:

    Bravo! My friend’s eyes always roll back in their heads when they try to understand what I do. And let’s be honest, it is far from the hot topic at parties! I love your explanation- it brings life to what we do. Thank you! Can’t wait for the metadata article!

  17. Stephen M J says:

    A good shot on Data and Master Data Management – today’s buzzword

  18. RIc Phillips says:

    Nicely written Rob.

    And in no small part because you did not go down the “data versus information” dead end.

  19. Karen Way says:

    Rob –
    Thank you so much for the great laugh, as this topic resonates with so many of us who are data geeks. Sadly, even if I were to subscribe to “data reuse” and give this letter to my parents or other family members, they still wouldn’t get what I (and others who have commented) really do. They recognize that data is captured and saved, but nothing beyond that….so even though I now have my own company, I’m still “doing data entry or something like that” in their eyes. :-) And yes, I too, get the phone calls to help walk them through any technical issue that they encounter. If I could charge my consulting rate for all the help I’ve provided to family members, I could retire early!

    Once again, thanks for a great post. I look forward to your explanation of metadata.

  20. Yes I agree a letter re metadata and one explaining hardoop.

  21. Rob Karel says:

    The letter to my Mom explaining metadata is coming and will be published on July 29th. Good idea re: Big Data/Hadoop – it’s on my list :-)

  22. Hi Rob,
    there are lot of Moms outside here. I hope it serves to make them more confident on that job.
    I can’t imagine: My father is convinced I’m unemployed.

    see u

  23. Rob Karel says:

    As promised, the follow-up to my first letter – “Metadata, So Mom Can Understand”

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