The Education of a Web Analyst

May 20th, 2017
There are really two streams that we can see these days coming out of Master’s programs. One is the marketing/product Analytics practitioner and the other is data science practitioners. At the initial levels we need to learn  both streams because it will not really be clear to a student where their capability or interests truly lie.
Based on this premise, I would like to suggest a few types of learning that web analyst in particular need to imbibe in the start of their careers.
Business Writing is factual journalism.

I have experienced a lot of analysts coming in with lots of capability with numbers but none with writing business stories. I also see many analysts who don’t know the first thing about how to use stats tests in real life situations. Did the pricing change lead to more leads? Are the results statistically significant?

Several online course providers offer creative writing, business writing or journal writing courses and I think they should be part of any Analysts formative education.
Knowledge of the tools.
 
We need to provide hands-on understanding of the tools that are used in typical business analytics. I have seen a lot of spreadsheets(Excel wizardry can take you lots of places) being used.
There are some statistical packages like R(open sources and free, hence very useful), SPSS and SAS that the analyst should be familiar with. More importantly, they need to be able to live and breathe statistics because the core fundamentals are always useful. Some elements of data mining and clustering should also be learnt as needed or as a person’s curiosity demands it.
These days, data visualization done correctly, explains half the analysis by itself. So, some experience in Tableau, Microstrategy, Qlikview is very important in explaining the information clearly.
At the end, it is all code.
Whatever the environment of development in an organization, the analyst should have a fair idea about it since all the measurement hooks are mostly encoded. Even the ubiquitous Google Analytics is run based on a javascript pixel. A solid grounding in Python, PHP would be important so we need some intermediate technical courses to get a well-rounded technical perspective.
Understand the data river as it flows downstream
Although, large amounts of data exists, we don’t get training in information architecture.. How do you get unstructured data to structured data, to BI tools and to reports and metrics is something that needs to be taught too. The analyst can use some BI tools and data warehouse development and maintenance skills. As it become more common to build self-service reporting systems, we need to be able to teach some rudiments of this skill to our budding analysts.
Project Management
Most Analysts end up in large project teams as core members in-charge of numbers. So we need to teach them principles of project management and the current techniques like Agile and kanban. This will help them build their managerial skills too.
Design and Analytics
A good analyst will have a strong creative streak, not just have a good head for numbers. We need to be able to look the system that we are trying to improve (or make profitable) from a design perspective too.
In fact, a lot of web analytics is done just to measure and influence the design and flow of the information on the site for the customer. Conversely, not many designers are just going to rely on their intuition while building a site. They would ask the analyst about measuring the success of a particular design. So, a couple of introductory courses on creative design are essential for the education of an analyst.
I hope these make sense dear reader. Please let me know your thoughts.

In praise of inefficiency

April 2nd, 2017

Setting sun

What price Efficiency?

The glory of the dying sun on the plains of India stirred interesting thoughts. Why is so showy? Why are we so gaudy about everything? Is the beauty of the universe reliant on the waste of energy?

These are heavy thoughts and perhaps belong to the philosophers, poets and mystics among us. On to more prosaic matters, a few weeks ago, I read an article on how Amazon had figured out a no-friction way to make shoppers get what they want. Just this week, the Economist brings in an interesting article on why too much efficiency can be a bad thing. The one-click ordering from Amazon.com that makes me buy too many books or the no-click Pizza buying from Domino’s through it’s app comes to mind.

Similarly, in SAAS products, we try to make the funnel narrower and thinner all the time to induce the customer to buy right away. What we forget many times is that subscription products are longer terms commitments and do require some thinking before the “Buy” button gets clicked. It may help to introduce some inefficiency the process by required watching of a training video or some demos from experienced sales folks before we allow users to swipe their cards. “But we will lose a lot of orders”, you might say. Well, perhaps. Have you considered the amount of churn you already generate by allowing anyone to just swipe their card and then cancel a few days later. I bet, that impacts more of your bottom-line than people taking their time ordering pricey services online.

The Volga Vikings

Talking of inefficiencies, let’s talk of these tribes of marauding Vikings who traded and raided all over Europe, sometimes to everyone’s credit and at other times, just causing mayhem all around. It is conjectured that these people came to so ferocious because a cataclysm(a meteor or comet) hit Northern Europe in the middle of the 6th century. It caused lots of hardship and caused the people to spill out looking for food and provisions for their families. Couldn’t they just trade, one may ask?

Two excuses come to mind. One, there were already established trade networks in Northern Europe and the raiding of Monasteries was to break their stranglehold on these networks. Two, there was lots more loot to be had when you could use physical threats with those you traded, Imperial East India Companies of later years come to mind.

