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Derek Steer of Mode Analytics: “Widen your context”

Widen your context. Try some jobs that are adjacent to what you typically do, because it will broaden your perspective and make you better at your own.  I don’t think he coined this, but my co-founder Josh Ferguson often reminds me that people tend to overestimate how complicated their own job is, and underestimate how complicated […]

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Widen your context. Try some jobs that are adjacent to what you typically do, because it will broaden your perspective and make you better at your own. 
 I don’t think he coined this, but my co-founder Josh Ferguson often reminds me that people tend to overestimate how complicated their own job is, and underestimate how complicated other people’s jobs are.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewingDerek Steer.

Derek Steer is the CEO and co-founder of Mode Analytics. Prior to co-founding Mode in 2013, Derek was an early member of Yammer’s Analytics team. There, he led sales and marketing analytics, drawing upon his experience on the monetization analytics team at Facebook and his background in antitrust economics. Derek’s passion is training the next generation of analysts. He is the author of SQL School and a mentor at Insight Data Science. Outside the office, you can find him biking up Mt. Tam, checking out the latest exhibit at SFMOMA, or stuffing his face at the local taqueria.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I had a really fantastic economics teacher in high school, who pushed me to think in terms of scarcity and trade-off. I loved it and it came naturally, so I majored in economics in college. After finishing school, my first job was at a consulting firm, doing demand analysis for anti-trust cases and mergers. That’s where I learned the technical skills required for data analysis. From there, I went for Facebook, which was in the process of building out its analytics and data science teams. In those days, there were no degree programs for data science, so they were just trying to find good analytical thinkers wherever they could. That was my first taste of using analytical skills to solve problems directly on behalf of a business.

I went from there to Yammer, which is where I met the other Co-founders of Mode. The problems they were trying to solve were very similar to those at other forward-looking technology companies — Google, LinkedIn, Zynga, and many others. All of them were hiring people who were good at solving complex problems and asking them to develop a deeper understanding of the business’ dynamics through data. And to support those people, all of them built tools themselves. My co-founders and I started Mode to fill that gap. We knew that everyone else wanted to work like Facebook, but wouldn’t be able to afford to build tools themselves.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Mode operates within the broader sphere of BI, but the way we approach it is fundamentally different. According to leading research firms like Gartner, the criteria for Analytics and Business Intelligence (ABI) is very focused on self-serve drag-and-drop BI tools, geared toward ease of use. Traditional business intelligence products allow the user to do very basic analysis — they can show what’s happening, but not why. Even at companies with huge investments in self-serve BI, people constantly ask the data team follow-up questions.

Those follow-up questions are really important. The more a company can answer, the better and faster their decisions will be. Making the data team more effective, and making the collaboration across data teams and their companies work flawlessly, is the unmet need that Mode has filled. We are empowering the technical problem solver, and in doing so, we have laid the foundation for the future corporate knowledge base.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure that this story is funny, but it is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned about business. When we founded Mode, we had a vision of building an open-source, collaborative community for analytics and data science, and we created our initial product around that vision. That was 2013, and GitHub was really taking off, so we weren’t the first to see the value of hosting an open source community.

It didn’t get any traction — partly because people didn’t want to get in trouble with their employers and partly because they just weren’t motivated to share. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized GitHub was successful because they made a very painful process with a large existing market (maintaining open source software) much easier. We were trying to invent a market, not tap into one, and that’s usually a recipe for failure.

In the process, we did get lucky and stumble upon a great market: people trying to earn data skills. We were early in creating our SQL tutorial, which has become one of the most popular tutorials on the Internet. This was long before you could find data-specific tutorials on Coursera and Udacity, but just in time for the data science hype train. Offering these tutorials helped us to gain visibility among data scientists, and has contributed significantly to our reputation in the market.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

There have been so many people who have impacted and empowered me along the way. The ones who have helped the most are those who have taken the time to provide me with a framework to understand how to solve a problem, rather than just giving me the answer or offering advice about what I should do.

One person who really stands out is Rick Hartwig of Enjoy the Work, who I worked with as a communications coach. He helped develop the skills I needed to transition from one-to-one communication to one-to-many as Mode great. In particular, he taught me to always consider two things: 1) Who is my audience, and 2) What do I want them to do, think or feel? This continues to be enormously helpful. Whenever I draft any written or verbal communications piece, I hear Rick’s voice in my head asking me those two questions.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Honestly, I struggle to come up with an example of an industry that should not be disrupted, because I believe so strongly in the need for making things better — otherwise, what are we doing with our time? Within the tech community, the goal of innovative disruption is, almost universally, to improve upon what already exists, so that we can have something better in the future.

