One time, I was having lunch with someone who worked in a creative profession. He told me there’s a difference between guys like him and guys like me. He uses the right brain. He can’t get ideas out of his head. I’m a left brainer, he said. I think logically and analytically.
I thought that was an ironic statement. I’ve written a novel and building data visualizations is a great creative exercise. Same with building databases. It was also ironic because many creative people rely on analytical and logical thinking to build beautiful pieces of art. JK Rowling, for example, builds these elaborate grids to plot her novels, similar to what I’d do for a database schema design and dashboard mockup.
This type of labeling usually stems from some insecurity, I think. We often feel inferior to people when they excel in an area where we don’t. As a way to shield our ego, we define ourselves and others using personality types. There’s type A and type B. There’s introverted and extroverted. There’s artistic and there’s technical.
This theory of left brain / right brain was developed by an actual psychologist. It turns out the left side of the brain really is associated with logic and the right side associated with creativity. If there were a spectrum, it'd look something like this:
It turns out that this spectrum doesn't actually exist though. We don't really fall more on one side or the other. Just because we excel at analytical thinking doesn't mean we can't be creative. The reverse is also true.
I think it’s fine to define ourselves this way at a personal level since there’s no real harm, but we often apply this thinking to the way we staff BI roles (and even approach our own careers).
If I were to take the types of roles found in business intelligence and plot them along the hypothetical analytical / creative spectrum, it’d look like this:
Database and ETL developers are the logical thinkers who can take their technical skills and write scripts and build processes. Strategists, data visualization developers, and report developers are more towards the right, using creativity to conceive solutions and find ways to communicate them. I don’t include analysts on this because the job title “analyst” is often used as a catch all job title.
This might seem like a logical way to break up the roles. It appears to play to the strengths of individuals, letting the creative people develop solutions as strategists while having the technical people execute those ideas.
However, that assumes the creative people know enough to come up with real, beneficial solutions. That’s where my problem comes in with this thinking.
To illustrate what I mean, consider painting as an example. We think of painting as an expression of creativity but even a good painter can lack creativity. Many people can take art classes to improve their technique and create works of art that can be pleasant to look at.
But does following a set of instructions make you creative? I don’t think so. You can learn how to paint proportionally and use coloring to create realistic lighting, but developing a concept and theme to embed into your painting requires more than technique. It requires thoughtfulness about what you’re wanting to accomplish.
What happens though when a painter is all creativity and no technique? Well, the results aren’t all that good either.
I enjoy coffee shops and typically spend my weekends at a handful of them in my local town. These coffee shops usually rotate art from local artists once a month.
The art displayed is not always that good because they tend to overemphasize self-expression over technique. They want to express something about themselves, such as their life experiences or political feelings, but it falls flat when they don’t have a strong basis in technique.
This need for creativity to have a basis in skill applies to business intelligence (and even data science) and I think we need to re-evaluate how we approach strategist positions. Instead of putting people in the right brain or left brain category early in their career, we should encourage them to become developers first and then identify those developers who have a knack for creativity.
We often want the strategists to be the “big picture” people and paint a canvas. But their solutions will fall short if they’re overly reliant on developers explaining what’s possible and what’s not. Even worse, they may make promises (sometimes embarrassing ones) to stakeholders and clients that can’t be fulfilled or may propose solutions that aren’t applicable.
But a strategist with a developer background knows what’s possible and what’s not. They can see a business problem and say “a Bayesian network is a good solution for this” or “I’ve worked with Tableau and know, given your needs and limitations, Logi Analytics is a better fit.”
This is not to say that career progression for developers should be solely geared towards becoming strategists. Many developers are not that creative and are happy to receive a set of specifications. Fulfillment for them comes from solving the more minute, puzzling aspects of a project while letting someone else think of the “big picture.” (I always suspect that these developers are usually the happiest people at work).
Making the role of data strategist a step up from developer though would require companies re-aligning compensation to encourage developers to pursue those positions. One of the great ironies is that, while many companies talk about the need for more creative people, they don’t pay for it. Technical oriented roles are paid far better than roles like strategists.
If I could make a recommendation to companies, I would suggest increasing the pay of strategists and promote developers who show creativity into those roles. They’ll be better off for it.