They had mastered the sail and some raided on the coasts of Europe to get loot and other went the route of the Volga and traded with Byzantium and Baghdad. They brought in slaves and furs and traded them for gold, silver and spices.

Volga Trade Routes

Some of these groups of Vikings settled lands like Iceland, parts of Greenland and some early settlements can be seen in the coastal United States and Canada. The trade route linked to the famous silk route and so flourished until the Abbasid Caliphate had control, petering out in the 12th century.

To learn some more of their achievements, please listen to this lovely podcast and read about them in these lovely books.

 

 

 

Interesting reads for the week of 27th March 2017

March 26th, 2017

Gathering quantitative and qualitative data for sales leads.

We have been struggling to divine what customers tell us via their click trails for the last 2 decades. For the last few years we have the capability to gather data in real time. That doesn’t mean it can be put to proper use. After all, what hits the bottom-line matters most. Real-time engagement and segmentation on where the visitor lands on your site and making them into leads right there is a challenge that Segment is trying to solve. This isn’t the only path but it is a good idea nevertheless.

While bed sheet sales may seem to be a bit of a stretch to move using data but Brooklinen seems to have a good strategy figured out. This site focused on collecting all the quantitative and qualitative feedback, used some good intuition and tested it. They had a great thought in trying to satisfy men who are often under-served customers of bed linen. Also, they carry a ruthlessly narrow inventory based on all that customers demand and don’t go for any frills. Do read this lovely piece on their efforts

 

Les Miserables and how it rings true in every era.

It is a horrible read. Torrid at times, uplifting and cautiously optimistic rarely; and truly sad most of the way. However, Victor Hugo was probably on the money when he said

“AS LONG as there are ignorance and poverty on Earth,” wrote Victor Hugo in his preface to “Les Misérables”, “books such as this one may not be useless.”

The Economist put together a really nice piece on it. Do read it.

The Sasquatch fights, tooth and nail and hide!

Now for some contentious reads. The book by Mr. Meldrum is written for people who operate from a premise that there could be a hominid still living in the boreal forest of North America. He has some personal experience as an encounter with a beast like that while hiking in a very remote area. There is lots of evidence presented, presuming that all sightings are NOT hoaxes.

Mr. Nash operates entirely on the other side. His starting premise is that human cognition fails entirely when they encounter something strange and no eyewitnesses can be trusted at all. He is not really being very cynical. He has lots of data to back up his premise. However, it is impossible to deny certain eye-witness accounts, not only of Sasquatches but also other “monsters”. Just labeling them as cultural myths and not be treated as real beings. Please do read the following books. They are very interesting and quite cheap too!

 

 

Reading list for the midst of March

March 19th, 2017

As always, I am going to try to foist only three thoughts on you this week.

Horrors of War

The First World War was one which killed enormous amounts of people. The numbers were truly staggering for the time.  There  were 17 million dead and 20 million wounded!!! All for European powers to prove who could rule over more people. It ended the most prosperous era the western world had seen in a long time and also ended the dominance of the British Empire forever.

The monarchies of Europe felt the brunt of the war and were clearly responsible for starting it. The workers International could not prevent it even by appealing to worker solidarity. The armies of Europe were downright eager for it. The following three books talk very eloquently of each and the part they inadvertently played in each other’s roles; both in fomenting and then exacerbating the conflict.

 

The Ambassador car

AmbassadorCan anyone who lived in India through the 1980’s ever forget this classic car? Even now, Kolkata taxis are all Ambassadors. Why, I asked a taxi driver. He responded ” They are the cheapest to maintain and we can manufacture spare parts locally.

This fabulous article by the sagely Mr. Thomas conveys the mystique and the genuine love for this model that we all possess. He is a Master of branding and he should know.

 

Smoothing the path through a customer’s task flow

All product makers struggle with making it easier for customers to use said products. Stumbling onto a product and not realizing what you can do with it, is probably the most probable cause for abandonment. No amount of hard selling or discounts will effectively make the customer loyal to your product. Well, Amazon understands this very well as this article in the First Round shows us.

Do you want me to cover any specific topics or have questions that are creating a slow burn in your brain? Do write to me and I will recommend the palliative, balmy books or studies to deal with them.

Holi Week Reads

March 12th, 2017

Holi

This week is Holi, the festival of colors in India. This festival is mainly celebrated to mark the coming of spring. Lots of folk gather around after the winter harvest and sprinkle colored water, throw gulal(made out of flour and psychedelic colored dyes). Let’s take a look at the three interesting articles/videos that came my way this week.

Cooked by Micheal Pollan.

