Impressions of Strata Conference

Strata buzzes. Other events go to sleep for long stretches. But Strata+Hadoop World, at least the one in Silicon Valley if not those held in New York and London, is the only event I’ve seen with buzz that comes close to the buzziest of all, the Tableau conference. And like Tableau, Strata is growing. It switched venues this year from the Santa Clara Convention Center to the much bigger San Jose Convention Center, and it still sold out.

As usual in the tech world, the tagline “make data work” merely implies the many elephants in the room, the humans. Who does the work? The lazy data sure doesn’t, and the tools are like the golden retriever that forgets basic training. The humans gather at events like Strata to train themselves to make technology do what they need it to do.

These are my impressions from a full day as reporter and industry analyst.

Mark Madsen’s storytelling session

Mark Madsen, the man many find remarkable for his “intellectual energy,” spoke for 20 minutes Wednesday morning about storytelling. How to begin a story? The usual advice, he says, is wrong. Don’t start with the data. And don’t start with “the story.” No, instead start with your intent. Business stories should always aim for action, whether it’s to explore and understand, to change behavior, or to just change minds. His intense, stimulating presentations — which he’s often made final just a few hours before, sometimes late, late at night — never wrap up without goring a sacred cow or two. The cows this time were visualization bulls Edward Tufte and Stephen Few, who advocate data density. But that’s not always appropriate, says Madsen. It’s more effective, he says, to ask whether the audience wants to see the details. Or do they just want “the basic interpretation so they can get on with the decision making and go out to play a round of golf”? If Florence Nightingale had gone by today’s dogma, she would have shown detailed charts to doctors — and persuaded fewer of them to sanitize their surgical instruments, thus killing thousands more from infection.

Teradata’s AppCenter

I had listened to the Teradata senior director of Aster marketing Manan Goel and vice president of UDA product marketing Chad Meley explain the new Teradata Aster AppCenter and its “build, deploy, consume” theme for self-service with big data. I had heard all about how it lets users fit functions together. I had heard about user-made apps that monitor a retail customer’s path to purchase or a patient’s path to surgery. It all sounded like fun, actually, and I said so. Their faces brightened. Then we went on to Loom, Teradata’s tool for weaving value from Hadoop’s snarl.

Pentaho: the big question that went unanswered

I arrived at my meeting with Pentaho with a question. Because no industry observer I asked could make sense of Hitachi’s just-announced purchase of this open-source warhorse, I wondered if their action was the other shoe dropping after JasperSoft dropped into Tibco?

Is Hitachi thinking about the Internet of things? No one knew. I asked three Pentaho representatives about one reaction I repeated one particularly provocative comment: “I’m surprised anyone would see value in a company that controls so little intellectual property.” The three paused, sighed, and looked away from the table. Finally, director of big data product marketing Chuck Yarbrough began to explain his position, and director of corporate communications Rebecca Shomair got up to close the door. We control “lots” of IP, they argued. True, 80 percent of the IP contained in Pentaho’s enterprise edition is, indeed, open source.

However, what one of them called technology’s “shifting sands”—the normal advances and adjustments all business software undergoes all the time—requires regular updates of the other, proprietary 20 percent. None of them would discuss this point. I suspect that the real value is the knowledge that comes with the workforce. The whole gang is staying, which at least ensures that customer support of Pentaho Business Analytics will continue without interruption. As if considering the broad landscape ahead, one of them stared into the distance and concluded, “It’ll be interesting.” Indeed, it will be.

Four disruptions that paved the way for Paxata

I asked Paxata co-founder Nenshad Bardoliwalla about the long-dead rumor that Tableau was about to buy Paxata — pronounced pax-AH-ta — which was just an appetizer for what I knew would be a meaty conversation. He had that cheerful laugh of someone who was happy with what he has: by all accounts, an interesting and disruptive success. Paxata is a self-service tool meant for ordinary users to prepare data for analysis. I wanted to hear more of a story spun by VP of marketing Cari Jaquet: the four disruptions that paved the way for Amazon, eBay, Netflix, and now Paxata. There was the mature browser; also machine learning at scale; also distributed computing; and also the infinitely flexible cloud that expands and contracts on demand. Paxata’s now got 35 customers, with seven new ones in the last quarter alone. So I asked him when he would buy Tableau, and he gave the best laugh I heard all day.

Get-to-know-you with Trifacta

Much later, it was get-to-know-you time at my first-ever meeting with Trifacta, a Paxata rival. CEO Adam Wilson and the officially no-title marketing chief Michael Hiskey told me about “data wrangling,” the cost and security advantages of all-on-premises data, the advantages of sampling versus the all-data approach. One more thing: “It’s all about Hadoop”; Trifacta requires it. Thirty customers have signed on.

O’Reilly report on active learning

You may not know yet what active learning can do for you, but let me tell you something right now: It’s coming to an analytics tool near you if it’s not there already. Read all about active learning — essentially, a human layer over machine learning that dramatically improves accuracy — in a new O’Reilly Media report that showed up in the O’Reilly booth. Download it here.

Two new sources

I met two people I’ll call for updates and opinion: WebAction director of marketing Jonathan Geraci and Metanautix CEO Theodore Vassilakis.

Articulating buzz

“What did you hear?” is everyone’s question to those who go out to wander through buzz. What I heard or overheard is what I saw in the buffet: self-service with excellent features along with inevitable shortcomings that show up only with close inspection. You wanted things to work exactly as you expected? Silly you! At the Strata buffet, the salmon was good, the eggplant parmesan was tasty and filling, the string beans had a little bit of garlic and were not overcooked, and the green salad was exactly like the salad I’ve had in dozens of other events in each of the last three decades. But there was no dessert, not even a bowl of fortune cookies. Those who saw silver chafing dishes and expected ceramic plates and silverware rolled in cloth napkins instead found paper plates, plastic forks, and napkins that tore on mere 15-hour stubble. Will the update for Lunch Buffet have cloth napkins and metal forks? Let’s put that on the wish list.

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