So many numbers! Must be very complicated!

The story dates back to 2007. Fully retrofitting, I was in what can be described as my first ever “data science job”. After having struggled for several months to string together a forecasting model in Java (the bugs kept multiplying and cascading), I’d given up and gone back to the familiarity of MS Excel and VBA (remember that this was just about a year after I’d finished my MBA).

My seat in the office was near a door that led to the balcony, where smokers would gather. People walking to the balcony, with some effort, could see my screen. No doubt most of them would’ve seen my spending 90% (or more) of my time on Google Talk (it’s ironical that I now largely use Google Chat for work). If someone came at an auspicious time, though, they would see me really working, which was using MS Excel.

I distinctly remember this one time this guy who shared my office cab walked up behind me. I had a full sheet of Excel data and was trying to make sense of it. He took one look at my screen and exclaimed, “oh, so many numbers! Must be very complicated!” (FWIW, he was a software engineer). I gave him a fairly dirty look, wondering what was complicated about a fairly simple dataset on Excel. He moved on, to the balcony. I moved on, with my analysis.

It is funny that, fifteen years down the line, I have built my career in data science. Yet, I just can’t make sense of large sets of numbers. If someone sends me a sheet full of numbers I can’t make out the head or tail of it. Maybe I’m a victim of my own obsessions, where I spend hours visualising data so I can make some sense of it – I just can’t understand matrices of numbers thrown together.

At the very least, I need the numbers formatted well (in an Excel context, using either the “,” or “%” formats), with all numbers in a single column right aligned and rounded off to the exact same number of decimal places (it annoys me that by default, Excel autocorrects “84.0” (for example) to “84” – that disturbs this formatting. Applying “,” fixes it, though). Sometimes I demand that conditional formatting be applied on the numbers, so I know which numbers stand out (again I have a strong preference for red-white-green (or green-white-red, depending upon whether the quantity is “good” or “bad”) formatting). I might even demand sparklines.

But send me a sheet full of numbers and without any of the above mentioned decorations, and I’m completely unable to make any sense or draw any insight out of it. I fully empathise now, with the guy who said “oh, so many numbers! must be very complicated!”

And I’m supposed to be a data scientist. In any case, I’d written a long time back about why data scientists ought to be good at Excel.

The Trouble with Management Consulting

While I was pumping iron (I know, I know!!) at the gym on Wednesday evening, I got a call from a client seeking to confirm our meeting yesterday afternoon. “Why don’t you put together a presentation with all the insights you’ve gathered so far?”, he suggested, adding that he was planning to call a few more stakeholders to the meeting and it would be good to give them an insight into what is happening.

Most of my morning yesterday was spent putting together the presentation, and I’m not usually one who bothers that much about the finer details in a presentation. As long as the insights are in place I’m good, I think. I had also worked late into the night on Wednesday trying to refine some algorithms, the result of which were to go into the presentation. In short, the client’s request for the presentation had turned the 18 hours between the phone call and the meeting topsy-turvy.

It is amazing how many people expect you to have a powerpoint (or Keynote) presentation every time you walk into a meeting with them. For someone like me, who doesn’t like to prepare power points unless there are specific things to show, it can get rather irritating. Some presentations are necessary, of course, like the one to the CEO of another client that I made last Thursday. What gets my goat is when people start expecting powerpoints from you even at status update meetings.

Preparing presentations is a rather time-consuming process. You need to be careful about what you present and how you present it. You need to make sure that your visualizations are labeled well and intuitive. You need to sometimes find words to fill slides that would otherwise appear empty. And if you are not me, you will need to spend time with precise and consistent formatting and dotting the is and crossing the Ts (I usually don’t bother about this bit, even in presentation to the CEO. As long as content is there and is presentable I go ahead).

So when you have to make presentations to your clients regularly, and at every status update meeting, you can only imagine how much of your time goes into just preparing the presentations rather than doing real work!

The other resource drain in the consulting business is working from client site. While it is true that you get massive amount of work done when you are actually there and have a much shorter turn around time for your requests, spending all your time there can lead to extreme inefficiency and lack of thought.

When you spend all your time at the client site, it invariably leads to more frequent status updates, and hence more presentations and thus more time spent making presentations rather than doing real work. The real damage, though, is significantly more. When you spend all your time at your client’s site, it is easy to get drawn into what can be called as “client servicing mode”. Since you meet the client often, you will have to update him often, and you are always looking for something to update him every time you need to meet him.

Consequently, you end up putting on yourself a number of short deadlines, and each day, each hour, you strive to simply meet the next short deadline you’ve set for yourself. While this might discipline you in terms of keeping your work going and make sure you deliver the entire package on time, it also results in lack of real thinking time.

Often when you are working on a large project, you need to take a step back and look at the big picture and look at where it is all going. There will be times when you realize that some time invested in simply thinking about a problem and coming up with a “global” solution ┬áis going to pay off in the long run. You will want to take some time away from the day-to-day running so that you can work on your “global” solution.

Unfortunately a client servicing environment doesn’t afford you this time. Due to your constant short deadlines, you will always end up on a “greedy” path of chasing the nearest local optimum. There is little chance of any kind of pathbreaking work that can be done in this scenario.

In my work I have taken a conscious decision to not visit my client’s office unless it is absolutely necessary. Of course, there are times when I need to expedite something and think being there will increase my own efficiency also and spend time there. But at other times, when I”m away, here in Bangalore, the fact that there are times when there are no immediate deadlines also means that I get the time to invest on “global” thought and on developing ideas that are long-term optimal.

The long-term productivity that emerges from spending time working off-site never ceases to amaze me!