This is a great show in four parts: Fire,Water,Air and Earth. It is really fascinating for old lovers of Mr. Pollan’s books.

 

The Real American Pie: No, it is not Apple Pie. It is mince pie instead. The author explores ways in which this pie became famous and how it lost it’s mojo over time.

Cover of the December 17 Reader; click image to enlarge
Enough about my fascination with food. Let’s get real and talk of one of the most dangerous lads in history: Genghis Khan. I first read about him in Mr. Weatherford’s seminal work, Genghis Khan and the making of a Modern World.

Over time, several other writers have come forward and tried to complete, compare and contrast the picture of this ruler of the largest empire known to man. In this article, the BBC History magazine explores the various facets of this fascinating ruler.

Until next week then! Have a good week and remember to play some Holi with friends and not get too drunk on Bhang. Yes, it is indisputably legal in India, during Holi, at least.

The Haj Subsidy: Another side to this tale

March 11th, 2017

A history of the subsidy

The Haj subsidy is the amount of money subsidized by the Government of India to every pilgrim for covering the expenses of air travel from the port of embarkation in India to Jeddah or Medina in Saudi Arabia. The pilgrim is supposed to pay for the other costs incurred by the Haj committee which are substantial in themselves. However, this subsidy has become a bone of contention in recent times.

The practice of subsidizing Hajis or any kind of pilgrim is very old in India and every kingdom large or small since antiquity has done it. In modern times, the British Empire, stepping into the shoes of the Moghul Empire found that the state and local worthies were supposed to provide sustenance and transport to Hajis travelling to Mecca. They did this by contracting dhows and ships from local harbors and charging Hajis for tickets. Very soon, they discovered, much to their chagrin, that many Hajis, not having the means to by a two-way ticket, would settle down in the Hejaz (the area where Haj is performed) and become indigents on the local Ottoman officials. This marked a significant loss of prestige with the other imperial powers too so it had to be addressed.

This prompted the charging of two-way tickets right from Bombay or Karachi. However, to the relief of the Muflis (indigent) many Muslim worthies stepped in, and under the aegis of Europeans, provided some relief to the pilgrims, in effect subsidizing the trip. In 1932, under pressure from the nationalist movement, the British created the Port Haj Committees Act, to help pilgrims make the trip to Hejaz. This subsidy was maintained by various Haj committees operating out of Bombay and Calcutta.

Upon the departure of the British and the dismemberment of the country, the Haj committees were left bereft, without funds or organization. Here is where the government of India stepped in and out of the generosity that was quite typical of Jawaharlal and his ilk, it was decided to formally provide a subsidy for Hajis so that they could proceed for pilgrimage with more ease and less strain on their purse.

Thus was born the Haj Committee Act of 1959. The express purpose of which was to help the pilgrims with more logistic and material assistance. I cannot help but be amused by the fact that the act does not provide specifics of any material help. Article 9.1(c) of the act insouciantly states that the committee shall “provide relief to indigent pilgrims”. Article 9.1(h) is even more vague: “the committee shall look after the general welfare of the pilgrims”. How much and who shall provide the monies?

Why the government of India, of course (specifically stated in Article 9.2)! No ambiguities there! No doubt there were much fewer Hajis then and the expense was not considerable but still, the generosity of thought still leaves one feeling warm and gooey inside.

Among many Muslims, it is recognized, with sincere affection for their country, that the Haj is organized very well in comparison to anything else that the “sarkar” does. The astonishing efficiency of documentation; the deeply attentive bespectacled “babus”; the medical care at various places in the Haramain(sanctuaries); even the provision of Aab-e-ZamZam at the 19 ports of disembarkation is amazing to be seen. Go once if you can, and see for yourself the amazing scenes at the “Haj terminals” (Cargo Terminals that are transformed during Haj) when Hajis are going or returning from the pilgrimage. They literally turn into fairgrounds with everyone hugging each other; the air perfumed with the scent of garlands; and whiffs of Biryani and other delicacies thrown in the mix.

 

The cost of it all

The problems started to surface when air travel became the norm and, vague as the terms of subsidy were, they were also covered by the tax payer of India. As an example, the airfare has ballooned in recent years, going from ₹17,000 in 1994 to ₹54,800 in 2011. In that year, every pilgrim was still being charged ₹17,000 for airfare. The total price of Haj that year was ₹1,25,000 per pilgrim. When questioned later, the counsel for the government even expressed embarrassment at asking the Hajis to pony up the extra money, Bless him!

