Building a data-informed company – interview with CEO of Feather Insurance. Part 3

The final part of the interview with Rob is about his personal data journey. We’ll talk about how hard is it to learn SQL and how Rob organized his learning process.

💡 In case you’re new to this series check out the first and the second parts of the interview with Rob, the CEO of Feather Insurance.

So far we’ve identified and discussed these steps on a journey to a data-informed company:

Step 0. Focus on getting real customers in. Measure their problems by talking to them.
Step 1. Start calculating simple metrics, querying your production database is already enough.
Step 2. Start building a data warehouse and collecting multiple data sources in one place. That way we can analyze the whole user journey.
Step 3. Make sure everyone in the company has access to data. #datatransparency

Interview

Anatoli: Let’s continue with our data journey. This time let’s look at it from your personal angle.

What were the biggest barriers or misconceptions about using SQL and working with data yourself?

Rob: First of all, the coding background. I remember I did a little coding when I was studying but I never realized how accessible it is.

It was 10 years ago and it seemed that programming languages require a lot of knowledge, you basically needed to know how they work.

With SQL it’s so easy, you immediately start getting cool results.

I mean you definitely need to know about tables and have a little bit of numbers background.

Probably, you need to be the “numbers” kind of a person, otherwise, it won’t work.

Anatoli: I totally feel you on this one.

I hear “Oh man, SQL is so hard” all the time. I feel like it’s coming from the fact that SQL is, technically, a programming language and it sounds scary.

It’s funny because the same people do spreadsheets, no matter their background. For example, when you need to know how much money you spent – in your finance sheet you select a column and call the SUM() function. That’s it. 💥

Somehow it’s hard to explain that SQL is exactly the same thing but expressed in words, I mean SQL keywords.

Rob: Yes, yes, it is the same, it’s a nice way of putting this.

It is snippets of code that immediately give you value. You don’t have to write “a program”, you’re writing a query.

It’s amazing how accessible and easy it is.

Anatoli: It also helps to think about SQL visually.

When I write queries I literally imagine all these tables attached to each other when you join them, or tables being sliced and then squashed together when you do aggregations.

Clearly, there’re many ways to look at SQL and how it works. The main thing – it’s simple (not easy though).

Rob: Oh, that’s another good point.

When you’re building a business you look at your company and realize that there’re a million ways to look at your company.

Every time you get a new view that is valuable it helps you understand your business deeper.

Having a data model of your business gives you one more angle that will help you make a decision.

I’ll give you an example. Recently we were hiring the first growth person and we realized that it can’t be just marketing or acquisition, it has to overlap with data, an understanding of company metrics. It made us think differently about who to hire.

Anatoli: Absolutely, I think even outside of marketing roles it’s important to know how to quantify your contribution or at least understand how that kind of data works.

I’m talking about understanding the signals in the data that help you see the full story of what you’re working on.

Otherwise, it might happen that your work becomes like running blindfolded through the forest. 🙈

Rob: Hahaha but most industries do run a blindfold race. If you take the blindfold off it could be really powerful.

Anatoli: What was the hardest thing on a journey to a data-informed company?

Rob: Making the time for it. ⏰

It’s rarely an immediate impact so thoughts like “I can do it tomorrow” often win. It’s never a burning thing.

I got lucky with my wife getting on a big consulting project and I had a bit more evening time than usual. I motivated myself to learn for me and for the company. Now I see the impact and I’m so happy I did that. 🚀

Do you know the Eisenhower matrix – urgent vs important?

Data is never urgent, but always super important.

I’m really glad we did it.

Anatoli: Oh man, that’s just beautiful how you put it.

What would be our sales pitch to a person who’s reading this blog post and thinking about starting “The Data Journey”™ in their company?

Rob: Make it a learning thing for yourself. 💡

Block a couple of hours a week in your calendar and go through SQL Habit.

The value of SQL Habit is not in SQL, but how it’s applied to your business.

It shows what steps you need to take next to go to the next level.

Anatoli: After this one, I think our interview will be 80% quotes hahaha, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Rob: An off-topic story.

