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Data camp helps Facebook establish a common language

One commonly held belief about big data is that it provides better and deeper answers to business questions. “And it does,” Ken Rubin, director of analytics at Facebook Inc., said at the recent Strata Conference + Hadoop World in New York.

But, Rubin argues, it’s a belief that also needs to be challenged. While businesses focus their energies on the answers big data will provide, they risk overlooking the important role that questions play. Put another way, if IT spends time solving problems that don’t ultimately provide any value to the business, the richness and depth of their resulting hard-won insights hardly matter. But pinpointing (and articulating) what those questions should be doesn’t necessarily come naturally.

“You can use science and technology and statistics to figure out what the answers are, but it’s still an art to figure out what the right questions are,” Rubin said.

That’s one of the reasons why Facebook, in addition to hiring people who have both technical and business savvy, sends its employees to “Data Camp.” “This two-week,  intensive, immersive program teaches them everything they need to know about analytics,” Rubin said.

And everyone is on the bus: Product managers, designers, engineers and members of the finance and operations department all attend Data Camp. During that two-week stint, they learn how to use relevant tools and technologies but they also learn how to ask the right questions and how to “frame business questions in such a way that you can use data to get the answer,” Rubin said.

It may sound a little elementary,  but giving employees this type of language lesson creates a lingua franca across the organization, which can help eliminate what some CIOs have cited as a barrier between IT and the business.

Another tip: Figure out the best organizational structure for analysts — centralized, decentralized or some combination of the two. Facebook implemented what it calls an embedded model, a hybrid between a centralized and decentralized structure, where business units roll up to a central team but analysts “physically sit with the organization they’re providing a service for,” Rubin said.

“The benefit there is that you get your common standards and processes from centralization, but you also get great alignment and connection to the goals,” he said.

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