There are other costs that the state incurs during Haj. The Haj Committee oversees preparation of documents and visas for Haj and provides medical and logistics care during the pilgrimage. It is estimated that the government spends ₹73,000 per pilgrim (this includes the previously stated transportation cost)! That is quite significant and shows a concern for Muslims that is very touching and kind.

However, it does present a significant strain on the exchequer. In the year 1994, the number of pilgrims going for Hajj from India was as low as 21,035; in 2011, the number of pilgrims increased to 125,000. As a result, the total Hajj subsidy that was Rs.10.51 crores in the year 1994 swelled up to Rs.685 crores in the year 2011.

The rise of the cynics

It is sad that in this day and age, the multi-religious construct of India is under severe attack from various right-wing elements, both from within Muslims and from among the Saffron brigades.

The former completely rejects the notion that the subsidy is in anyway an act of generosity. They point out that the government is really subsidizing the national carrier (Air India) in the guise of doing Muslims a service. They also contend that they don’t need the subsidy and the private agents will do a cheaper, better job anyway. Besides, the state does provide subsidies for Hindu pilgrims in various areas so the Haj subsidy is being unfairly picked on too.

The latter, no doubt stung by the fact that the government does not spend anywhere near this kind of money for any individual Hindu pilgrimage points to this as Muslim appeasement in a Hindu land. They are correct to point out the costs but suffer from serious inferiority complexes about their own legitimacy in a multi-religious land and cannot abide by anyone getting any perceived preference over our Hindu brethren. They quite forget that empires and kings of all stripes over several millennia have provided for pilgrims (religion no bar) out of their own and public exchequer. It is considered an act of great piety among us, especially Hindus.

So, this vicious fight continues with no mercy or genuine affection shown from any side of the argument. Some contend that as a secular country, India is not supposed to provide any religious subsidy. However, that is not correct. We are not a secular state in the Western sense (opposed to religion or religious expression in the public space) but a multi-religious state. We bow before all deities, and so it is not out of character if the state behaves in the same way.  If anything, subsidies for religious pilgrims and accommodation for them should be increased. It will go some way in promoting religious comity and make us appreciate our millennia old culture even more. But who will listen in this age of cynicism and lack of trust to this line of argument.

Begone thou beggar full of faith!

Even the Supreme Court did not. The Hon. Justices of the court ruled in 2012 that the government shall cease to provide this subsidy within ten years, or by 2022. The court used the Holy Quran in its ruling pointing out that it is the duty of every Muslim to provide for the Haj himself/herself. They cited a commentary of the Surah Al-e-Imraan, verse 97. While the verse is quite open, the commentary that the Hon. Court cites is quite unequivocal. This clearly is at the behest of some Muslims to whom it is anathema to owe their Hindu brethren anything, much less such a central tenet of their faith as the Haj.

Where does this leave the common Indian Muslim, one who makes enough to save for a one-way trip to Haj? What of his longing to visit Madinat-un-Nabi (City of the Prophet), whether it is “farz” (obligatory) or not? You see, any pilgrimage is not only about rituals and the mindless following of them. Anyone who has stood at the plains of Arafat knows that it is not the obligation that makes him full of faith, it is a deep-seated conviction; a perception that the Divine is closer. I guess now, with the pride of Muslims and Hindus assuaged, the Muflis(indigent) Haji is left out and will think….

 

Muhabbat karne waale kam na honge,

Teri mehfil main lekin hum na honge

There will be many lovers at thy door beloved,

Alas! I shall not be of those fortunate ones

 

 

 

The March Madness starts

March 5th, 2017

The first stirrings of spring and rather than bunnies going crazy, this is the good stuff we are looking at this week.

 

An Amazon employee inadvertently took down part of the internet

It transpired that the laddie(has got be a lad, thinking woolly thoughts), working on an issue accidentally switched off more computer servers than intended at 9:37 a.m. Seattle time, resulting in errors that cascaded through the company’s S3 service, Amazon said in a statement Thursday. S3 is used to house data, manage apps and software downloads by nearly 150,000 sites, including ESPN.com and aol.com, according to SimilarTech.com. [More]

For all those of us in need for a little buck me up this week, take a look at these nice TED talks.

7 TED Talks That Will Inspire You to Succeed

Everyone wants to succeed, but not everyone knows how to succeed.

There are many things that will help us go the distance, but few are as empowering and inspiring as a TED Talk.

Listening to a TED Talk is a great way to gain information, discover new sources of innovation, and jump-start your life toward success.

Here are some that are especially powerful with wonderful takeaways. [More]

The MVP is dead. Long live the RAT.

