If you have spent any time on any of the digital measurement social media channels the past year or more you have surely seen the tweets and great content from Blair Reeves who blogs at www.bullishdata.com. After reading his posts and interacting with him on twitter I wanted to get a chance to learn a bit more about him, and he was kind enough to indulge my questions.
Q: Tell us about your background and be sure to include: How did you get started in Analytics ?
My first job out of college was actually in politics, working on a variety of campaigns both nationally and in Virginia. Then I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years living in southern Cameroon as a health and water sanitation volunteer. (Ask me about latrines sometime – I can talk your ear off.) After I got out, I worked for a USAID contractor that focused on global health for several years, mostly managing projects in South Sudan, Vietnam and Kenya.
Several of my projects, particularly in Sudan and Kenya, had to do with health workforce strengthening using educational technology with nurses and doctors. We had no usage data to work with, really, which became a huge impediment when we wanted to make evidence-based improvements or programmatic decisions. I’ve always been pretty into technology, but trying to glean programmatic insight from the data we did have became a hobby of mine. I later went to business school at Duke, where I started to focus more on applications of analytics. When the opportunity arose to work for IBM in directly this area, I jumped at it.
Q: What were you doing five years ago and how has that experience help you with your current role/job?
Five years ago, I was focusing mostly on our South Sudan projects right before business school. Rural villages in Southern Sudan are about as “emerging market” as you really get, yet the penetration of mobile phone coverage was everywhere, much like it had been earlier in Cameroon. I found experience there to be tremendously valuable, today as much as then, in putting our jobs (and industry) in the right perspective. Most people tend to naturally think about other internet users in ethnocentric terms – other people like us – while the reality of who, and what, is out there is actually quite different.
Q: What are your favorite industry events and why ?
I really dig DAA Symposia – since they’re locally based, you often get to hear from a lot of smaller companies and less well-known names that add fresh perspectives. Brooks Bell’s Click Summit is a really neat, unique event format that encourages a lot more knowledge sharing than you typically see. Obviously, I’ve been to a lot of IBM Smarter Commerce events, and I think they keep getting better every year – it’s a really big conference, so you both get a wide spectrum of session topics as well as industry (and geographic) views.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is just trying to get started in this industry ?
Learning as much as possible, and from as many sources as possible, is important. It’s really easy to sucked in by the vendor content machines out there, which can leave you with a “mile deep, inch wide” view of the digital analytics and marketing space. That’s not terribly useful.
Also, smart engagement of social media can be invaluable. I say “smart” engagement because it’s easy to get obsessed with the silly stuff – getting followers, retweets, and all those shiny things – but the key is to remain focused on getting the value out of your social media engagement that’s important to you. For me, social media – Twitter in particular – has been hugely valuable for learning more about our field.
Q: What business or industry related book have you read recently, and would you recommend it to others ?
I’m reading Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise” right now, and I think it has a lot to teach folks in the analytics field about drawing conclusions from available data. Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” should be required reading for anyone working in technology.
Q: When or if you could hire a new person to your team, what are the most important attributes that you are looking for?
Having a good baseline level of knowledge about the marketing function and marketing tech is obviously important, but a good candidate doesn’t have to be a domain expert, or super technical. When I’ve recruited new people to our team, I typically look for demonstrated capacity to learn new tricks – new tools, market segments, etc. – and a hunger to keep moving quickly. Excellent written expression is really important to me – if you can’t write clearly, concisely and persuasively, the digital age is going to be tough for you. And while prior experience is, of course, a good sign, I’m careful to not mistake experience for competency. You see so many people out there boasting about “being in X industry for Y years” and so forth, which doesn’t really tell the listener much besides their age.
Q: What has surprised you the most in the past 5 years in this digital analytics industry?
I think everyone’s been surprised at the massive fragmentation of the market. Given the pace of technology, that was probably inevitable, but mostly in hindsight. It’s a great thing, overall, but the difficulty for the general public to adapt, let alone for our engrained social mores to evolve, just moves a lot slower.
