Are we data scientists in hiding? Or “formuleers?”

***Update:  I think we are “Business Modelers”

Today’s post reflects my recent thinking after pondering the excellent discussion on this post.

Two recent articles

The other day I was emailed an article on TDWI (The Data Warehousing Institute) with a really intriguing title:  “Are Data Scientists Hidden Within Your Company?”

This article on data science hints at the Excel pro "hidden resource" theme, but then barely misses it.

I Mean, How Can I NOT Read an Article With That Title???
(Click for the article)

Formuleers?  Formuleering?  Hmm...  Read on for my tentative thoughts.

And Whoa!  “Formuleers” are the new Data Scientists?  I.  Am.  Intrigued.
(Click for the article)

Excel Pros!  We need a new name!

When I recently visited my former colleagues at Microsoft out in Seattle, we had an interesting discussion about “renaming” the Excel Pro.

I mean, “Excel Pro” is descriptive and all, and it’s fine for us to use amongst ourselves.  But it sure as hell isn’t sexy – not the sort of thing we want to use to market ourselves.  I mean, just say the words “Data Scientist” and you see what I mean.  “Excel Pro” is very much…  lacking, isn’t it?

And it undersells what we can do as Power Pivot Pros.  BIG TIME.

Power Pivot Pros Should “Run” BI

If I were running a large company today, our BI strategy would be focused on Power Pivot-trained Excel pros embedded in the business units.  We would have traditional BI pros on staff, but their mission would be to support the Excel pros – providing them with data and infrastructure, and occasionally “taking over” a Power Pivot model that had grown too large.

BI Pros would never build reports, analyses, or models at my corporation, with the exception of occasionally taking over models that had outgrown Power Pivot. 

If you “gifted” me an army of BI consultants and stipulated that they could only be employed to build reports, analyses, and models, I would decline the free gift.  Even if free, that would be a net negative for the organization.

There is zero doubt in my mind.  Zero.  I’ve just seen too much now.  THAT is the way to run “BI” – you run it on an elite cadre of Excel pros, trained on Power Pivot.  But to call them Excel pros just doesn’t do it justice.

Back to the articles!

That’s why the first article caught my eye.  The world’s most valuable data resource (the Excel pro) is hiding in every organization on the planet.  Sometimes in great numbers.

Here’s the “money” quote from the first article:

When people talk about data scientists being curious, that means in a sense that they’re always looking for new problems. You shouldn’t have that much trouble identifying them because they’re going to be the people who, even though it isn’t their job, are still coming up with some kind of crazy, complicated spreadsheet to do some sort of analysis — we all know that type of person.

Even if it’s not part of their job description, they’re still the ones coming up with ideas. Maybe they don’t have the skills at the time to actually do the work, but they’re thinking those ideas and they understand the directions you should be investigating.

Wow, awesome!

But the article later concludes that we (the Excel pros) probably aren’t cut out to be true data scientists.

And I actually agree.  I’ve been reading a book on “true” Data Science and have to say that most of us are not really those people, even though we are “close.”  It involves true experimentation and solid statistical backgrounds.  Steven Levitt types, or the folks who run Amazon’s algorithmic pricing routines for example.

But I also think that the worldwide demand for true data science is small compared to just understanding the numbers we’ve got.

Engineers, Formuleers, Royal Fusileers?

imageWhen I first saw the word “formuleer” in that article, my reaction was mixed.  My first response was “that ROCKS” but then I started wondering if it just sounded… silly.

But the word “engineer” originally just meant “someone who operates an engine.”  You know, like a steam engine – the breakthrough technology of the 1800’s.  Someone who knew the ins and out of that game-changing blend of art and science, regardless of their formal training, “earned” that title.

Over the years, more “official” training and certification came into play for engineers, and the term expanded to other branches of technology.

So the parallels are pretty good actually.  And I bet the word “engineer” sounded different to everyone’s ears when it was first coined versus what it sounds like in our heads today.  Even the term “Power Pivot” sounded silly when I first heard it, and then it grew on me.

