Looker CPO - the data nerds won. But if we don't empower users with data, we lose

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed November 12, 2019
It's always a bit awkward to know you have to ask an executive a question they can't answer. But that led us to a fruitful conversation about the triumph of data "nerds" - and the work that's unfinished. Understanding that bit is the key to Looker JOIN 2019.

Looker CPO Nick Caldwell at JOIN 2019

In my first piece on Looker JOIN 2019, Namely's Alexander Jia shares the new rules of modern BI projects, I bemoaned the dilemma of covering a show where the biggest piece of news (Google's acquisition of Looker) can't be officially discussed.

But you can't blame a dude for trying. So during my sit-down with Looker Chief Product Officer Nick Caldwell, I went for it: "How much are you allowed to talk about the Google piece of this?" Caldwell's frank (and expected) answer:

Not a whole lot to be honest.

However, Caldwell was able to re-iterate a few sentiments expressed onstage by Looker CEO Frank Bien. And in my modern BI piece, I shared my own speculations and concerns. And I asked the customers I interviewed about it, though obviously they had not been briefed any more than I had. That's one area where Looker excels: getting happy customers in front of media.

Understanding how customers use Looker is pretty important, when you consider that Looker is kind of like a BI swiss army knife. Namely, for example, uses Looker for a range of internal use cases, including but not limited to dashboarding, while also offering Looker analytics as an embedded service in their HR software. As I put it:

Is Looker a data platform? Is it a dashboarding solution? Is it a self-service BI tool? Does it enable embedded analytics? Can you put Looker's analytics in your own software offerings for clients? Is it an ecosystem of data apps? The answer: all of the above, potentially.

The plot thickens with the pending January 2020 release of Looker 7, the biggest news announcement of the conference. There is some interesting stuff in Looker 7, including new SDKs, a developer portal, expanded multi-cloud capabilities (perhaps surprising given the Google acquisition), and a slew of third party integrations and APIs (Slack, Dropbox, Box, etc).

The data nerds won - but the work isn't done

A tad confusing? No one better to break it down than Caldwell. Let's start with his keynote punch line:

The data nerds won.

When you think about it, the entire U.S. economy is something of a triumphant, extended epilogue to the mindless '80s absurdity of "Revenge of the Nerds," which turned out to be better at predicting the future than any AI tool. But those movie nerds are tech nerds in general. Now the "data nerds" have won also? As Caldwell said to me:

I remember when I was a kid, my dad used to say, "Nerds and eggheads will rule the world," and I used to be like, "Be quiet, Dad". But now if you look at the Fortune list, or if you look at the most impactful companies, in essence, they're really like data companies.

That's reflected in our day-to-day:

Even in your consumer life, I sit down and watch TV,; I'm getting recommendations from Netflix; I want to go buy something on Amazon. I'm getting those recommendations along with reviews. I order the product; I get real time updates about what street it's on as it makes its way to my house.

But "winning" comes with responsibility too:

When we talk about the data nerds winning, they're winning because of the impact that they're having. It's not that everyone has to become an analyst or be as infatuated with data as I am. But for data analysts, it's their responsibility to empower everyone with data. And I think that is happening. And that's what I mean when we say the data nerds have won.

The next challenge - making better decisions with data

Looker isn't the first analytics vendor to talk about democratizing data or empowering users. But they do have a distinct twist. Instead of pushing for all users to become data-driven, deciphering actions from dashboards, Looker executives tend to emphasize things like data-infused applications.

Not every user will embrace becoming an analyst. But if you put data to work for them, as you do with GPS directions on a cell phone, they'll welcome it. At least that's the Looker view - and that's why we heard so many developer and apps ecosystem announcements at this year's show.

I'm all for data-infused apps that are easy for business users. But my chip-on-the-shoulder with analytics vendors remains: why aren't we making better decisions? As I told Caldwell:

Where I think the data nerds still have work to do is in making a difference in decision making. The Looker platform solves a lot of problems, for example, with like things like a single source of truth. Obviously you can't do make better decisions until you get your data right.