Q: We have heard volumes about Big Data, Privacy, Democratization of Analytics. What is next?
Heh – I suspect that anyone who really believes they know the answer to this question is either a genius or somewhat deluded. Nevertheless, I think the “Internet of Things” is going to change much about our everyday lives. We won’t necessarily think of it as IoT, of course – it’ll simply become routine to easily communicate with my car, fridge, multiple other computers, thermostat, robot vacuum, and whatever, via my phone (or other wearable device). We’ll just think, of course I commanded my car to start up with a voice command into my phone while making breakfast, so that it would be nice and warm when I got in. What else would you do?
Technology that melts into the background to make life easier, instead of creating more distractions or interruptions, is the best kind.
Q: What are your favorite and least favorite job interview questions? What would your answers to them be?
Favorite: “Why do you want job?” This sometimes comes off as a little lazy by the interviewer, but it’s a clear, concise way of cutting to the heart of why everyone is there. And besides, if the interviewee has no good answer, then that pretty much sums things up.
Least favorite: “How has the MBA degree changed perspective/work style/other vague thing.” This question is more an exercise in creative question-answering than a means of conveying relevant information. It’s also a way of identifying MBAs for no apparent reason.
Q: Over the past few months you have really been writing a lot of great content on your blog, what sparked this flood of posts ?
I try to put up a new blog post every week, so if that constitutes a “flood”… thanks! I thought about starting a blog for a long time. I’ve always thought that blogging for its own sake is pretty pointless, but that if you think you have something new and valuable to say, then it’s worth giving it a shot. I’ve been really surprised at the volume of positive reception. I’ve found that there’s a lot of other really interesting voices out there that I’ve come to learn a lot from – and there’s also a lot of fluff that you have to learn to ignore. My goal is to be part of the former for my audience.
Q: What keeps you awake at night?
Climate change. It’s going to affect us all, and so many of the Boomers just don’t seem to give a damn. Of course, it’s going to particularly hurt poorer countries, which is doubly cruel.
Also, I worry about how our society struggles to empathize and understand cultures and people who don’t resemble us. All humans struggle with this, of course, but it’ll be particularly important for America to do better with this in the 21st century. This is a huge business challenge, of course – how do companies grapple with “emerging markets” that have very little in common with one another except that per capita incomes tend to be lower than in the West? But it’s also a huge challenge for our society that comes up everywhere you look now.
Q: You win a business lottery, but there is a catch. The money must be spent to create a new business within the digital measurement space. What area would you focus on, and what kind of team would you assemble?
Good question. I’d have to think about that a little more. My first instinct would be to focus on better measurement of the online-offline customer journey. Pretty much every brick-and-mortar business is in some kind of crisis today – retail, sit-down restaurants, theme parks, you name it – because most legacy players in that space are just so bad, or at least slow, to adapt to engaging their visitors through digital channels. I wrote that blog post not long ago about how the in-store retail experience basically hasn’t changed since I was in middle school, which is completely ridiculous. Stores (and certainly restaurants) need to be much more innovative in thinking about how to enrich their customers’ experiences, and thus lifetime value, through channels like push notifications/promotions, social sharing, and taking better advantage of mobile platforms to make processes more efficient.
Q: What is your favorite passage from any book (list book name too)?
I don’t have the book handy – I passed it on to a friend a long time ago (what else are dead tree books for?) – but there’s a very affecting passage in Dave Eggers’ What is the What in which the protagonist, Valentino Deng, walks through a refugee camp with his priest, who exhorts him to go to America and do what he can with the incredible opportunity he’s been given there, and then to come back and help his people. The whole book is really worth your time.
Q: If someone wanted to reach out to you or keep in touch, how would they best do that?
Sure – feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also tweet at @BlairReeves and my blog is BullishData.com