Steely Ingenuity by Ryan Alvis

Award-Winning Work “Steely Ingenuity” Was Painted in 4 Hours Using “Elementary-School-Grade” Paints!
(Now on display in our office, ‘cuz we like that sort of thing)

Art was Once an Ivory-Tower Profession, Off Limits to Individuals

Did you read the caption on the picture above?  Something awesome was created by a single person, in four hours, with readily-available materials.  Doesn’t that rock?  And doesn’t that seem like what we do these days in Power BI and Power Pivot?  (The “correct” answer to both questions is yes, btw, heh heh).

Today, painting is such an accessible practice that we can “discover” hidden genius lurking everywhere among us.  A few hours and a few dollars is all it takes.  Talent is also necessary of course, but talent tends to be randomly distributed, rather than concentrated in wealthy or academic circles.  People like Ryan Alvis (the artist who created the above) don’t have to be born famous or privileged in order to produce great works, they can rise, from anywhere, to greatness.

Paradoxically though, the era that produced some of our most-famous paintings did NOT benefit from such a broad and deep talent pool, but instead was limited to a highly narrow and stunted, closed society of talent.

What I’m saying is, the Renaissance kinda sucked for art!  Yeah, I just went there.  Read on to learn why, and more about the semi-obvious parallels to our world of data.

Guess what?  In the 1500’s, just GETTING paint was extremely difficult!

Back in the 1500's, a single artist needed a team of paint-makersA little internet sleuthing confirms it:  yep, you had to BE SOMEBODY in order to paint back in the 1500’s.  In the era when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, artists had to MAKE THEIR OWN PAINTS.  Which sounds all self-sufficient and all, but no, not really.  Before you could paint anything back then, you had to:

  1. Obtain/purchase oil and thinner.  Remember, we didn’t have petroleum products back then, and even the oil itself had to be pressed out of seeds, so even the basics came at significant cost.
  2. Obtain/purchase pigments, some of which were so expensive that when a painting contract was signed, it had to explicitly specify if certain colors were required, and if so, how much of each!
  3. Grind said pigments to a very fine and consistent particle size.
  4. Carefully mix the pigments, at precise proportions, with the oil and thinner.
  5. Do it all over again every single day, since paints didn’t “keep” overnight.

 

Simply making paint was so expensive and laborious that aspiring artists had to subject themselves to lengthy apprenticeship programs – programs which ostensibly taught them how to paint, but which were really just pyramid schemes in which the students were required to make all of the paints for the Master artist who ran the school.

An Unusual Art Competition Unexpectedly Parallels Our World of Data

Some background on how I got started thinking down this road:  This weekend, Jocelyn and I went to a local art event called “Art vs Art” – essentially a 32-artist deathmatch tournament.  All the artists were given four hours, simultaneously, to paint whatever they wanted –  using the canvases and paints supplied by the competition.  The painting session happened a couple weeks back, but the tournament was Friday night:

  1. Yep, we saw chainsaws taken to paintings.The contest proceeded, one-on-one, single-elimination tournament style, with audience cheering determining the winner of each head-to-head matchup (measured via decibel meter).
  2. The loser of each matchup had to face the Wheel Of Death, which provided a random chance that the losing painting would be instantly destroyed on stage (!).
  3. If the losing painting survived the Wheel, it was auctioned off, with 70% of the proceeds going to the artist.
  4. Steely Ingenuity emerged as the champion, and we snatched it up.

32-Painting Tournament Bracket!Sounds like fun right?  And it was!  Except for the time that someone outbid me for an awesome painting and then SUBMITTED IT TO BE DESTROYED.  We got to watch the world get a tiny bit uglier (as the painting was trashed on stage), and contemplate what kind of person gets off on such a thing.  (But it does underscore:  art is so much “cheaper” to create now, that we even have contests in which good stuff gets destroyed!)

But I digress!  On net this was still a very, VERY positive experience.  Especially as I started to focus my thinking on how these amazing paintings were created.

Technology Advancements Unlocked a WORLD of Talent

So, breakthroughs in paint manufacturing (as well as basically ALL manufacturing) have dramatically democratized the world of art.  You no longer need a wealthy patron, a team of assistants, access to exclusive materials and facilities, or to emerge from a lengthy pyramid-scheme apprenticeship in order to produce art.

This means that we inherently “tap into” a talent pool, today, that is probably thousands of times larger than what was being “tapped” during the Renaissance!

Which brings me to the soundly mathematical statement:  Ryan Alvis, young artist from Indiana, is probably a better painter than Michelangelo was!  If we have dramatically more efficient talent discovery today, the folks who are rising to the top, even locally, are just probably more talented than what the old system managed to discover and nurture.  (If you’re a lover of art and find this statement offensive, I encourage you to look on the bright side:  I’m not saying Michelangelo was BAD, I’m just saying we’re living in a golden age for art, which is GREAT if you love art right?)

Are You a Michelangelo of Data?  You Very Well Might Be!

You!The same sort of dynamic – 1500’s art industry vs. today – is playing out right now in Data.  But unlike in the world of art, it didn’t take centuries.  The entire field of computing-powered analysis got started basically during world war two.  Look how far it has come in 70 years!

Even after computers themselves shrunk from city-block-sized instruments owned by NATIONS down to desktop devices purchasable by the general public, we STILL experienced another 30 years, from the mid-1980’s until now, in which the software and the skills were so arcane (cough cough traditional BI tools) that the domain of “serious” analysis remained an “aristocratic” exercise.

For instance, I remember at one point having a conversation with an expert in which he estimated that there were probably only about a few hundred people WORLDWIDE who TRULY knew how to operate Microsoft’s former flagship BI product, SSAS-MD.  Furthermore, I had worked at Microsoft, up close and personal with SSAS-MD and the team who built it, for YEARS…  and never once made sense of its formula language.  If someone like me with that kind of exposure couldn’t “break in” to the elite club, well, that reinforces the idea that it was probably a bit too hard.

Only since the release of tools like Power Pivot, Power BI, and ok some of their competitors have we truly been able to “discover” talent on that same kind of broad scale that the art world has enjoyed since the 1800’s or so.  This is our moment folks.  YOUR moment.  It’s a virtual certainty that some of the people reading this right now are better than “the best of the best” from 15 years ago, 30 years ago, etc., and I absolutely believe that the overall level of talent in the world is exploding.  It’s just getting started folks.  Buckle up for the ride, we’re thrilled to have you with us.

Rob Collie

One of the founding engineers behind Power Pivot during his 14-year career at Microsoft, and creator of the world’s first cloud Power Pivot service, Rob is one of the foremost authorities on self-service business intelligence and next-generation spreadsheet technology.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. DAX being a natural progression from Excel formula syntax is genius in bringing these tools to the masses without having to become an ‘elite’ at writing code. I heard from a colleague the other day that Accountants at his company, with ERPs and other dashboard/analytic software available are migrating themselves to Power BI. Reminds me of when I faced ERP changes and what promised to be perfect canned reports.

  2. Love your thinking and analogies about life @rob. When you imagined a data revolution I think lurking somewhere in the back of your mind was this intention to value the “back office artists” for the amazing heroics they perform in serving their businesses. Keep writing – you inspire us.

  3. That post was just what I needed, positive and inspiring. After reading the post, I finally completed the blueprint of my own work of art yesterday, proving the concept. Although my pivotangelo is only sketched in pencil with no color, I can tell that it will forever change how we do business. For the first time in a long time, I can’t wait for Monday. Thanks Rob!!

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