The Value of the Business Intelligence Generalist

Ann All
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10 Business Intelligence Pitfalls to Avoid in the New Decade

Avoid these common pitfalls associated with business intelligence 1.0.

Several months ago I sang the praises of IT generalists, saying they add value by helping fill skills gaps and also are better positioned to spot problems and offer possible solutions because they enjoy a high-level view of IT systems that their specialist colleagues do not.

Business intelligence generalists seem to be enjoying great success at Netflix, based on a blog post by TDWI Research Director Wayne Eckerson. As Eckerson writes, the company employs BI developers who build entire BI solutions on their own rather than as part of a larger team. These folks are called "spanners," since they span the entire spectrum of BI tasks, from gathering requirements to sourcing, profiling, and modeling data to ETL and report development to metadata management and Q&A testing.


The chief advantages of this approach:

  • A single spanner works more quickly than a team since he/she doesn't spend time waiting for hand-offs of work from team members or attending development meetings.
  • Spanners also work more effectively, says Eric Colson, who heads up Netflix's BI team, because they are not biased toward any one layer of the BI stack. (This is where that high-level view comes in handy.)
  • Since spanners work from their own requirements documents, it's easier for them to make course corrections as they go along and also to discover previously unforeseen solutions.
  • Spanners are generally happier in their jobs because they are highly autonomous.
  • Spanners are highly accountable for their work.


And some possible pitfalls:

  • Some BI developers just don't have the necessary skills or interest.
  • It's tougher to recruit people with the right skills, and you'll probably end up paying them more.
  • Software license costs increase because each spanner needs a full license to each BI tool in your stack.


On the latter point, I can only imagine how tough recruitment can be, since Colson tells Eckerson spanners take on duties usually handled by business requirement analysts, project managers and a QA team.


Spanners should work under a unifying data model and BI platform and a set of common principles, such as "avoid putting logic in code" or "account ID is a fundamental unifier," cautions Colson. A reader named Stray_Cat Italy, who works under this model, says it's alsostill important to gain consensus from users. I imagine that might be a tough task for some spanners, after they've become accustomed to having such a high degree of control over development.

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