1 community and 3000 suns with Ren Valera

Loris Marini - Podcast Host Discovering Data

Discovering data only makes sense if it stimulates a conversation, and it's hard to have a conversation when you broadcasting. How do we make it more interactive?

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Why this episode

My guest today is my friend Ren Valera. We talk about what makes a community useful, the role of diversity and inclusion, and why a lot of the ideas we discuss in this podcast can only be implemented with the help of vibrant and intimate community! My favourite quote from Ren:

"Non-technical people who are curious should be able to come in and interact freely and openly, without feeling left out." ren Valera

To turn words into action we are kicking off a series of weekly LIVE events.

Find your tribe, unwind, and get ready for the weekend!

This week we are launching Discovering Data Listeners, a way to get together every week on Friday. From deep dives on recent episodes, to lessons learned in data management and daily challenges at work. This is a safe space to unwind and bounce ideas around and meet new folks.

We are kicking this off this week, you can check the time and get a zoom link by registering here.

Bring your fav drink and let's have a chat!

Keep Discovering Data 😃 - Loris

Best quotes from Ren

Non-technical people look at data science as like, oh, I don't want to go near that. I don't want to touch that because they think that they need to be smart enough or technical enough.
Non-technical people who are curious should be able to come in and interact freely and openly, without feeling left out
Imagine that you have like the seed in you that you water every day, but then you think like, why is it not growing? You need different waters, different suns...

What I learned

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Episode transcripts

Loris Marini: So today I'm having a conversation with Ren Valera. Ren has been following this journey with me pretty much since June last year. She's been helping me with the transcription and a few of the very time-consuming steps. And lately, we've been getting really excited about the idea of expanding the conversation around data, connecting with people more directly than just discussing a topic and sharing it with the world.

We want to go about it in two ways. Ultimately, this whole thing we're doing only makes sense if it stimulates a conversation. And it's very hard to have a conversation when you are in front of a microphone, recording, and broadcasting. So how do we make that transition from something that happens in a virtual room to something that it's more interactive?

I'm personally excited about the learning possibilities that something like this can have. I've been very systematically been exposed to different ideas over the last year and a half and I’ve learned so much. Part of that was immersing myself in these conversations: I met my guests and we brainstormed ideas. We talked about a book, I had to obviously read the book, but reading the book by itself wouldn't have had the same effect on me or my growth as the conversation had. Because when you are hosting an event, you're forced to come up with ideas, oftentimes just improvising. We don't script this as you probably realize, it is very spontaneous.

And I feel like for you as a listener, you've been deprived of that opportunity of engaging in spontaneous conversations, meeting new people, learning along the way, acquiring information, and reusing that information: creating mental models to think about the topic, how to use it in the day-to-day.

So it's a very long introduction to say that we're trying to brainstorm ways to fix this. And one of the ways would be to create a forum or a virtual space where we can get together, get to know each other, and learn from one another. That would be really, really cool.

There are a number of questions like “How do you do it?” There is big buzz these days around digital communities and how many communities fail because they're essentially places where people just sell you stuff. We discuss all of these aspects with Ren.

It's a very open conversation and I just had so much fun so I wanted to share it with you. Ultimately, what we want to do is accelerate our learning and feel less lonely. And I'm pretty sure that 99% of the problems we're all facing have been already faced and solved. So why reinvent the wheel? If this is making any sense to you or it's resonating with you, hop into the show notes, you'll find a link. It won't be live for long. So this is unfortunately only available for a short amount of time.

If what you're thinking right now is, “Well, that’s a cool idea. I wonder how many people are thinking the same way?”, then we have kind of a solution for you. It's the first step and the first informal event that Discovering Data organized. There is no recording. You don't need a microphone. We don't do prepping. It's very chill and easy-going. We’re just going to get to know each other and discover what other people are thinking, their vision for a Discovering Data community, and see if we can kick it off without even having a space yet.

Can we help each other without establishing a forum? Can we just hop on a call and let it be a valuable experience and not a waste of time? The link won't be live for long. So book your spot now and let’s get to know each other.

So what are we doing, Ren? Why are we here in the first place? What's this about?

Ren Valera: We're trying to figure out a lot of things, but most importantly, how we're going to build a community around Discovering Data and hopefully actually discover a purpose outside of that. A purpose that's bigger than what you put up as your mission and vision.

Loris Marini: What could be bigger and more meaningful than empowering people?

Ren Valera: I think, in a sense, community is belonging. It's finding connections outside of your initial circle: outside of your family, your friends, your coworkers. I think one big thing that Discovering Data communities can achieve is bringing that belongingness and that connection to people who are sheltered within their own community and workplace. If they work just as a consultant, on their own, between them and their clients, or between them and a data leader that they admire or aspire to be.

