Explaining analytics: On craftsmanship

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Jeff Zeanah describes his Explaining Analytics to Decision Makers course

In the Tuscan hilltop village of Montepulciano, a tourist can visit the shop of Coppersmith Cesare Mazzetti. But Mazzetti is not just running his family’s traditional business, he’s demonstrating all the qualities of a historic craftsman.  The visitor may see him work and have him show you photographs of some of his greatest work including some beautiful bell towers adoring the greatest cathedrals of Florence.  Additionally, the visitor may buy some high-quality copper pots at the modern shop next door.  It is a nice experience, but at this same time feels somewhat touristy what with the close proximity of the workshop and the modern store, but yet it serves as a meaningful reminder that the practice of a craft is still important.

The city of Delft, in The Netherlands, has a name that is synonymous with their craft – Delft Pottery.  Again, the interested can view the factory and see the practitioners at work, many following years of family tradition.  And, of course, the interested can purchase the beautiful products.   Each year millions of tourists travel to have these and similar experiences.  But that is not surprising; we urge to respond to the modern economy and technology by grasping onto a true expression of craftsmanship.  We appreciate the history, the dedication, and the physical products.  Of course, we pay for those experiences with new economy technology jobs, and appreciate the cheap flights that the new economy technology brings us that help make the experiences possible.  But yet, despite the irony; the high touch personal craft experience appeals.

In our daily lives, we see many starting their careers and focusing on a renewed sense of craftmanship.  It could be said we are enjoying a renaissance of a focus on craft – particularly in the food and beverage industries.  The adjective “artisan” is frequently applied:  artisan bread, artisan beer, artisan iron work.  These all are meeting the demand from consumers to enjoy something that feels real and personal.  Close to my home in Atlanta, Georgia is Pine Street Market, where a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America practices the craft of butchery.  Simply put, his bacon, sausages, steaks, duck confit will spoil you to never want the same from others.  It is that good.  The dedication to the craft is seen in the flavors.  Beer drinkers are also enjoying a renaissance in the craft of brewing through numerous microbreweries, meaning they now have an unprecedented selection from which to choose.  Interestingly, this is happening at a time when there is an unprecedented closing of retail space due to the easy access to online products.  Convenient, yes.  High touch, no.

There is a reason I am going through this list of examples of craftsmanship.  Beyond getting to talk about things I like, I can focus on the components of craftsmanship.  Specifically, an understanding of materials and techniques, and importantly, a respect for the history of the craft.

Craftsmanship includes an understanding of materials and techniques, and a respect for the history of the craft. Click To Tweet

One of the forefathers of the modern analytics field was John Tukey.  He was most known for his famous book, Exploratory Data Analysis (EDA) published in 1977.  Tukey was a colorful and opinionated man.  His opinions included thoughts about what it took to be successful in this field.  As he pushed the topic of EDA, which was new and exciting (and almost exclusively on paper) at that time, he discussed the technical requirements of the job, but he also stressed the attitude of the practitioner.  The attitude of the practitioner that is certainly more of a softer skill concept that is discussed today.  He stressed creativity, curiosity and a broad understanding of the approaches; traits that would drive a practitioner to discover.  I feel it was safe to say he was stressing the importance of being a craftsman.

As I continue to work in this field of analytics I have a growing sense, feel and appreciation of this concept of craftsmanship.  I feel this field rewards this sense.  It fact, at this time, it is what I appreciate most about the field.  I can continue to grow in my craft. Whether it be new techniques of modeling, graphics, or data manipulation, having more to learn and improving the output is a continued source of pleasure.  I see many with freshly minted degrees pulling out a compiled version of an algorithm and applying it without a full understanding of the materials, the techniques and the weak points.  A Delft craftsman knows the weak points in the vase they are working on.  They understand how their first steps with the product will impact the final look.  They recognize the subtle differences in the materials in front of them today and gain a fuller appreciation through repeated application of the craft – improving over time.  The same can be said of an analyst that continues to learn more about their algorithms and data (their tools and materials).

In my efforts to help others with the concepts of explaining analytics while teaching the subject, I hope to inspire others to see their work in the same light.  The copper pans available in Montepulciano and the pottery in Delft are the result of learning techniques refined by those that came before us. With continued practice and attention to the craft, we can turn those techniques and materials into a thing of beauty.

I recognize there is a wonderful duality at place here.  Many of us, if not most of us, are engaged in technology that is delivering a new world, one that could not be conceived by a coppersmith of 200 years ago. But to succeed in such a world,  we can benefit from the approaches of the traditional craftsman.  Working with analytics and our tools and materials through craft inspection and continuous learning we can see more.  To return to a data set one worked with years earlier, a craftsman should see how their skills have improved over time.  New thoughts should come to mind, more skill, more finesse – a fuller understanding.

The young practitioner reading this may be thinking, “this guy is trying to tell me I do not know what I am doing.”  No, that is not the point.  The point is, you are just beginning, and if you treat this field as a craft, you will improve. But actually, even yet that is still not the most important point.  What I’m really trying to convince you that if you learn to focus on the craft, your enjoyment of the field will continue to grow as you recognize the beauty of the field.

Picasso advised we should, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  In my next posting, I will continue this theme of craft and beauty and discuss the art in analytics.

Sign up today for Explaining Analytics to Decision Makers, and learn the nuances of your craft.

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About Author

Jeff Zeanah

President of Z Solutions, Inc.

Jeff Zeanah is President of Z Solutions, Inc., a firm focused on customized analytical consulting for over 20 years. He has consulted with industry leaders in manufacturing, retail, software, public health, science, finance, and utilities. A frequent lecturer on the topic of explaining analytics and the management of analytical projects, Jeff enjoys sharing field experiences with colleagues. As a recognized expert on neural networks and a broad range of exploratory data mining tools, Jeff has authored papers on neural networks, exploratory data mining, and the implementation of those techniques in organizations. He is the developer of exploratory approaches and techniques that have been used by Fortune 500 companies, independent researchers, government agencies, and over 30 universities worldwide. Jeff’s approaches have been applied in areas as diverse as market research, software license compliance, tasting wines, nutrition, sizing electric transformers, and classifying stars.

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