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How organizations like Junior Achievement shape our communities

I am very pleased and honored to be joining the board of directors of Junior Achievement of Mid-Michigan. This last school year, I started my involvement with JA in classrooms. I want to share a bit about those experiences as well as why organizations like JA are so critical to the future of our communities and our country.

First, my “on the ground” experience. I started by participating in a couple of single-day JA events in which a wide variety of different professionals speak to classrooms about their careers. The goal of these events is to expose students to folks in their own communities who have found career success in a number of different fields. These presentations help students get a clearer idea of what they’d like their own education and career path to look like. I found speaking to students to be exciting and somewhat terrifying experiences. Could I really do a good job of explaining my career in data management, a topic that most adults find difficult to understand? Interestingly, in both the high school and the elementary school events I participated in, I found that these students are actually much more able to appreciate the topic of data than most adults are. Their familiarity with how mobile devices, applications and data transfer works gives them an immediately-accessible way to understand the invisible, worldwide network of data pipelines that underpin everything we do. I was delighted by the kind, respectful students who also asked excellent questions.

I also took on the rather significant task of teaching a six-week-long, one-hour-per week class called “Our Region” to a fourth-grade class at Attwood Elementary in Lansing. It ended up being one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life! The class is focused on the topic of entrepreneurship with a secondary focus on how the resources of different regions of our country contribute to the business environments of those areas. From the beginning, I was impressed with the quality of the materials for the class as well as the thought and effort that had clearly been put into developing the class. I know from my experiences teaching data management classes to adult professionals at conferences, seminars and on-site training that the first thing an instructor needs to succeed is a solid course to teach.

Then, of course, there were the students. I fell in love with each of them as I got to know them throughout my sessions. Each student was unique, beautiful and funny in his or her own way. The respect they showed me and the way that they got comfortable talking with me gave me the warmest feeling I’ve known since my last child was born. And they really enjoyed the class! They looked forward to our sessions each week and took pride in their new knowledge about creating and running a business. I have no doubt the experience will influence many of them as they continue their schooling and ultimately find their career paths. I’d like to think that I may have inspired one or two of them at least to start their own businesses someday.

Now, the bigger picture. It may be trite to say so, but children are indeed our future. And we’re not doing everything that we should be doing for them right now. We all know it. Let’s just say it. We’re letting down our most precious and loved resource. So what are we going to do about it? There’s much to do and certainly politics and policy have to be part of the solution, but what can individuals do each day, week, month or year to help us make progress on this urgent issue. We can do things like get involved in JA, that’s what! JA recognizes the gap between what is provided by the schools as they are today and what these children need to make it in the real world. Of course, there are other good organizations doing some of the same types of things, but this is the one that I’ve chosen to invest my time, money and goodwill in. If you’re inclined to do the same, please reach out to me and I’d be thrilled to talk to you about the multiple ways that you could choose to help out with JA.

Easing the transition from spreadsheet to database

Most small businesses use an Excel spreadsheet at some point in order to handle the information they find most useful for their particular business. It may be as simple as a list of part numbers and prices or a list of contacts with names, phone numbers and addresses. It could also be as complicated as several thousand records to track some kind of statistics. Whichever way the information is organized, people start looking for a better way to store and analyze their data when the collection gets big enough. Transferring all this data to a database seems like a simple enough evolution; just copy the table from Excel into the database and hey, presto! It’s done, right?

Not so fast. What about all the metadata the database engine needs to operate properly? What about unique identifiers and foreign key relationships? For example, there are data types, character length limits and columns/table names. These are some (but by no means all) of the components that must be considered when developing the database.

If the data in the spreadsheets are not organized properly and there aren’t rules established, the cost and time of development could increase drastically. With a list of names, for example, you would design the table to have a first, last, middle and maybe even a suffix. But if the spreadsheet simply has a list of names all in one column, it can take hours to either fix the spreadsheet to make it easier to load or to develop the select statement necessary to parse out the specific pieces of the name. And if the spreadsheet has one record that says “Smith, John” and another record that says “Jane Doe” and another that says “Jones, David S. JR” then there will necessarily be much more manual work to straighten out the spreadsheet before it can ever be loaded into the database with any certainty of quality. A human can easily look at those names and tell which is which, but a computer is not capable of disseminating that kind of information without a great deal of help from a developer. The simple act of establishing rules for the data at the outset can reduce the cost and time of development dramatically.

