Nic Ryan is “The Data Guy”.
He doesn’t much like Wednesdays.
He lives on a beach in Queensland and travels around the world with his data.
In this podcast Nic and I talk about his journey from actuary via basketball to the surf. We bypass how dangerous kangaroos are while sharing insights on how to explain complex ideas, make a better presentation and the mysterious ways of finding work as a contractor or consultant.
Nic even quotes the Joker from Batman. It’s entertaining and you’ll learn at the same time. Who wouldn’t want to listen along?coro
Please contact me, Cindy Tonkin, if you’d like to build your analytics capability.
From basketballer to actuary
Cindy Tonkin: Hi there, this is Cindy Tonkin. I’m the consultant’s consultant. I help you build analytics capability. I work with data science teams helping them work even smarter, faster, and nicer. All of the soft skills they need. If you’re brilliant and you want to be even better, this is the podcast for you.
Cindy Tonkin: Nic Ryan. Nic Ryan. You know, Nic and I have just met, but we have lots of people in common. And so, Nic, maybe you should tell us who you are and what you do. Give us a-
Nic Ryan: Okay, starting at the beginning, like the Sound of Music, a very good place to start, right? I grew up in the central coast, New South Wales, played a lot of basketball. Wanted to play basketball overseas, wasn’t tall enough or good enough, mainly not good enough. But was fairly good at maths. And so, I ended up getting scholarship to do actuarial studies at the University of New South Wales.
Cindy Tonkin: Because basketball and actuarial studies are just, they’re twinned, aren’t they?
Nic Ryan: Well, I tell the guys here it’s like, “You need to have a backup plan. You need something more than a fish and chip shop.” And they tell me to go away. And so, three of them are now playing college in the States. So, I had a backup plan. Maybe if I didn’t, I would have gone on to bigger things.
Cindy Tonkin: You didn’t take a big enough risk going into actuarial studies, yeah.
Nic Ryan: So, I ended up working as an actuary for a long time, different insurance companies. And so, there was a bit of reserving which you did, and also a lot of the pricing work and some of that modelling work. And this was just at a time when data sets started getting a bit wider and we had to do some more statistics and more programming. And it was really the early days of data science. I think it wasn’t until the mid-2000s before there was such a thing. But it was still statistics and we weren’t paid very much money. And so, I did that.
Nic Ryan: And then, some really interesting projects like reinsurance pricing and pricing for fire and theft and natural hazards and that kind of stuff, rating zones. And so, really had a good time doing that. And then, was drawn into banking. And so, banking building risk models and credit risk score cards for CBA and a whole bunch of different lenders across Australia. And so, did that for a while.
Nic Ryan: Then worked for a credit bureau and building their internal risk models and also consulting to different lenders all over the place, again building risk models. And so, fell into this thing that was data science from there. And so, I’ve been doing that ever since. And I was the head of data science for Nimble Money as well. A guy gave me a call and then gave me a plane ticket and said, “Come and chat to us.” And I did.
A call and a plane ticket
Cindy Tonkin: A call and a plane ticket, why not? Yeah, yeah. So, you’ve been firmly entrenched in the numbers around money for a long time.
Nic Ryan: Yeah. I also did a recommended system for an online advertising and I’ve done a bit of agriculture stuff.
Cindy Tonkin: So, you’ve done across the board. Yeah.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, a whole heap-
Cindy Tonkin: And what are you doing now?
Nic Ryan: So, at the moment, there’s a few things on the go. One is one of my friends, he was a client, but he’s a friend, just as normal. A lot of my clients become-
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, who knows how to distinguish the two? Yeah.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. He’s over in the UK. And so, I help him out with strategy and also some project stuff. But what he’s doing is he’s trying to apply artificial intelligence and data science machine learning to project management. So, really transforming the project management industry. So, to date there has been spreadsheets tracking stuff. And the same mistakes he saw being repeated again and again. And so, he’s taking a data driven approach to project management. Major construction, major highway projects and stuff like that, which is pretty cool. Now, he’s just got the green light for what is a data trust in project management. So, different companies contribute their data all together, online data, and they can collectively learn from the lessons of what went well and what didn’t from different projects, which is really good.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah.
Nic Ryan: Like, this is world first type stuff. And so, to be on the journey with him with this is just such a privilege. And he’s a heck of a nice guy. And so, his company’s projecting success. And yeah, I think it’s going to be big. I think it’s going to be absolutely transformative for the project management industry.
Cindy Tonkin: Wow, cool.