In its form, it’s called Discovering Data. So you don't only just discover the different data points within your organization, but also the different ways that data can affect you and the people within your industry, within your specific niche, or within a specific niche in a different part of the world.

Loris Marini: I couldn't agree more.

There's an element of curiosity that gets very little attention. We like to talk about technology a lot because it's an easy thing to talk about, everybody talks about technology. That’s all nice and good because we need the tech to do data.

Maybe I should start saying day-ta from now on. I'll mix it up. Da-ta, day-ta, da-ta. I got my little one to repeat it with me yesterday. She was so cute. You know, day-ta, da-ta, dati in Italian. So she was like, daddy, day-ta, da-ta. You got the gist? Yeah.

It's a digression, but what I really wanted to say is that technology is necessary to do data, but we need a lot more than that. Plus a lot of the tech is becoming automated. If it's not fully automated, a big part of it is automated. And so maybe 10 years ago, you were a software developer and you knew a particular language, and you could identify yourself with the technical abilities that you had and thought, “I am a software developer, I'm a data engineer. I know how to do real-time, super complicated stuff.” And that was good. But now that those things are becoming almost commoditized.

What else is there? What do we see when the tide goes low again? The rocks that emerge, what has been there, the obstacles, the communication, the human side of that, and how do we interpret it? How do we ask the right questions? How do we get curious a little bit longer so that we can get at the bottom of the problem?

There’s always a human being and the other side. So to me, I’d love to bring this new perspective into the world of data. And I'm sure there's a ton of people that are out there may be feeling like misfits, going like, “Yeah. I’ve always felt that way, but it sounds like there's no space where I can actually talk about the stuff. I'm feeling out of place and people give me the strange look.”

That's squishy stuff. We don't really understand. But let's make that space.

Ren Valera: I think non-technical people look at data science as like, “Oh, I don't want to go near that. I don't want to touch that,” because they think that they need to be smart enough, technical enough to play in the pool with the other data scientists. As much as you do need that technical side, it shouldn't be the case that there are people who are fearful of it. Because it is a tool to help you.

So hopefully that will also be a door that will be opened by the Discovering Data communities is that non-technical people who are curious about the space can come in and not feel like, “oh, I don't know if I can interact with these people because they're high-level thinkers. Can I ever try their boots on for size?” And that could be a future down the line. But I feel like that's also something that a community does is they open doors for people who weren't necessarily curious, but they've heard some echoes about the space or the industry.

Loris Marini: Let me check it out.

Ren Valera: Yeah, because again, it's not about exclusivity.

Loris Marini: No, not at all. And a lot of the spaces that exist, they pride themselves on being really niche and targeting a specific subset of data. And that's all nice. I mean, I think we need both. Yes. You need specialists. You need spaces where you can talk really, really techie stuff.

How many specialists are there and how many people need data to move and make decisions in this world? Everyone. But at the same time, it's important to keep a focus. I've joined communities where you go in and wonder, “Why am I here? How does it help me? What's in it for me?” And it's so broad, and ill-defined that you end up prioritizing other things in your life because in the end time is limited. We all have jobs to do.

I watched this video recently about the job to be done mindset whenever you build a product. And so this ties in with the concept of should a community be completely free? Should it be a paid community? We live in this era where paid communities are rising; there are people writing lots and lots of books about businesses and communities. It’s like, a community that is only paid can exist as long as it provides a very, very clear value proposition to a niche.

The opposite is an open community that's free can exist but someone will have to eventually curate the content and make it a nice, welcoming space. And that requires work so you can imagine having a completely free community. So this hybrid model is rising at the moment. And it's interesting. It's an experiment that we could do.

But it's the idea of welcoming everyone but creating subspaces within the community. Those that have a particular job to be done get together and they work on that, without distractions from the rest of the communities. I can remember when I was going to uni, you attend the lecture and there are a thousand people doing analysis one-on-one, but then you create groups of three or four people that need to get the exam or the assignment, it's only four or five, right?

It's not a thousand people in the room getting together, helping each other because it gets messy. What's your take? How do you see this intersection between business and communities? Can a community be purpose-driven while being a business?

Ren Valera: I think it can because as a person who has gone from casual communities, I wouldn't really say that their focus is more on business. It just so happens that the person or the people behind the community found out, “Hey, these people are willing to support us so that we can keep giving them the value that they got from us initially when they joined.”

It can be done so long as the people who put up the community don't get lost in, I don't know, the treasure trove of money and stuff trickling downstream to lift up the business, but then leaving the community behind. Because these people, the people who join your community, whether as free members or as paid members, they're the ones who lift your business up.