So maybe it’s a good name after all?  I don’t know.  What do you think?  Is this a term we can embrace or do we ignore it?

61 Responses to Are we data scientists in hiding? Or “formuleers?”

  1. Data engineer sounds good, but the bottom line is that HR rules and unless data engineer (or what ever) is in their lexicon, it won’t make any difference. BTW, I talked to a fairly seasoned IT and BI recruiter a few days ago that had never even heard of Power Pivot, so there is a lot of work to do.

    • powerpivotpro says:

      You definitely sound discouraged lately, Dave. The good news is that HR leads absolutely nothing. They only follow. It’s not like they invented the term “data scientist,” but they happily go about looking for them once the biz tells them that’s what is needed. If the biz told them to go find purple people eaters, HR would nod dutifully and engage with the task.

      Cheer up! The trends are positive. Have you noticed this website is running more slowly these days? There’s a reason for that :)

      Fundamentally we are both on the same page – we both agree that we are definitely not “there” yet in terms of awareness, perception, and opportunity. That’s why I write articles like these, of course.

      There’s still a difference between our viewpoints, though – I still see the world changing in our favor every day, a rising tide, and I’m always working to make it rise FASTER.

      So let me turn it back to you and ask you what you think we can do to speed this up. We don’t control things but we aren’t exactly powerless either.

  2. frederic gilbert says:

    Indeed, formuleer sounds a bit archaic as from another era,something along rocketeer.

    Also it is as if it reduces the strategic vision power pivot pros have of the business of intelligence to only the formulas they churn out.

    On the other hand, data scientists is way above what we relay are.

    Our own brand lies probably in the somewhere middle depending on personal expertise.
    Just saying.

    • powerpivotpro says:

      Good points Frederic. Well said.

    • Anne says:

      Formuleer immediately evoked buccaneer/musketeer for me, have to say. I like the phrase of data artists/architects/scientist. And Powerpivot pro – what’s your spec for purple people eaters (don’t you think you are being colourist there..what’s wrong with an orange people eater LOL).

      • powerpivotpro says:

        More importantly, Anne, the term purple people eater is ambiguous.

        Is it a purple eater of people? Or an eater of purple people? One can imagine the former is more versatile but the latter is better specialized.

  3. Oz du Soleil says:

    This is s great inquiry because my freelance gigs have shown me that anyone who’d proficient with Excel is doing way more than just Excel. I’ve gone to prospective clients and saw that they have process issues, not software or data issues. They’ve got the fancy software but no one is charged with using the system consistently.

    Someone who is purely an Excel master isn’t thinking data quality or user-friendliness. So, we do way more than make bar graphs and write IF statements.

    In my blog I’ve started using terms from the Data Management world. Data Stewardship, Data Steward, Data Hygiene, etc. And I love the idea of shifting from pigeonholing ourselves as Excel Pros, to injecting ourselves as skilled people who have as much to add as the PHP coders.

    Yes. We need a term that encompasses what we do.

  4. Jordan G says:

    Part of the problem is the emphasis we place on these terms. Technology writers love throwing out these new words as if this year’s were more descriptive than last year’s crop. I read an article a few months ago extolling the virtues of the “data scientist,” who is apparently more skilled than the statistician or some such yada yada.

    Personally, I think we should move away from creating unique names for branding and instead focus on developing terms that describe skill competencies. Some BI professionals specialize in Excel. Some Excel developers specialize in data cleaning and management. Neither of these things is captured in “Formuleer,” but at least some competency is captured in the “Pro” part of “Excel Pro.”

    • powerpivotpro says:

      I am convinced that either a) a name is required or b) one will emerge naturally. People need terms rather than long sentences in order to match supply and demand. In other words, whether a name is a cause or an effect is unknown, but it will happen.

      Descriptive is fine though. It might be that we’ll just be called Power Pivot Pros. Who knows.

