Insights

RJMetrics VP Marketing Tristan Handy Talks Analytics and Storytelling

Tristan Handy is Vice President of Marketing for RJMetrics, a cloud-based data infrastructure and analytics platform providing tools to consolidate and analyze data available to every organization that does business online. With a degree in Finance from the UMD College Park and an MBA in entrepreneurship from UNC Chapel Hill, he spent five years ironing and tucking in button-down shirts as a management consultant and been on the run from the white-collar grind since 2009.

icrunchdata News talks to business leaders in the data and analytics space to learn about what they are currently focused on, explore their career path and talk about their lives outside the office. We recently caught up with Tristan to discuss the latest at RJMetrics, growing an empowered marketing team, the difficulty of data wrangling and more.

Tristan, we appreciate you speaking with us. Let’s begin...

How did you land your role at RJMetrics?

I’ve been at RJMetrics almost three years at this point. While that might not seem like a long time for some people, as a serial startup executive, that’s the second-longest job I’ve ever held! I met the RJMetrics founders when I became one of their early customers. In 2010, I ran analytics at Squarespace. We used RJMetrics to measure our customer count, churn rate and much more; I was very impressed with the product. I’ve kept in close touch ever since, and the timing just lined up when they were hiring for a marketing leader.

How has your role evolved in the past year?

As our company has grown, I’ve gotten farther away from the details of execution. We have 130 employees today, and the marketing department has 15. I was the first full-time marketing team member at RJMetrics, and have been used to working in the details for a long time, especially the details of our analytics.

It’s been an interesting process for me to take a step back from writing my own SQL statements and building my own dashboards to working with my team members to explore questions. At first it felt very uncomfortable; I felt like I couldn’t trust any number unless I had written the query myself. But as our team got into a rhythm with each other, we really started to spread analytics much more broadly. At this point, I can proudly say that everyone on our team uses analytics to inform the things they do. Our designer and web developer study our web analytics intensely. Our demand gen marketer watches the funnel.  And I’m able to instrument their processes so that reporting rolls up nicely.

This has made our team work far better together than when I was in charge of analytics. I believe that every team should run like this: data shouldn’t be disseminated from some central authority, it should be available to everyone. Data can and should be empowering to the individual, and that’s been an incredibly rewarding transition to watch.

What was a win for you in 2015?

I went out on a limb and hired a full-time data scientist on our marketing team in early 2015. It was an aggressive move; we could’ve absolutely hired a more junior analyst, but I wanted to double down on the impact of data on our team, and especially in our research.

RJMetrics has a long history of using research as content marketing. We have a huge dataset to study and have created some massive benchmark reports with it which then generate leads for our business. Since hiring our first data scientist, we’ve pushed further than ever before with this strategy: our most recent reporting, The State of Data Science, is over 4,000 words and contains 14 original figures. It was featured in the Wall Street Journal and many other publications and has been shared over 1,400 times as of this writing.

It was really fascinating putting together this report. It involved hundreds of hours of analysis and is based on public data from Linkedin profiles, an amazing dataset but one that has a ton of messiness simply because it’s all self-reported. We can to some really great conclusions, including the fact that the number of data scientists has doubled in the past four years to around 11,400 today. We can’t wait to dig deeper in a subsequent report!

Which of your skills do you find most relevant for success as VP Marketing?

I find it incredibly difficult to work for companies where I’m not within the target customer profile. I know people do this all the time, but I’m just not good at empathizing with people that have problems I don’t share.

I’ve been analyzing data for 17 years now. I lived through Excel 97, the era of Oracle, the rise of MySQL, and now the advent of the MPP database (my favorite big data technology). I love SQL and exploratory analytics. When I fantasize about my dream job, it’s not as a company leader, it’s as an analyst, solving hard problems with messy data.

It’s this analytical skillset that helps me most in my role. This skillset helps me understand our customers, their problems and how to talk to them. And since I was an RJMetrics customer, I can go even further to step into the shoes of our target customer. This makes my job so much easier than if I had come in cold.

What can you tell us about your newest product launch?

Just last month we released our second-ever product called RJMetrics Pipeline. Pipeline is a plug-and-play data infrastructure, allowing companies to integrate all of their data into a single data warehouse in minutes.

I’m incredibly excited about Pipeline and where it will take RJMetrics in 2016. Increasingly, analytics is moving towards composability—systems are designed to fit together like puzzle pieces and are selected by individual customers based on their unique needs. Pipeline is a world-class data infrastructure that companies can spin up in a matter of minutes and plug it into whatever analytics applications they want. I’m excited to continue to watch this product and the market for it evolve over the coming year; I think it’s an incredibly exciting time to be an analyst.

What’s something you wish more people understood about data?

Most people underestimate how hard data wrangling—consolidating, cleaning and transforming data—is. Monica Rogati put this well in The New York Times: “[Data wrangling is] something that is not appreciated by data civilians. At times, it feels like everything we do.”