But once you start getting access to that, now we should be making better decisions, and that should be showing up -  companies doing that should be excelling versus the norm. And we should be hearing all these stories. And we're starting to a little bit. But that's the challenge.

Caldwell's response? "I'm going to agree with everything you just said." But he does see a shift:

I think we're hitting an inflection point where that's possible. Five years ago, it was much more of an uphill battle. It was trying to convince people about cloud data, about the utility of insights.

And, I added: overcoming the skepticism from all the past clunky, legacy BI solutions that turned into an IT bogpit of delayed reporting requests. Caldwell:

I don't know exactly when it occurred, but sometime over the last couple of years, we are in a world where, like Frank said, "The gravity of data's moving to the cloud. The expansion of it is becoming amazing". So we're no longer seeing that skepticism. Something has shifted where it's like, "Oh yeah, this is important, and I want it now."

The problem is: to make better decisions, we need more than dashboarding. Caldwell:

Looker is coming at it is from a different angle. If you do have this governing layer that connects to all of your business data and it's not just connected, it's the infrastructure, then you can build your operational workflows on it.

Don't force users to become analysts - build them an app

Dashboards are just the beginning:

You can put that in a BI dashboard, right? Of course. A lot of people are going to do that, because you want to have the tools to explore and analyze data. But you've also unlocked this other hugely important thing, which is: you can now build applications for everybody - that help them solve specific use cases.

Yes, data nerds are right to evangelize data. But they got it wrong trying to convince everyone to embrace being an analyst. Caldwell:

In those cases, you can design applications so that people don't need to be analysts... Some of these older tools that sit on the desktop are not approachable for normal human beings in ways that help them immediately get work done. With Looker, you can build apps to solve specific problems that really can be used by everyone in an organization.

And that, in my view, is the core message of Looker JOIN 2019. So, if data apps are the answer, we need some examples. Caldwell pointed to the keynote itself, where Looker performed a real-time app demo, buying back the carbon emissions of the 1,300+ attendees in real-time:

Users shared their travel info live via the app. They quickly received notifications like the one Frank Bien shared:

Attendees, including the analysts/pundits, seemed impressed:

Caldwell explains:

This was all done through the Looker API. So it isn't just like, hey, real-time in the dashboard. It's a fully operationalized app, integrated with Twilio.

My take

It's not easy adequately explaining the variety of things Looker can do. Other than that, I have no beefs with the company. Their take on BI is the type of modern, open approach I believe customers need (and are starting to expect). Next year, I'd like to see more app-building examples from customers, but I suspect the announcements made this year will spark that.

My biggest question remains the role of Google, not always the gentlest of caretakers. I won't re-air the concerns I put in my last piece about the impact on Looker's culture (not the shared obsession with data, which both companies clearly have as a cultural bond, but the dedication to customer service, or "love" in Looker lingo). That doesn't take away from the compatibility between what Lookers does and the assets Google brings, particularly with AI/ML. Caldwell was obviously limited in what he could say, but he did say this:

We're doing some cool stuff with Google here hopefully in the future... Analytics and machine learning and AI are important because when we talk about unearthing insights in data, these are the tools that are increasingly allowing us to understand what the data means very quickly.

There's a lot of synergy between us and Google. I think we have not made any changes to our product roadmap as a result of this, but there's obvious synergies with respect to the technologies that they provide. They are the world leader when it comes to large scale data and large data analytics.

And that folks, is the best on the record quote I'm going to get this time around. Next year will be a different story.  I'll be particularly interested to see how the multi-cloud expansions core to Looker 7 fare under Google's tent. My personal speculation is the Looker team feels confident their multi-cloud compatibility will continue to grow. At any rate, these things are all about the follow through. Any "synergies" will be put to the test once the deal is closed.

Updated, Wed am November 13, with a number of small tweaks for readability.

Image credit - Photo of Nick Caldwell at Looker JOIN 2019 by Jon Reed.

Disclosure - Looker paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Looker JOIN 2019.