That said, lots of small pockets of innovation probably yield a worse result than some cooperation. For example, Mode has put a lot of effort into supporting protocols for managing users — it’s important to make sure that the right people have access to the right data. There are prevailing standards for how companies do this, so we can make Mode support Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) and, in doing so, satisfy the requirements for lots of many of our customers at once, in a way that will appeal to them.

I’m sure someone will disrupt SAML someday, and I’m sure they will have good reason to do so. But the fact that it is stable is a major benefit not just to companies like Mode, but to all our customers.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. Widen your context. Try some jobs that are adjacent to what you typically do, because it will broaden your perspective and make you better at your own. 
     I don’t think he coined this, but my co-founder Josh Ferguson often reminds me that people tend to overestimate how complicated their own job is, and underestimate how complicated other people’s jobs are. At Yammer, I had to build internal tools for our salespeople, but had never closed a deal. As a result, I made some choices that likely weren’t best for the reps — choices I would make differently now that I’ve closed a few deals myself. It is no coincidence that many of the most successful people I know have broad experience.
  2. Connect with people. My former boss, Pete Fishman, used to say “use your feet.” A lot of people think of data scientists as being the geeks in the corner, but the truth is, in order to be good at this job, you need to continually learn from others. What my boss meant was that the fastest way to solve problems was to use my feet to walk across the office and ask an expert in whatever I was working on. Even in the midst of this pandemic, people are constantly available via Slack and other communications mediums, and they will be happy to help you learn — use them.
  3. Active listening is incredibly powerful. When I learned the skill of active listening, it completely changed the way I interact. There’s something very powerful about listening effectively, in that it helps others to unlock what’s inside their heads. It’s true in all interpersonal relationships, whether they are personal or work-related. Listening just makes the conversation better. I’m not saying I’m perfect at it by any means, but I am always working at being a better listener.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

When we first started, we published a lot of analytical content, through our SQL tutorial and our blog. From the very start, my co-founder, Benn Stancil, wrote some fantastic analytical pieces about pop culture that created a great impression and generated lots of goodwill for us, even before we had a product in the market. People began to associate Mode with great analysis, so when we finally did release a product, people in our market paid attention. The content spread through word of mouth, which is still one of our most powerful and productive channels for lead generation. That early reputation building is still paying dividends — we probably wouldn’t be where we are today without it.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I’m really excited to see the future that AI brings. Not because I think it’s a panacea — actually, quite the opposite. We’re a long way from AI solving complex problems that require lateral thinking or domain knowledge. As AI gets folded into more business processes, it’s going to highlight the value of (and need for) human reasoning.

Mode’s mission is to unlock and accelerate human reasoning. We know that AI is coming, but people are here to stay, and the companies that understand how to combine the two will be the most successful. I can’t say too much about it, but I am really excited to fulfill our vision of a human-centered platform for decision making.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

“The Hard Thing about Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. I’m a little ashamed because it feels like a safe or common answer, but it’s just so easy to digest and put into practice that I keep going back to it. One of the most valuable things I learned from it was to hire people for their strengths, as opposed to their lack of weaknesses. Don’t hire by committee — find someone who brings the maximum of what you are looking for to the job, as long as you can live with their shortcomings. I re-read that chapter every time I hire an exec.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve never heard a life lesson quote and felt like it spoke to me deeply, but if I had to pick one, I’d be something like “follow your dreams.” I’ve always been most successful when I’ve been motivated, and I find it really difficult to force motivation. Better to just listen to the motivation that naturally comes and take advantage of it. All of the best things I’ve ever done have been things I was incredibly excited about and pushed aside other priorities to accomplish.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The greatest potential to create good can be found at the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — basic physiological needs, like food, water, warmth and rest. The rough conditions here in the U.S. pale in comparison with many parts of the world. So, if I were to start a movement, I’d probably start on another continent, where I could help the most people possible.

Having said that, I co-founded Mode with Benn and Josh because we are all passionate about helping organizations make better decisions. It’s less direct than providing food to people who need it, but it’s something we know a lot about — enough to change how the people on the front lines deliver that food. There are organizations using Mode to help fight COVID, to bring internet to schools, and many other worthy causes. For those out there who aren’t sure how to make the most impact, you can always start by being great at something you know, and grow that to help others.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on Twitter and on Quora from time to time as well. And of course, you can always check out the Mode blog for updates on what’s happening with my company.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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