There’s this guy, Gregor Hohpe, he’s an enterprise architect. He classifies companies by who does your IT report to (CIO).

If CIO reports to CFO you’re cutting costs all the time.

If the CIO reports to the CEO then it’s perfect.

The most successful insurance companies have CEOs who are former programmers, who deeply understand data. For example, at Feather one of the reasons is that Vincent (CTO) and I are equals, we both understand our data deeply.

I believe in 10 years all CEOs will be data-savvy.

Anatoli: Well, I must say that SQL Habit is highly inspired by my journey at Blinkist and working side-by-side with Holger, our CEO.

Holger is a-data-analyst-team himself, a big inspiration for me.

Rob: Oh, just remembered one more story.

We had a call with one of our partners and they were asking a lot of data questions.

Right in the call I opened our BI tool and segmented the right data for them, showing all the answers they were looking for. I believe in that moment our credibility as a company skyrocketed.

They told me that it takes weeks for other partners to build similar reports.

Anatoli: Aaaa I love that story! Isn’t it crazy that it takes literally seconds to get an answer with SQL?

I also experienced something similar once.

At work, we hired this Data Science consultant. He came to the office one day and I believe he wanted to get away with just a basic presentation about linear regression and other basic DS techniques.

I remember he was showing us examples of datasets with user features. Meanwhile, I was typing SQL and in a minute I got him a CSV file with the very same features for our users.

Everyone was laughing and it’s just so awesome that a theoretical talk suddenly became practical. With this real data we were able to see his Data Science things in action. The power of SQL in action. 💪

By the way, this is exactly why SQL Habit is called SQL Habit. It takes me no time to answer any questions with data – I’m not thinking about syntax, I’m just writing a query to express what I want to learn from the data.

SQL must be a habit, the same mental load as speaking English. One should focus on asking great questions, not typing queries.

Rob: It’s also about speed. All internet companies are running sprints and the faster you do them the more you learn.

If it takes you 2 weeks to answer a simple question you just can’t move as a company.

Anatoli: Oh man, we’re talking now and there’s so much energy, we’re clearly so passionate about these topics and there’s like a fire in the room right now.

I wish the readers of our interview could experience this, it’ll be so motivating. Rob, I think we should record a podcast, the “Data Journey podcast” haha. 😆

One thing I wanted to mention is the mindset when working with data.

I don’t feel like I’m working, I feel like I’m a detective or I play an escape-the-room game every day at Blinkist – I just need to ask questions and find answers. It’s a game I play that gives me a lot of motivation.

Let’s end with an advice for those who want to build a data-informed culture at their company.

Rob: I’ll speak from myself to myself.

Find a partner that’s crazy about data and they’ll suck you into it. If your partner is not excited – it won’t work. If they’re – they’ll show it to the rest of the company, it has to be in a company’s DNA.

Anatoli: Oh I love it, it must be in a company’s DNA for sure.

That’s also important to mention that we’re not talking about being data-driven. Data-driven sounds like machines decide our actions.

Data-informed means the data just helps take an action, not decides it. Especially if it’ll hurt user experience.

Let’s end with my favorite (original haha) quote:

Data is always #2 thing, #1 thing is empathy. ❤

Final thoughts

I remember we were so pumped with Rob after talking for 2h straight about data-informed and transparent companies.

That’s no surprise – we both are very passionate about the topic and experienced lots of insights firsthand. I hope we were able to share some of them, I think we can roughly summarize all 3 parts in this checklist:

Step 0. Focus on getting real customers in. Measure their problems by talking to them.
Step 1. Make some time every week to learn about data and SQL.
Step 2. Start calculating simple metrics, querying your production database is already enough.
Step 3. Start building a data warehouse and collecting multiple data sources in one place. That way we can analyze the whole user journey.
Step 4. Make sure everyone in the company has access to data. #datatransparency

👉 Make sure to check out open positions at Feather Insurance.

🔍 If you want to start building a data-informed company – check out SQL Habit for teams.

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