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Career Conversations: Talking about the mean streets of Data with Chris Tabb

Updated: Feb 2

Jenny Barnes engages in career conversations with Chris Tabb. Here is the conversation:


So Chris,  with nearly twenty thousand followers on LinkedIn, you're the instigator of the #meandatastreets a global network of data movers and shakers who meet up in person. I'd say you were the Godfather of Data. How does it feel being such an authority on all things data?


Note the follower count is now over the 20k, by the time I finish this email it may reach 21k lol 


I've never really thought of myself as such an authority (that’s my modest side).  I love what I do and my career journey has provided introductions to great thought leaders that met via the data community. These connections have provided me with a constant source of new knowledge.  I like the saying ‘If you are the smartest person in the room. You are in the wrong room’. I can confidently say I'm never in the wrong room on the mean data streets these days.


As an early follower, I've been with you for a long while. In my mind, you have had eras. There was the 10pm tips era, I loved that era as you demystified a lot of acronyms that had me stunned for a while, the WTF series, and now "the global chief whip of data on a mission to demonstrate the business value of data". Do you have a period of posting that you've enjoyed the most?


This is a great observation of the theme of my posts and the evolution of my thinking and focus, I had never really thought about them in these eras until now.


When I started my journey with the 10pm Tips it was all about the raising awareness of what we did at LEIT DATA. The posts took ages to create and plan and to be honest I was conscious of how they may be seen or received.  I also thought I would run out of topics to cover. 


Then one day someone gave me a tip.  Think of your subject as ‘Turkey’ and then always have that as part of your Recipe. So over time I started to get inspiration from journey scaling LEIT DATA,  content posted on LinkedIn or from discussions with my data peers. I felt I had to share my views or ‘Rants’. So, I started to post things that had shocked me or I felt I needed to leverage my historical experience to call out things that needed to be challenged, refined or explained. It's during this time I created some hashtags. The first was #bringbackdatamodelling that created a community movement to raise awareness about the need for and importance of Data Modelling. These posts where more spontaneous and not always a polished article.  This was the beginning of the #meandatastreets that I did have a lot of fun with adding some humour to the discussions.


My current focus as you say is “Business Value” and this is driven from my passion of what we can do with Data and historically as an Industry we have a history of failed data projects that promised the world but never delivered.  I decided earlier this year to write a book that will define what is “Business Value” in the data world and how it can actually be delivered by following this Playbook.  I use my posts now as my “Brain Farts” that are the ingredients of the chapters defined in the book, these help me shape the content based on feedback.


So, in summary, I have enjoyed the whole journey, but my favourite is the Business Value era due to how it makes me think about the subject and how it can be solved.



Do you get spotted in NY and London whilst out shopping and get asked for selfies? 


LOL.  I don’t think I am that well-known. But when out on the Mean Data Streets at data meet ups, I do like to grab a Mean Selfie with some of my friends in the Data Community.


You've discussed the gamification of learning with guests on your weekly Data Value Show. Have you ever been a gamer?


Not really. But over recent years, while building the business, I have seen how you make learning fun and leverage concepts from the Gaming world. My gaming days ended many years ago, probably with the Nintendo 64 -Golden Eye and Mario Carts.


What is your preferred learning style at work?


I like to learn by Trial and Error and more recently speaking to my Mentors, Peers, Data Community, and the next generation of Data professionals ( I like to call this reverse mentoring ). 


How did you get into working with data?


Short answer – “By accident”


Longer answer – I had a 6-month Temp job at Cognos when I was 18. I ended up realising I had a passion for Analytics and Data and became a Cognos specialist and never looked back.



What was the moment that you had a calling to guide the industry to achieve better data standards? 


Gate crashing Joe Reis show in June 2021 where he had Ben Rogajan on his “Lets Talk Data Engineering Show”. After that show he asked if I would be interested in helping review the book he was writing  ‘The Fundamentals of Data Engineering ‘



Do you still believe that boutique consultancies can have enough of the range of in-house computing expertise to navigate the sheer volume of technologies and methodologies that exist now?


I do. The big 4 are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you will get. I see a shift where companies are moving to companies that are small enough to care but big enough to deliver. Also, when boutiques collaborate, they can provide the required coverage of the best quality resources


Governance is a tricky subject for me, as the economies of data have evolved through rule breakers and explorers pushing boundaries. What are the top three crimes in the data world? 


1.      Forgetting to data Model in the Modern Data Stack

2.      Thinking the Cloud Fairy paid your OPEX cloud spend

3.      The lost role of the Data Architect and having poor requirements from the Business



Now that the barriers to entering programming are lower, what system user conversations do you think business leaders should be having to encourage a grassroots, safe, and secure quality data approach?


Asking the right questions in the right way, we need a balance of centralisation of governance combined with accountability from any decentralisation.  We need to focus on the business requirements and the ability to self-service within each department.



Let's talk about this whole Data function that tries to straddle all of the more traditional biz functions. You quote the CDO has an average tenure of 18 months. That is a problem right! In 15 years time do you think data / computer literacy will just be a bigger part of the sales, marketing and finance functions or do you see the DATA function further emerging as its own specialist discipline?


We need to have the right balance of a centralised and decentralised approach.  And with the Knowledge of data literacy, so in each business function it will become the norm it will become just another skill you need like Word, excel or PPT.


Do elderly relatives understand what you do for work?


Only my dad knows and that’s mainly due to my spending a long period of my time during Covid at his Villa in Spain during the early days of the pandemic. He also understands the industry, but the rest of my family don’t have a clue.



What is your favourite application of 'big data' that you like to recount to your non-technical mates to get them interested in what you do?


As with most things in my life I try to use some humour! But I don’t think I have one story I use. I normally will use an example from the industry or the background they are from and then create a scenario of a problem and how I would solve it with data and then I may reference it.  The story that most people can relate to, would be when I worked on Data Platform for the UK regulators to provide solution to stress test all the banks that would prevent another Banking Crisis in 2007. Both of my co-founders at LEIT DATA  Ian Chotakoo and Chris Edge worked on the same project.


I see patterns in people. At the first data meet-up of yours that I attended there was a lot of discussion about ADHD. There was a big proportion attendees with adult diagnosis and lots of people were quite convinced that they would get a diagnosis. What do you think this means for workforce planning and personality profiling software?


We all have special powers or activities we naturally gravitate towards and things we are just OK or even clearly bad at!   When building effective teams, you need to make sure you have the complete coverage of complementary soft skills and technical skills for your team to be affected.  Personally, while on my journey with LEIT DATA have reflected on my own Strengths and Weakness and underpinned my weakness, understanding my strengths and recognise my limitations.


Ok nearly over. I have held back so that I can come back and ask you more questions in the future.


You have to categorise the following items with Love Hate Loath. You know how that marrying game ;) works. What are your choices...?


Hate to Love Excel

Love to hate Slack

Marry Snowflake

Loath Data Lakes

Thank you Chris Tabb. You are a data rockstar. I am looking forward to getting my hands on the book and seeing what extraordinary ideas come out of SKID. P.S well done for sliding Snowflake into the list for long term relationships.


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