There is a flaw at the heart of the term Minimum Viable Product: it’s not a product. It’s a way of testing whether you’ve found a problem worth solving. A way to reduce risk and quickly test your biggest assumption. Instead of building an MVP identify your Riskiest Assumption and Test it. Replacing your MVP with a RAT will save you a lot of pain.[More]

 

Some nice books for the week:

Given how much the Kohinoor is talked about, it is surprising that it has taken so long for the history of the gem to be written. That, however, may have been for the best, as the delay has led to Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – a beautifully written, engrossing story about the undesirable fate of conquerors entranced by a small, lustrous ancient stone.

The authors go all the way to Tasmania to experience the thylacine or lack thereof in the beautiful wilds of this island. The challenges to wildlife and the human experience around the very unique creatures, like the Tasmanian Devil is delightfully explained in this book.

 

Well! I bought this one because Steve Bannon was reading it right after the election. Before going off on a rant, please do read it because it is written by a journalist who really deeply cares about the Vietnam War and the danger of an over exuberant and too proactive presidency taking us down the path to ruin. The book is really a list of the character sketches of all the people involved and literally reads like a greek tragedy. It was almost inevitable if you put all these bright people in one heady room.

 

Three Twitter learning points.

February 12th, 2017

Three quick learning points from Twitter over the last month

  • Always follow back people who follow you.
    • if someone follows you, it is only decent to check out their twitter feed and follow them back if your interests match.
    • Re-tweet their pinned tweet or another prominent tweet that you read and liked. Yes, you need to make that effort. It will enrich your feed too.
    • Check out their followers and follow them too. This is not a contest on who has more followers but more an opportunity for you touch base with thought leaders in your domain.
  • Make sure you put an effort towards providing good content to your followers.
    • Everyday, I am devoting time to my mailing lists and emails to make sure that I can recommend some good reads to my followers.
    • Post images and constantly change the content of your pinned tweet. It garners more attention in Twitter world.
    • Without realizing it, you are running a daily newspaper. You don’t need to get frazzled but 4 to 5 good posts a day will keep your followers engaged.
    • This will show in re-tweets and replies and likes. I get on average 1, 1 and 3 respectively.
  • This is a great channel to build relationships.
    • You will be surprised how many people will write you directly and offer to help. Take them up on the offer and offer your own help. Do not talk money. We all know the difference between favors and paid work.
    • When re-tweeting, please try to mention your own take on the thread or link. It will help other in your list make sense of what is being talked about.

I hear a lot of conversation about monetizing social media channels and earning millions of dollars a month. Well, of course no one minds earning that kind of money. However, like everything else, this is an activity that requires a lot of effort. Take an hour or two a day to do this well.

My amazing experience with Twitter traffic started on Jan 20st, 2017 when my following suddenly rose  from 550 to 650 within a day. I was delighted but puzzled. I still am. My handle @ateeqhmad has been around for 7 years with barely anyone listening and then suddenly this jump.

twitter followers

 

 

 

It didn’t stop there either. By Feb 1st, 2017 , my followers were up beyond the 1,000 mark and are still slowly climbing everyday.  I had some great interactions with people; absorbed a lot of good ideas and learnt that this is a wonderful tool to interact with others.

There are several good Social Media tools out there. Use them if you have $20 a month to spare. However, I would advise against too much automation. It takes away from the spontaneity of life.

Most importantly, have fun!

Three fabulous travel writers

July 16th, 2016

Today, I will give you three authors who have written really great books on travel. These authors all have a common approach. They don’t judge;they include lots of anecdotes and personal interactions with locals; they use dollops of humor very judiciously.

Paul Theroux

One of the originals in travel writing. Very few people have invested so much effort in knowing and empathizing with people and places they have visited. Two recommendations for you.

Micheal Palin

Monty Python maybe his more famous work but his travelogues are some of the best in recent times. Rich in wry humor, very english! i would recommend that you listen to him in the following books.

Bill Bryson

An American who writes like an Englishman. Great humor! Some of his books read really well as Audio books while you are traveling. I will give you a couple that you will really enjoy.




Commute listening : July 12th 2016

July 13th, 2016

Author of the day: Eric Weiner

There are a couple of books by this wonderful, quirky and humorous writer.

1. The Geography of Bliss

I read the above about 10 years ago and it is all about where are people happiest in the world. Yes, money is involved with happiness but interestingly boredom plays a part too. A must read because it costs you next to nothing in the US.


2. The Geography of Genius

I am listening to the Audible version during my commute and it is hilarious. I do get strange looks by people thinking I am a bit of a crank. Can’t fault them really.

Podcast of the day

Nice Podcast on Simple Rules to run your business operation. It is really hard to make an entire business run on simple rules but the author makes a nice pitch for it. Buy this book from Amazon.