  5. Data Technologist (Data Tech) scales it back a bit from Scientist, but gets the word Data in there. Might be a little vague, still, but not as vague as Data Developer or Formuleer. I’ve always thought that words like Engineer and Architect were signs of grasping for prestige and a bigger salary. Scientist is about the same. On the other hand, “data science” best describes the field and is parallel with computer science, but we don’t call someone with a computer science degree a Computer Scientist. Until this shakes out I’ll just let them call me a BI Analyst.

  6. Jeff "DrSynthetic" Wilson says:

    Fast Company’s article changed links – they no longer are using formuleers as their buzzword they switched to Data Artisans. this is the current link. http://www.fastcompany.com/3020211/dialed/why-data-artisans-are-the-new-data-scientists

  7. frederic gilbert says:

    The copywriter might have followed this thread, read our discussions here and updated accordingly…

    • powerpivotpro says:

      Nah, that was always the title of their article, I just doctored the image to stimulate discussion. “Data artisan” doesn’t get people thinking like “formuleer” does.

      The plan was/is to update the post tomorrow and “confess” to my crime. Jeff is just too resourceful and unraveled my little ruse sooner than I expected :)

      Still though, new arrivals to this post won’t see these comments until after the trap is sprung. Muhaha.

      The TDWI article is 100% legit.

  8. frederic gilbert says:

    “formuleer” is the dutch word for “to formulate”.

  9. frederic gilbert says:

    What do you think of: BI App Developer…

  10. I’ve always wondered…how do you call a guy who’s not a BI pro but is actually a Qlikview pro? what about a Tableau Pro? and last but not least…how should a Power BI be named?

    The most common title is “Data Analyst” but Data Scientist sounds extremely cool yet that’s a whole new level to me. So here are a few crazy/funny/random suggestions:
    – Data Magicians (we do MAGIC with Excel)
    – Analysis Expert (really vague but sounds kinda cool)

    Still thinking about a few more names!

  11. Fernando Fajardo says:

    Actually formuleers doesn’t sounds very good to me but some names come to my mind such as data hunters or data master or even Analytics Designer…liked this one! Anyway

  12. I say ignore the hype. Good Data Analysts are always Excel Pros. As the “money” quote you highlight above states, Data Analysts are always coming up with ideas on which directions to take. In my experience, the good Data Analysts are really the ones that ought to run “BI”, and they usually do. They are just not in a position to say so. But I know so, and usually make it a point to tell them how important they really are to a company.

    You should take a look at Stephen Few’s recent article on the term “Data Scientist”. I agree with his point of view that this terminology is just a bunch of hype associated with the equally hyped term “Big Data”. http://www.perceptualedge.com/blog/?p=1719. Vendors and the media are using this marketing term a lot now, and it may stick around with us for a while, but fundamentally, I don’t see these guys in any different light than I do a Data Analyst.

    I place a higher value on the Senior Data Analyst than I do DBA, Developer, or Data Scientist. Why? Because they care more about the business and people than they do about the technology. I can usually have a beer with them too and poke jokes about the geeks in IT. ;)

    • betsig250 says:

      Last paragraph is spot on..

    • powerpivotpro says:

      But we DO have a legitimate marketing problem. Academic arguments might be 100% accurate and yet fail to capture mindshare.

      I agree that “big data” is overblown, as is “data scientist.” But it is simultaneously a FACT that those terms have captured the imagination and mindshare of “non-data” people, who generally speaking are the people who write the checks.

      “Analyst?” “BI?” Those are yesterday’s terms. Being “yesterday” isn’t bad, except that those terms are also now firmly pigeonholed in executive minds as “Excel monkey” and “huge expense for low ROI.”

      Again, let me say that those statements are facts, and equally as valid as anything said by academics like S. Few.

      What we can do today with Power Pivot is QUALITATIVELY different than anything we’ve been able to do before. Whether it’s “right” or “wrong,” if we call it by a name with a long history of low-value connotations, we are not on the right track.

  13. Juanito says:

    The real value and differentiating characteristic of all this is that you now have on-the-ground business professionals who are finally in a position to do really game-changing things with the data. It’s this middle ground, more generalist, that needs the emphasis:and that’s what the label should go after.

