Conversation: data’s roots

Is time spent at a TDWI conference worthwhile? How would a prospective exhibitor or attendee judge beforehand? Perhaps the data would dictate — if the data could really tell the whole story.

At the recent TDWI conference in Boston, I counted a mere 18 booths in the exhibit hall. Most of the big names had stayed away, including Tableau, Qlik, and MicroStrategy. Only IBM planted itself there on the Hynes Convention Center’s big floor.

Even with much of the cavernous hall draped off, the stage designers still had a large space to fill — done with what seemed like overly abundant banquet tables. But what a surprise: The tables seemed reasonably full at the height of lunch — showing at a glance unexpected, healthy growth in attendance from last year. It was even better than the previous conference, in Chicago.

But that data was hardly all there was to it. No complex human event can be summed up so neatly, no matter what the “data driven” people insist. I asked around, starting with Dave Wells. He’s a former TDWI education director and still a guy who knows what’s going on around the organization.

Last fall, he returned to TDWI to help revive the moribund education program. He’s in the thick of the big story that has so far included an energetic new leader, sharpened marketing, new experiments with new course formats, and a return to four annual conferences instead of the disastrous five. He and I also co-teach a class in data storytelling, a welcome broadening of the agenda for the data-warehouse weary among us.

“Attendance precedes exhibitors,” said Dave. He means that the 18-booth data point doesn’t exist alone. It is just one point on a trend line, which could be flat, declining, or rising. Dave suggests that it’s a rising line, and because I think he’s a smart guy and worthy of trust, I try on that story.

I also listened to other, darker stories. One faculty member, also a smart guy, worried about rumors of a new friendliness with vendors. He calls it “whorishness.” Will the old firewall break down to allow too much compromise for education and media? Just how friendly will TDWI be, and what exactly is the plan? The imaginary trend line suggested by Dave seems to level off slightly with those questions.

The data devotees among us would at this point object to my approach. How can you compare rumors to data? But what makes them assume that data has integrity while stories, even unverified, do not? When will the data devotees hatch from that cocoon?

Information does not derive from data. Conversation and stories — in actual conversation or just anticipated — always precede and color data.

What does Boston portend for coming events in San Diego, Orlando, or Las Vegas? Obviously, TDWI’s revival has only begun, and while the new leader’s stride inspires us to see a rising trend line, he still has some thinking ahead. Overall, though, the buzz is good, and the trend line looks promising. What’s more, the catering is always better at the next event, in San Diego.


  1. Dave Wells says:

    Boston was fun, energized, and exciting. You could feel the buzz in the air. And it’s only the beginning of more good stuff to come.

    I do believe that attendance precedes exhibitors and that it is a rising line. Only time will tell, but sometimes the story shapes the reality.

    I further believe that friendliness with vendors is a good thing. Why would we want unfriendly relationships? What we need to avoid is not vendor friendliness, but marketing masquerading as education. That’s a line that we will not cross.

    Dave Wells

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