Mining for Meaning

IT types must recognize usefulness in data when they see it.

Data mining can easily turn into a job security program for IT vendors. When a buyer has more money than brains, its in the interest of both the seller and the sucker—excuse me, I mean the customer—to promote the idea that one more budget increase, and a fistful of new correlations, will suddenly reveal a breakthrough in competitive insight.

A data mining contract can be a Christmas present to a sole-source IT provider. On Dec. 19, for example, NASA announced plans to award a noncompetitive contract to Optimal Engineering Solutions, to "validate the assumptions, data queries used to analyze the data collected, and analysis techniques" of key data assessments in the course of getting the space shuttle back into flight. Yes, some things actually are rocket science, but sometimes people wind up getting paid to look at an organizations watch and tell what time it is.

As we ended 2003, however, two stories crossed my desk within hours of each other: One announcing Time magazines choice of "The American Soldier" as its composite Person of the Year, the other describing growing use of IT tools—such as data mining software originally developed for police use—by U.S. troops in Iraq. An American white-collar worker may emerge from a brilliantly PowerPointed briefing—perhaps even aided by an inspired, skillful search for last-minute, wirelessly updated data—and say, "Well, we dodged a bullet that time." Some people, though, have to sit down at their PCs and come up with conclusions that make that statement literally true.

Those TV ads for Microsoft Office 2003, with office workers engaging in athlete-style celebrations, pale by comparison to the GI who figures out the location of a weapons cache by analyzing the patterns of attacks.

On the other hand, fantasy can play a useful role. Its becoming much more cool to be a technology type. The latest example is Ben Affleck in "Paycheck," which opened Christmas Day. The movie tells the story of a free-lance engineer who has to consent to a brain wipe as the ultimate nondisclosure agreement. Putting his character at the center of the story is quite a change from the previous perspectives of the big and small screens.

Tech types used to have strictly supporting roles. For decades, action heroes relied on techie Tontos who could crack a database or fix a recalcitrant warp drive. James Bond had "Q," Capt. Kirk had Mr. Scott, and Jim Phelps on "Mission: Impossible" had Barney Collier. Even in childrens cartoons, Felix the Cat had Poindexter, whose very name became a synonym for the technically adept person with no social skills.

And at the end of the day, it wasnt the guy with the soldering iron, the slide rule or even the tricorder who got the girl. The even rarer character of the smart girl sometimes got the guy, but only after taking off her glasses. Now, that perception of technology people is changing, and this can mean good things for the enterprise IT development team, which can seek out and take advantage of new awareness and respect for its contributions.

Being part of the team means recognizing usefulness in data when you see it. If youre sifting sand for the occasional coin, it helps to realize that the penny you just turned up is a 1909-S VDB Lincoln thats worth more than $1,000; alternatively, the sand through which youre digging might be the purest silicon ever found outside a laboratory, and to other people, that could be worth a lot. You have to know why youre looking, perhaps relying on software to find the unusual—but not to define the valuable.

This isnt really doing IT "under combat conditions," although I sometimes do use that phrase. It can help to focus attention on the mission, though, to act as if "incoming!" could mean mortar fire instead of just an angry e-mail.

Without that kind of focus, the IT type remains a sidekick with capability but not commitment. That perception paves the way for sending IT jobs overseas. Look instead for ways to deliver premium data to the firing line.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at