Forget the tech evangelists, these are the real people you should be learning from

Things go in and out of fashion all the time, and so it is with technology. If like me you are a data professional you will be familiar with today’s hot potatoes: open source, open data, big data, cloud, and so on.

Today, as I visited one of my employer’s more recent acquisitions (a small business specialising in high-end data analytics) I was reminded of the fact that each technology has its place. Being small, this business can easily mix & match the best tool and approach for every job at hand.

You might automatically assume that they went for the latest tech in everything. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: their client industry still uses ASCII files as their ‘standard’ for data exchange, and so they have to cater for this outdated practice. And yet, they run a highly sophisticated operation. Technically it is built on a hybrid stack of proprietary, open source, and homegrown technology: SQL Server for the core database, PostGIS for the spatial bits, homegrown code for the clever analytics.

But the real sophistication lies not in the technology but in how they run their business (and how they spend their time). These guys are domain experts, highly focused on their customers.  They are passionate about what they do, but they also keep a low profile. There is no time to go round tech events evangelising their favourite piece of technology. They routinely beat the competition through hard work, a shrewd eye for opportunities, and quiet persuasion rather than public chest-beating. Besides, if they went to speak at conferences they would only be handing their hard-earned advantage to competitors. The only events they might attend are purely focused on their clients.

Now contrast this with some of the tech communities. By the very nature of technology these communities are focused more around the HOW rather than the WHAT or WHY. This is fine and provides useful inspiration for like-minded individuals, as well as social fun. However, people are tribal by nature, and so these communities invariably end up with leaders and followers. Unless members of a community make a conscious effort to keep an open mind, they can easily fall prey to ‘group think’ where nobody asks tough questions anymore, and any deviation from the gospel is seen as heresy.  I have witnessed this particularly in the open data or open source communities, and the same is true of some proprietary vendors. The end result can be reminiscent of a cult. And cults breed spiritual leaders: evangelists.

I’m highly suspicious of evangelists. As most people know, there is never a single solution to a particular problem. Sure, you need a tech strategy but you also pragmatism. A crusade for its own sake achieves very little.

So stop listening to the evangelists, keep an open mind, keep asking the tough questions, and seek out real people who run real businesses. They may be harder to find but when you do, it will be worthwhile.

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