There will come a time that there will be that disconnect between you as the business owner and me as a member of the community where the gap is so far. If you just leave that space where you used to interact with the people who help you achieve the initial business objectives that you wanted out of the community, then they'll fall out. Sure you'll have new members come in, but I think it's not genuine anymore. They're just there because it's more of a transaction, “I paid because I wanted a course and I wanted like one-on-one coaching”, or whatever, and then that's it. And then they'll leave and then it won't be alive anymore. It won't be a living, breathing organic thing.

And that's one of the important things in building and sustaining a community is keeping it organic and people are very good at figuring out if something is meant for them or meant for them.

Loris Marini: Right. Yeah. Do I actually get value out of it? Or is it someone just trying to sell me something? Leveraging the network amplification effect. Yeah, I guess the hard part for a community manager or someone that creates a space, and it's something that I've always thought, is the problem of making the space relevant for most people. It's impossible to please everyone, obviously, but you want to start the thing from a position where whoever comes in can see clearly the value and they sort of immediately feel that they belong in the community.

How do you go from zero to something that attracts people in to the system that generally is designed to help them? That's one thought and that's the hard fight of building communities in general.

The other one is a reflection on what you just said about the genuine part and getting people to come back. I have examples in real life: the daycare community. I have a little one, two years old, we pay a fee. There's a job to be done: educating, entertaining, feeding, and nurturing a child. A lot happens outside of the space, outside of that transaction. There's knowing parents and exchanging contacts and becoming friends and then building circles of people that now exchange value. They give each other things like support and mental help when you need it.

Even just as simple as going out with your wife and asking them to look after the little one and doing the same for them. What we have in common is that we both have kids and we need to get work done. That's it. And yet I find myself meeting new friends and socializing. Obviously online is a bit different, but I suppose you could think of a community as a transaction that then becomes an opportunity to know someone and develop your own niches and your friends outside or inside or tangential, however it pleases you.

Ren Valera: Yeah. I agree. And to the point of your example of the daycare is it's that one place and then you blossom, I guess I don't really want to use the term branch out, but blossom, I think is better. Think of it like little fruits or like different flowers all over a tree where each fruit has its own qualities. It bore from the same root, which is Discovering Data. Let's say this niche or this group is made up of different people, but it still has the same core, which is data.

Thinking about it is exciting. That possibility of letting things grow on their own, besides what we begin. And we talked about this last Friday. When I told you that we can have people put in where they're from. That'll be good for people who are in the same regions. We thought about it in a methodical way, but we can think about it in a human way.

Stretching out our hands and being like, “Hey, meet this person or meet these groups of people that you have similarities with, maybe even differences with, but can still connect over like the same problem or the same solution even.”

Loris Marini: That really resonates with me. the feeling of being disconnected from the community. It's something that I felt a couple of times, particularly with technical communities.

What I wanted to share is really the feeling. It was a context where I couldn't walk away, I had to interact with this community for work. I had to do it. And it's just weird because you don't understand the jokes. You don't understand the slang. You don't have anything to contribute and very, very soon you feel way worse than if the community didn't exist in the first place.

Do you have an experience of something similar? What was it like for you? What can we do about it?

Ren Valera: Think of it like this: it’s a party. You were invited by a friend. You only know one person. So you come in and they're all sitting down and drinking, laughing. You glance around the room kind of awkwardly, trying to find someone to talk to, or if someone will talk to you. Who will introduce themselves to you or should you introduce yourself to them? Your friend has left you for some reason.

You’re just standing there thinking, “What do I do?” So you just stand there at the bar or at the table where they have all the drinks and then you make friends with whoever. I don't think that that's something that we can control, you know? And I feel like we will miss out on opportunities if we try to micromanage each member.

We can't control how people will respond coming into a community that already has core members that have their inside jokes, their own memes, or even language. But I guess what we can ensure is that there is a space for them to kind of awkwardly shuffle around until they find their footing, until they find the groove, until they've had a few drinks in them and be like, “Hey, that joke was really good.” And then everyone responds, “Yeah, isn't that joke really good?”

Loris Marini: Yeah. really good points. Definitely not micromanaging. It's weird. Sometimes I had that experience as well. I think I don't remember if it was in the real world or digital space, but it was really strange, feeling like, “What the hell is going on? People want to take me step-by-step. I don't want to follow. Just leave me alone. Let me browse. Let me enjoy my drink.”

Ren Valera: Yeah. It's like when you go into a store and then you feel so awkward. You’re not really in here to buy anything. You just want to browse, but there's that pressure.

Loris Marini: Exactly. At the same time, when you actually need help, you want to get help immediately. You don't want to wait around.

