/ Data Sausage: Do you really want to know how it’s made?

I dig summer. To me, summer means grilling and baseball, and believe it or not, I am going to tie those together about how we talk data in business. One summer day in the early 1980’s, with Africa’s “Toto” emanating from the Audiovox stereo in the family room, I made the mistake of reading the ingredients on the back of a hotdog package as we prepared to have a BBQ in the back yard. I was no older than 10 at the time but I certainly knew that what I was reading was not what I wanted to eat.

From that day forward hotdogs were removed from my consumption list. Never mind the fact that I knew I was eating cow butt when Mom made her awesome roast for Sunday dinner. There was something about the mental image of taking so many parts of an animal, grinding them into a pink paste, and then stuffing it into some casing, ready to eat that repulsed me. Knowing what the hot dog was made of ruined it for me.

Fast forward 20+ years. There I am, managing the Web Analytic department for a large company. Each quarter I was responsible for creating several slides for the board of directors meeting for our CEO’s presentation. With the amount of web traffic our company amassed, we always had a significant amount of data to compile and present. Inherently, there were always a few technical issues/changes that would alter the data variance year-over-year. Whether it was a site design change or a code implementation issue, the technical side of the business seemed to significantly alter yearly comparative trends.

As I would build my slides, I would create charts and other visualizations showing site traffic or product specific metrics, and each quarter there seemed to be a significant, trend-altering event that would stick out like a sore thumb. I would build my slides knowing that the first comment I would hear would be “No way that data is right.” To combat this, I would provide a detailed explanation of why the data appeared as it did. In an effort to demonstrate my keen awareness of the situation, I described what happened, why it happened, cause and effect and I think I even created a solid flat tax proposal in there somewhere. When I hit “send” on that email I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Several days later when we had a slide review with the executive staff, sure enough, the “No way this data is right” comment was made. I confidently referred them to the email explanation I sent along with the slides. Expecting to hear “Wow, this is great stuff Dan. I love how you provided details that clearly explain why these charts look the way they do! You’re the best.” Instead I heard this classic statement that has stuck with me, “I don’t want to know how the sausage is made.” My efforts were discarded and my confidence shaken.

I understand that the higher the level of management, the further they are from the day-to-day details and don’t have time to focus on them. But that was not what this was about. In this case (and several others), the details were what made this particular data sausage unique and knowing what was in that sausage was vital to understanding why it tasted the way it did.

This type of experience continued on for years; me trying not to define how the sausage was made but knowing that without the proper details they would be consuming something they didn’t know anything about, like the way I used to eat hotdogs before I read the packaging. This balancing act typically resulted in two scenarios: 1) Dan sucks and doesn’t know what he is talking about or 2) a misunderstanding or improper communication about the state of our web presence and therefore Dan sucks.

Clearly, I was not a fan of either outcome but no matter what I did, I seemed to be in a no-win situation. If I didn’t provide enough detail, I clearly didn’t have an understanding of the business. If I did provide detail, I was proving that I didn’t learn anything from the last time I was told I was providing too much information. A bit of a Catch 22 if you will.

So here we are, all of us neck deep in the business intelligence data pile. We are grinders, we take some of this, some of that, grind it together and present it as a sausage of information. Some recipes never change but we are often asked for new creations and only we know the exact recipe. Some simply want to consume, put it in a bun, add some kraut and mustard and they’re good. They don’t really want to know what’s in it. If it tastes good, that is all that matters. Ignorance can be bliss or time spent on your knees on the bathroom floor. Others prefer to have the ingredients available on the back of the package in case they wonder if there are any nitrates in that sausage they are consuming. Then there is the rare breed that not only want to know how you made the sausage but whether the casing is natural, how long it has been cured, and whether you have a kosher option.

So what’s my point here? Being the guy responsible for presenting the data is a hard job. You are constantly caught in the middle of knowing what’s real and trying to knowing how much people need or want to know. And what I learned is that most people just want to know that the hotdog tastes like a hotdog.

Tags: reporting

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