Why a Data Community is like a Music Scene

David Byrne, lead singer for the Talking Heads, has a new book out called How Music Works. Chapter 8 is entitled "How to Make a Scene", and it lists eight factors that he argues resulted in the NYC punk and new wave music scene of the 1970s and 1980s, centered around the iconic music club CBGB. Reading this made me (DC2 President Harlan Harris) think about Data Community DC and the way that we're part of an effort to build a coherent regional professional community around data/data science/analytics. (See also my previous blog post on a related topic.)

Here are Byrne's eight guidelines for creating a music scene, and why I want to argue that they apply to us as well.

  1. There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material. A professional community is, in part, about staying up to date and connected. DC2 believes that professional Meetup groups and blogs are two fantastic ways for a broad set of data/analytics professionals to share what they're working on and what they're excited about. Venue selection for Meetups is extremely important, for convenience, size, and atmosphere. 
  2. The artists should be allowed to play their own material. Professional communities are about everyone's unique skills and contributions, not about celebrating a particular tool or technology or point of view. This is particularly true for DC2's community, which includes a highly diverse set of people who use a highly diverse set of tools and approaches for working with data.
  3. Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too). Participating in a professional community should be valuable, at least a little bit. Our Meetup groups don't pay speakers (or organizers, for that matter), but the experience and visibility has payoff over time. People often ask me what they should do to further their career, and I always say that it's past time for resumes, and now time for portfolios. Build something public; talk about something public; have something to show to potential employers and collaborators. And maybe someone will buy you a beer at the bar after a presentation!
  4. There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene. I think this is one of the key reasons why terms like "data science" and "big data" have taken off. The existing professional communities (scenes) like statistics and machine learning have not adequately met the needs or reflected the actual work that practitioners in certain fields actually do. Of course, many attendees of our events identify with and get value from other scenes, just as David Byrne respected at least some pop music acts of the 1970s -- including disco.
  5. Rent must be low -- and it must stay low. The barrier to entry of a professional community, especially one that hopes to grow, should be low. This is reflected in many values of the data and tech communities broadly, and DC2 specifically, including free-to-attend Meetup events, use of open source software, and a very broad acceptance of different educational backgrounds.
  6. Bands must be paid fairly. Part of the goal of DC2 is to bring people together, both for peer support and for more mercenary goals such as recruiting and sales. To this end, we happily use sponsor funds to further our goals and make the events and other services better. Sponsors of Meetups or this blog gain a huge amount of value by having their name (as well as products and job openings) associated with large, successful events. And if attendees find out and land fantastic, lucrative jobs, everybody wins. We'd love to find even better ways of facilitating this sort of thing, although not to the exclusion or interference with educational goals. (Want to sponsor DC2 events? Have ideas on how to improve events and networking? Get in touch!)
  7. Social transparency must be encouraged. This is related to my earlier post, where I talked about the value for the community as a whole for everyone to understand what success and talent looks like, without hype or smoke or mirrors. At CBGB's, bands had no private dressing room and little space for props or lights. Performance were about the music, not the glamour. In the data community, the culture tends towards openness and legibility.
  8. It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary. Everyone in academia knows that the greatest value at a conference is in the side conversations over lunch or after poster sessions. At CBGB's, the time between and after sets was critical to connecting people and building that scene. DC2 events are about the content -- but they're also about meeting new people over sandwiches or empenadas before the event, or connecting over data drinks afterwards. To the extent that we can make these connections even easier, and make events be appealing even if the scheduled talk is not quite relevant to your day-to-day work, we'll have succeeded.