The culminating project for my recently-completed MBA was a business plan for a mobile app development studio. I selected this project because there were obvious business advantages to choosing such a high-growth and low-overhead industry. It also seemed like a timely subject to study.
With time and thought, what began as a mandatory, if interesting, final business school hoop to jump through started sounding like a doable plan for opening my own business. Over the course of the semester, my business plan swelled to over 35 pages in length. I found the thought of owning my own company exhilarating. I began considering actually executing the plan I had developed, and reached out to the local SBDC for help securing financing. I was pretty serious.
Toward the end of the semester, in order to start my business with eyes fully open, I solicited feedback to my plan from a few local tech professionals. These included a senior software developer and the owner of a local tech company. Over lunch, I picked each of their brains for as long as they would tolerate.
They were both familiar with mobile development, having each performed that kind of work themselves. They expressed reservations about my plan, delicately implying that as a degreed engineer and MBA student, I might be setting my sights a bit low. By the time I had these meetings, I had become pretty emotionally invested in starting my company. I had named it and everything. Honestly, I found their lack of enthusiasm for my excellent business idea annoying (didn’t they know that mobile was blowing up?). But, I had set those meetings in order to learn. So, I paid attention and asked prying questions about their businesses.
As I learned more about what these two actually did, it slowly dawned on me that the value they provided their clients was only peripherally related to the specific technology or software they sold. Their real value was in helping their customers to manage their information.
To seasoned tech professionals, that statement may be somewhat obvious. But for me at that time, it was a bit of a sea change. Even though I was studying business at the graduate level, at the time I’m not sure I was thinking in terms of value creation. As a millennial, my tendency is to assume that technology’s value is totally self-evident and incontrovertible. When it came to running my own business, an app development studio seemed viable because, well, it is 2017, and everybody needs apps now. The market analysis I performed as part of my culminating project was just to confirm that preconceived notion.
To be clear, that notion was not wrong. Mobile development is, in fact, hot right now. Market research suggests that it will stay that way for the next couple years (and likely longer). I probably could have executed my original business idea, the only real weakness of which had been the necessity of pigeonholing myself into a particular technology so I could gain reasonable proficiency with it. Being an iOS native, I planned to initially establish myself as an iOS developer. If hybrid development platforms continued gaining market share (as these local techies suggested would be the case), then it would simply be a matter of learning hybrid development. And so on, and so forth…the blessing and curse of working in technology is the necessity of continually re-skilling and learning.
Having recently emerged from employment in a stagnant field that was not very growth-promoting, I only perceived tech’s constant change as a blessing. But the two local tech leaders I met with had been in tech for a while; they had actually experienced the difficulties of learning, and then marketing, the ability to work with new technologies. So I listened.
The Bigger Picture
I had expected those two meetings to be full of enthusiastic praise for my gumption and promises of future collaboration. Instead I left feeling disillusioned, but with the beginnings of a new perspective.
Regardless of whether they are sold by Apple, Samsung, Google, or Microsoft, the future will have more computers, most of them embedded in Internet of Things devices. This is a fundamental premise I still believe to my core. It was the reason I chose to study mechatronics (IE, robots) in college. At around the time I was selecting my undergraduate major, the UN had predicted the IoT would grow from 2 billion devices in 2006 to 200 billion by 2020. Other projections were more or less rosy, but there was (and still is) virtual consensus about the continued rapid growth of the IoT.
And as the number of internet-connected devices grows, each of them will generate data.
The resulting data explosion is already well underway. In 2016, total accumulated worldwide data was in the neighborhood of 16 Zettabytes. By 2025 this is projected to increase by over an order of magnitude, to 163 Zettabytes. Other sources claim worldwide data doubles every two years, an even more rapid rate of increase. We are already drowning in it.
As data grows and becomes ever more interwoven in our lives, it will come to be used by even the least sophisticated sectors of the economy. It will become ever more integral to the management of businesses. In a strange symbiosis, just as technology enables the capture of data, data abundance will enable future technologies. But, in some difficult to describe way, data is also fundamentally different than technology. It is disembodied, a kind of “meta-technology.” It is a deeper trend: ultimately bigger than Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy S-whatever, and Amazon Alexa, but also implicitly tied up with each of them.
Data is to tech as the soul is to the body, or something like that.
Ultimately, I learned one thing from my meetings with those tech leaders. The true value of technology is its ability to facilitate the generation, management, and distribution of actionable information. Data is the raw material from which that actionable information is derived.
Since data is exponentially growing, it follows that the potential actionable information is growing rapidly as well. That actionable information has real economic value for many different groups: companies, institutions, governments, consumers themselves… By extension, there will also be opportunities for people with the skillset necessary to derive actionable information from data.
There are also more practical, less philosophical, advantages to working with data rather than technology proper (IE, as a data scientist rather than a software developer). In the final analysis, data is platform and device independent. By working with data, rather than some specific technology, I expect to be insulated from the worst shocks of the turbulent tech industry. Since data is used by all sectors of the economy, I will eventually be able to find work in many large cities, not just in tech hubs. And since it is such a new, emerging field, the ride will definitely be exciting.
Those were my thoughts and intuitions in late 2017. Research, personal intuition, economic and employment trends, expert opinions… all suggested there will be significant opportunities in the analytics space in the next several years.
With all that in mind, I clicked save, and then close, on my 35-page former dream. And I started studying data science. Shortly after, this site was born, intended as an online project portfolio and repository for my rapidly-accumulating analytics notes.
As I discussed above, the nature of this particular field is such that the learning process I’ve begun will probably never stop. There will always be new concepts to explore and new territory to map. I have no idea where the journey will take me, or what this field will be like in five years, let alone 35.
And I love that.