Data consumers often spend far too long thinking about the specifics of the data visualization than the means with which it is acquired and made ready for analysis. Everyone loves looking at the brilliant new D3 visualization (and there’s real value there!), but that’s just not where most organizations are today. Most companies, including every one that I’ve ever worked for, have an incredibly hard time just making all of their data work together. This is why I’m so excited about Pipeline: we’ve built the infrastructure layer so that analysts can spend less time acting like data janitors and more time solving real problems.

What attracted you to working in analytics?

Why does anyone make any choices when they’re 18? I certainly didn’t have a grand plan :)

I stay in analytics today because—honestly—I think there are unbelievably interesting things going on here. I’m a huge fan of Nick Bostrom and am currently in the middle of reading his book Superintelligence. I couldn’t be more fascinated by the topic of machine intelligence and what it means for the future of humanity. I think all of us who work with big data have courtside seats to watch this grand narrative play out.

Describe the future of the data marketplace in one word.

Composable. No two data problems are the same, and the era of shoehorning all problems to fit monolithic “enterprise” data solutions are over. Data consumers have choices today, and they’re putting together the building blocks the way they want. This will only become truer over time.

What’s one downside of our digital, data-driven world?

This implies that there must be a downside! I totally understand, and sometimes fall victim to, the nostalgic thought that “things were better before …”. Life can absolutely feel more chaotic, interrupt-y, bite-sized and insubstantial today than it seemed in the past. But that is 100% in our control! Use ad blockers! Turn off your notifications! Use do not disturb! And take time out of your week and spend time in nature without your phone!

The increase in capability with our digital communication channels comes with challenges, but I believe each of us is far more in the driver’s seat than we realize. The advances in online education, information access and marketplaces leave more room for individual control over one’s economic destiny than ever, but it requires each of us to think like an entrepreneur and take control over our work and lives.

So if tomorrow someone asked you to start a business that is unrelated to data, what would you create?

I love thinking about this. I spend way too much time fantasizing about working in an analog career. Honestly, the only thing holding me back from doing it is that I’m too fascinated by the fact that everyone in tech is literally involved in inventing the future, and that’s just so freaking cool.

If I were to escape from pixels, I would probably start a company custom-building reclaimed wood products for soulless yuppie homes. I recently bought such a home, and I absolutely love it, but it didn’t have a lot of character when I first bought it. So I’ve slowly been adding character—I built a mahogany flowerbed on the back porch and a reclaimed wood banister on the first floor stairs.

Most people aren’t interested or don’t have the skills to do customizations like this, so they end up just buying everything from Ikea or West Elm, but then their houses all look identical. It’s like that scene from Fight Club. I think I would have a lot of fun helping with that, and I think they would pay real money for it :)

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I got my first startup job because one of my best friends is the founder of Squarespace, which he started across the hall from me when we were in college. Like all good human relationships, this one was based on video games: we have spent countless hours together over the past 15 years playing every Blizzard game they’ve released. It was amazing to watch Squarespace grow from an idea in a dorm room; I’m incredibly proud of what Anthony has been able to achieve.

Read any memorable books recently? What was your takeaway?

I loved Sapiens by Yuval Harari. It’s a book about how humanity’s dominance as a species has its roots in language and storytelling, and specifically in the concept of “intersubjective reality”. An intersubjective reality becomes real because everyone believes it. For instance, the mother of all intersubjective realities is the value of gold. Gold is not intrinsically valuable, it’s just that we’ve decided it’s valuable, and there are thousands of years of precedent for this. This precedent means that it is highly likely that humans will continue to believe this in the future, and therefore investing in gold is a safe store of value. Human rights are another extremely useful socially constructed truth.

Socially constructed truths turn out to have incredible value for society to function. Sometimes it’s much more important for everyone to believe the same thing than for everyone to have their own opinions—it’s actually societally beneficial to have consensus on important things. But it’s hard to get people to believe something because it’s useful, they want to believe something because it’s true. This is where storytelling becomes incredibly important—if you can tell a great story, you effectively create collective truth through the very belief in your story.

All that is very high-minded, and I’m definitely not doing Harari justice. I recommend reading the book to anyone; it made me think differently about society and about the work I do every day.

Is there anything new you’d like to try in the near future?

Ayahuasca. Just kidding, I’m not that ambitious. Right now, I find that life is less about trying brand new things and more about finding the right balance of things that I want to spend my time on. I’m currently not doing a good enough job finding time for running, meditating or writing.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

My single favorite thing to read on the internet is currently Azeem Azhar’s weekly roundup called “The Exponential View”. It focuses on data science, machine learning and the future. I spend every Sunday morning with my iPad, his email and two cups of coffee. Sign up here.

Thanks for the recommendation, Tristan, and for your time. We wish you the best in 2016.

Article published by Anna Hill
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