It's going to be a challenge for us. How do we strike that balance? We don't want to leave people completely unattended if they're stuck. We don't want to be pushy either. It should be a space, like a party is a great analogy. To just have something that happens normally, and some parties are awkward that you walk away. And that's okay. But we're trying to throw a nice party here.

Ren Valera: I guess in a professional setting, a soiree. You have people come in, introduce themselves.

Loris Marini: Ren, what's your why? Why are you excited about this project? What do you want to contribute?

Ren Valera: Being able to move beyond just you and me, because it is just a vacuum of you, me, and whichever guests we have on. As much as we all value our ideas, there are some points that we miss. So having that space whenever we release an episode and then we have people write their feedback on it. Some people will agree with the points. Some people will be like, “I don't think that you hit the mark there”. So it's either we use that feedback to improve, or to self-reflect and internalize and to learn. And really that is the purpose of any community.

Whether it’s building up your business or just having like-minded people providing you a sense of belonging, but also how do I put it more poetically? I kind of want to put it more poetically. So imagine that you have this seed in you that you water every day, but why is it not growing? Why are some parts wilting? So you'd go out and then you have different waters poured on you, different compost or something.

I'm not really very good with gardening, but I don't know different suns, I guess. There is one sun, but it's just, it's different. If you go to the mountains and experience the sun, it's different. If you go to the beach, your experience with the sun is different. Having that different sort of air.

Loris Marini: I love it.

Ren Valera: It lets you branch out, blossom, and have different qualities as a person. To mention the cliché, no, man is an island, which is true. We can't survive as just one person. No one will challenge our ideas. No one will affirm them, but anyone else is ready to take on that challenge of either affirming or arguing with you. But at the same time, it's what nurtures you, you can't have this journey without meeting people who have the same problem, who have a different problem that you have a solution for, or they have a solution for you.

So that's what's exciting to me is getting to see the world beyond Loris, and Ren, a bunch of guests.

Loris Marini: Well, I'm going to cheer to a thousand suns.

It's going to be really exciting. The two of us are already working on it. We have started the journey. I’d like to perhaps invite anyone that's been listening to us so far that you have an idea, reach out because it's so much more useful and more fun when we get contributions from the get-go.

And plus we want to walk our talk, right? We don't want to build a thing and then say, “Why don't you use it now?” We definitely want to build it together. It's a community after all, but we don't want to start from absolute zero either. Some people come in, see the space empty, they freak out. They're like, “this is pointless”, and they walk away. But if you're one of those that are curious and want to contribute and work with us, absolutely check out the links. We're going to put something either in the show notes or in the newsletter.

Reach out and we'll have a chat perhaps even trialing the community platform for the first time. And we get some ideas together.

Ren Valera: Yeah. There is something about being a part of something when it's in its early stages. It's clunky, but it's an endearing experience for the first time: seeing me and Loris bumble around like, “Oh, that wasn't supposed to be posted”, or something like that. Oops.

Loris Marini: Yeah, you weren't supposed to see that, but I guess you did.

Well, we need to find our feet. So the sooner we start, the better it's going to be. So I’m really excited.

Ren, I really want to thank you for having this chat with me and sharing it with the world. And, it's going to be an interesting 20, 22 for sure.

Ren Valera: Oh, yeah. I'm excited. There's just a lot to look forward to. It is still pretty early, but we're claiming it right now. We're already planting our roots and then just seeing how fast, how strong, how big we can grow.

Loris Marini: I just love that analogy of the suns. There's only one sun but by the side of the beach feels really different from the one in the mountain. It's so true, immersing yourself in a different environment and seeking different feedback, and just seeing things from different angles. The very same thing can be extremely eye-opening and insightful.

This is going to be another big point. I'm going to update the page now, “why this community?” Because you need different points of view.

Ren Valera: Yeah, imagine a beach and then imagine a mountain. Imagine you're stuck in a car and the sun is in your eyes.

Loris Marini: Ren. Thank you so much. And, see you, uh, on the other side of this recording screen to plan the first steps.

Ren Valera: Thank you for the opportunity.

Loris Marini: All right. That was a lot of fun. And I hope you enjoyed it too. I think logistically we'll create two events, one in the US time zone and one in Europe. We are covering the entire globe here. So there are two links in the show notes. Pick the one that makes the most sense for you and both Ren and I can't wait to get to know you.

Get in touch and that's it for me. I'll see you in the next episode, which is going to be with Matt Davis about his new book, The Informed Company, really insightful conversation about how to think about data marts, data lakes, data warehouses and establish a framework to make sense of the cacophony of terms and terminology that we managed to create.

Until then stay safe. And thanks for listening.

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