    But it’s NOT easy, especially with so many semi-meaningless buzzwords around already that everybody feels they have to pretend to understand (Big Data, anybody?). When I discuss this with colleagues (finance colleagues in my case), most don’t really understand, and when I mention Excel, many will give each other knowing looks.

  14. Meta Brown says:

    Gentle people, there is already a perfectly good name for your profession, one that is used by many people and businesses. That name is “data analyst”.

    Why would you define yourself by a product? Anyone clever enough to perform meaningful data analysis using Excel is clever enough to perform meaningful data analysis with a variety of tools. No matter how skilled you have become with one product, or how powerful a tool it may be, your own potential is greater still.

    While “data scientist” is certainly an ill-defined term (and, as Juanito put it so well, a semi-meaningless buzzword), it does carry certain implications, one of which is that Excel is not the employer’s preferred tool. “Business analyst” is also problematic, as that is the current term for what we used to call “systems analyst”. If you want a name for your work that will be generally understood and not label you as a tool jockey who can’t learn new tricks, stick with “data analyst”.

    • powerpivotpro says:

      I respectfully disagree with the first assertion. Data Analyst carries far too many preconceptions along with it (see my other recent comments above). What I see on a daily basis with Power Pivot is VERY different from anything we’ve been able to do before. Like, add one or two zeroes to the business value of what we were able to do in Excel previously and that’s where it is.

      I suspect that either a) you haven’t truly “seen” Power Pivot yet, at least not at its full strength, because it is simply not like the other tools once you get below the surface or b) you overestimate the capability of “normal” (non-data) people to set aside their preconceptions. Neither of which would be a personal failing of course :)

      (In other words, in a conversation BETWEEN data pros like us, I am 100% fine with the term Data Analyst describing me. Outside that room though, it is woefully insufficient.)

      Defining ourselves by the name of a tool may very well be a mistake of course unless that’s what the market eventually decides is the term. Right now I only see one tool doing what this one does. That could change of course. But it is not a “competitor” to Tableau or R or even Cognos/BO. It is different, but explaining HOW it’s different is a challenge. Hence this whole conversation.

  15. Jude Hoffner says:

    Intelligence Agents. If one ever wanted to build a business around offering these skills as an outsource solution it would logically be called an Intelligence Agency. Or, when this capability evolves into its rightful place in the executive suite, the leadership position will have the title of Chief Intelligence Agent. That’s a business card that will start a convo at a cocktail party.

  16. Jordan G says:

    Rob, I know you and I will likely disagree on this – which is OK because I think you’re still an awesome dude – but I think the focus on the name works against branding Excel users as capable data analysts/magicians/bi professionals/etc. Techno writing is concerned with the new, i.e. out with the “data scientist” of old, in the with the “data artisan.” And Excel is as old as they come. Even the first article, which was more sympathetic to using spreadsheets of the two, presents spreadsheet applications as “crazy” and “complicated.” But Power Pivot is neither crazy nor complicated; in fact, it’s simple and, dare I say, elegant. (You’ll probably agree with that.) What the article is really saying is that organizations don’t know how to use spreadsheets, and we should look for that one guy who for some reason still uses them.

    The FC article doesn’t even mention Excel or spreadsheets. Perhaps it’s just my imagination, but I feel like data artisans would poo poo them. In any event, they present a “new” type of person who understands statistics but isn’t a mathematician; who brings a wealth of domain knowledge from a career of working in the trenches; who liaisons/interfaces with the customers/managers/stakeholders and only provides them with actionable, decision-level information. To me, that’s just describing the skills of a high-quality Project Manager/Lead. And we probably do need more PM’s and PL’s with a flexible tool set of statistics and domain experience, with the capacity to understand and use data.

    I think we’re at a point in which we know we want to use data but we don’t know what for. Some organizations need that “data scientist” with a phd in math, stats, or operations research. Could a digital marketer without a a strong quant background create an artificial neural network algorithm to learn which indicators are important this month? Probably not. And there’s a good chance, given their experience and domain, they don’t need to. At the same time, my experience has been with companies who tell us they are doing analytics when they are just taking averages. Because they lack the quantitative background and expertise, they don’t know what else is out there. Which brings me to this point, and then I’ll shut up: organizations need people who fit what they’re trying to do, who add value. Call this person whatever you want.