Sean Caswell, Associate Consultant

What does it take to create a data strategy?

What does it take to create a data strategy? Here are some tips from SDS principal consultant Aaron Fuller:

  1. First, you have to have a business strategy. Without knowing the mission, vision, values and goals of your business, you cannot build a good data strategy. Your data strategy should be in direct support of your business strategy.
  2. Understand what data capabilities are necessary to support the business capabilities in order to meet your business goals. What does the business need to be able to do? How does data support that?
  3. Describe your future-state data architecture. What are the data systems and sources that will need to be in place in the future to support your future vision of your business?
  4. Take an inventory of your current situation. What do we currently have in terms of data assets?
  5. Create your data management roadmap, which describes how you will execute a series of efforts that take you from your current state to your future state. That’s your strategy.
  6. Continuously work this process. A business strategy changes all the time. Capabilities change all the time. Priorities of the business goals change all the time. This means that your data management roadmap and strategy need to be constantly evolving to keep up with those things. This isn’t something you do once every year or every three years. This is the main planning tool for data architects and managers.

Who does SDS work with?

We’ve been asked what kinds of customers we work with at SDS.

We work with insurance companies — that’s a lot of our business background. Given mid-Michigan’s strong insurance sector, we intend to always have that a part of our business.

We also work with smaller private and nonprofit organizations as well as bigger companies outside of mid-Michigan. This includes businesses in health care, manufacturing, workers compensation and any industry requiring Guidewire expertise.

Questions from the Classroom: What is data evangelism?

As a teacher, Aaron gets asked all kinds of things in class. We’re exploring one of the top questions today.

What is data evangelism?

Data evangelism has to do with two things:

  1. Inspiring a recognition of and understanding how important data is to an organization.
  2. Building excitement about what’s possible, inspiring the conversation “This is what we could have if…”

As evangelists, we have to live in the ifs – and then help make them become reality.

Questions from the Classroom: How can I get comfortable being a data evangelist?

As a teacher, Aaron gets asked all kinds of things in class. We’re exploring one of the top questions today.

How can I become comfortable being a data evangelist?

Unearthing bad news and the reality of things, and then convincing people to take positive action on it is one of our primary roles as data managers and strategists.

We have to remember that systems are built by and for people, and that we’re primarily emotional beings. As a data evangelist, I start with asking about relationships, not getting into the technical side of things. The tech will pretty much work itself out for the most part, and it’s not really the question. The question is about the people and whether or not they work well with the system.

Beyond the data and into teaching

Did you know that SDS Principal Aaron Fuller is also an experienced teacher in the data management industry?

“One thing that excites me is the ability to bring more people in the field I care about. I find a great deal of satisfaction in helping others learn about this gratifying career. Part of it is that it’s exciting to get in front of a class and improvise for 6 hours. Another part is the interaction – the stories from people in the class and what they deal with. I’m building up in my mind massive collection of stories and experiences that not only help me to be a better teacher, but a better data architect.

A day with SDS

A day in the life with SDS Principal Aaron Fuller is never quite the same!

“Sometimes I’m meeting with leaders and data architects to brainstorm information issues. Sometimes I’m troubleshooting a critical problem a business needs to come to terms with. Other times I’m working side by side with clients to develop new database solutions. It really runs the gamut from strategy planning to advanced tactical management to actually getting in and building projects for clients. I really enjoy and value the variety.”

Questions from the Classroom: Getting engaged in data management

As a teacher, SDS Principal Consultant Aaron Fuller gets asked all kinds of things in class. We’re looking forward to exploring the top questions as a series in the SDS blog.

How do you get business people engaged in managing data?

Recognition of information and data management as a business asset is a critical success factor.

It’s important that business people know data management is not an IT asset – IT folks are instead the custodians of that information. It is the businessperson who owns that data.

Just what is it we do at SDS?

We’ve been asked various times what exactly it is that we do at SDS.

It’s simple, really. We support business decision makers with great information and help them treat that information like any other critical asset.

In business, there are financial assets, physical assets and human assets – then there are information assets. At SDS, we help businesses treat their information assets with the same care as they do their other assets, focusing on getting the most out of that information.