Data, So Mom Can Understand

Republished, by popular demand

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!

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.

Data, So Mom Can Understand
Data, So Mom Can Understand

  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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….