    • powerpivotpro says:

      I would love for the world to change its mind about Excel. However I think that fortress is unassailable through the front gate. We need to tunnel under the castle.

      As soon as we “brand” what we are doing as “Excel,” it’s over (in the minds of non-data people).

      We have a serious branding and image problem. Yelling loudly won’t fix it, we must use stealth.

      Once we are inside the castle, calling the shots, we can then “reveal” that our secret was Excel all along. And THEN the Excel image problem is fixed. But frontal assault? Forget about it.

  17. Dave says:

    I’m fond of the terms “Data Jack” (like Jack of all trades or cracker Jack) or even “Data Jock” (although Jock does have negative connotations)

    I had a friend who called himself the “Data Czar.”

  18. Dave says:

    Data Black Belt (Stealing from Six Sigma here….) :)

  19. Miike Griffin says:

    This issues raised regarding how we “Excel Pros” are positioned in the minds of the business community are tough to change. BI professionals/IT don’t give much credit to our craft yet the managers and users that rely on what we do praise us for our contributions (at least in my experience).

    At the end of the day; as users experience the benefits we can deliver and compare the experience to projects directed by a traditional BI/IT team, we will be in demand and move into the spotlight. All of this is not to say that BI/IT pros don’t have a role – they are great and very much needed.

    I agree that a title is needed that will help bring our value to the mainstream. Our products focus on users and the results they are looking for. Analysis and the unique methods, model, and calculations are project specific. The constant theme with all projects is the fact that we work with data and present it – period. The degree to which it is manipulated and analyzed varies. We are Reporting Architects.

    My vote – Reporting Architect

    • frederic gilbert says:

      To Miike: some would argue that reporting is kind of diminutive, that analysis trumps reporting in the business intelligence value chain.

      However, I like the notion conveyed by the term “architect” which in the IT world has its importance.

    • frederic gilbert says:

      To everyone interested in this thread, I propose: Business Intelligence Architect

  20. Oz du Soleil says:

    I like the sound of Business Intelligence Architect. But we have to keep in mind that not all of us do the same thing, And that’s where I don’t think too much should be put into finding a specific title, and more effort should be put into educating the public on value and possibilities … while finding a way to not confine oneself as an Excel master.

    BA roles vary company to company, as do DBA roles and every other role. The definition is when things get weird.

    I’ve got 2 projects right now. Both are app development in Excel. The client tried various existing apps and there was something missing with all of them. So, here we are in Excel and VBA building from scratch. No analysis, just a lot of formulas, layout design, VBA and testing.

    My point is that Excel is a true Swiss Army Knife. One title won’t fit.

    • Juanito says:

      Would you say the same about PowerPivot that you do about Excel?

      • Oz du Soleil says:

        My current experience with PowerPivot is using it to set-up relationships in Excel 2013 diagram view as part of creating dashboards.

        But I get what Rob is saying in his comment below: he’s looking at a specific role, and that’s a fascinating but also baffling thing about those of us who use Excel/PP: we do all manner of things in a wide variety of areas. We share a tool and are able to help each other but our roles are all over the map.

    • powerpivotpro says:

      Except that in my specific case, one title DOES fit. I’m not trying to label ALL activity in Excel. I’m trying to label what we do in Power Pivot, which is actually a lot easier to pin down.

  21. Juanito says:

    In the interest of focussing on finding new names (and having a bit of fun too), here are a few offerings for the thread’s distinguished perusal, always stressing the tranformation of raw data into business insight:
    – Data Interrogator
    – Fact Shaker
    – Business Acuity Specialist
    – Data Ranger
    – Insight Weaver

  22. John says:

    My vote is with Insight Weaver. Everything I have done with PowerPivot (and often with plain Excel as well), is done in order to gain insight into some sort of process so that others can make… ahem, wiser decisions.

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