Nic Ryan: I can’t take credit because I’ve just cheered and good work and all that.
People and machines
Cindy Tonkin: I just like hearing about what people are doing. Literally yesterday I was talking to a client in a pharmaceutical company. I was like, “Yeah, I’ve been working with data science people.” And she’s like, “What’s data science?” And I said, “Let me just give you some examples.” I was just listening to a McKinsey podcast this morning where they were talking about what is data science? And it’s like, here’s some cool examples for the real people to learn what data science is.
Cindy Tonkin: Last week, I listened to a podcast, a Farnam Street podcast, and they were saying there’s a hedge fund who has replaced one of their board members. They have been replaced by an algorithm.
Nic Ryan: There you go.
Cindy Tonkin: Or a roboty artificial intelligence decision making machine as one of their board members.
Nic Ryan: Yeah. I can definitely see that heading that way. It won’t be so much like us and them. I can see it will be us working with the machines and that kind of thing.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, because there’s so many things that are just the same process. Yeah, exactly.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, that’s right. And some of the lessons from the past. So, Martin, for instance, over there is looking at even things like companies and they might be doing similar type of projects, but again, the lessons aren’t learnt. And so, they make the same mistake 10 times. And if you have a data driven approach to it, it does take some of that judgment of humans out of it. So, it’s about making the computers do the stuff the computers are good at and the humans do the judgment that they’re good at with the right information to make these decisions. So, it’s not cheating project managers, it’s just sort of enhancing them to the project manager 2.0 type thing.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, exactly. And there’s so many things I could say. But let me ask you some questions because it’s all about you.
Nic Ryan: Thank you.
Cindy Tonkin: What do you do to work smarter or faster? What are your productivity hacks?
Nic Ryan: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot that I do as well as that. So, one of the other things that I do is there’s an AI consulting company in Brisbane. And so, I work with them on different projects. They’ve got a bit of gap as a lot of places do, between junior staff and CTOs and not really a technical manager in the middle. So, I help them and advise them on different projects and things and also dive into coding.
Cindy Tonkin: So, you’re kind of coaching them on skills as much as anything. Are you doing? Or teaching and coaching?
Nic Ryan: Both. Kind of whatever. Kind of whatever needs to be done, yeah, which is cool. And also, a university in the States, UC Berkeley has me as a course leader for one of their practical machine learning courses.
Cindy Tonkin: Cool.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, so it’s good fun.
Cindy Tonkin: So, you’re working all around the world from paradise.
Nic Ryan: Yes. Yeah. I’m pretty lucky because I’m a surfer, and out my back gate is the surf. So, I could literally walk with my board under my arm and go surfing, which I do every day. So, it’s pretty lucky there.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, so that helps you work smarter because it’s basically getting your Zen, right?
Nic Ryan: Zenning out. And also, I missed a lot of my kids when they were younger. Like, I really did because I was working a lot. And so, I didn’t really see them for five years. I was travelling a lot. Working a lot, even to and from work was a lot. Now I try not to miss anything that they’ve got going on. Their karate classes or basketball or aerial or acrobatics or whatever the heck they’re doing, I try to make sure I’m part of it.
That’s pretty special for me as well. So, trying to fit my work around my kids. But what I’ve found to be really successful is I have like a Kanban board for myself. So, for what I need to do for a week. And I’ll lock it in.
I’ll work out the hours I need to work and I’ll lock it in. I’ll make sure my surfing is there, make sure my gym is there, make sure my basketball’s there, make sure my kids’ activities are there, and then comes my work. And I know that I’ve got a certain amount of hours that I can do a day before I go nuts, and that’s it. I just square it away.
Nic Ryan: And so, I try not to do too much in one day or in one week. But I still manage to get a heck of a lot of work done. So, I’ll still have meetings at seven o’clock or eight o’clock at night, but I may have had an hour gap before them or that sort of thing. Because England, they’ll start at about eight o’clock at night for me. And so, it’s all about a balance, I think, because the reality is, I’ll still be doing this when I’m 80. And so, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Cindy Tonkin: Exactly. It is a marathon, not a sprint. I love it. All of these things are music to my ears. It’s how I work too. It’s like, “You know what? I’m going to take Friday off and do something deliciously good, make some art or sing some songs or whatever,” because that’s what life’s about, right?
Wednesday is not Nic’s friend
Nic Ryan: And Wednesdays and I have never been friends. I’ve never-
Cindy Tonkin: What is it about you and Wednesdays? Tell me the story. Why is Wednesday such a bad thing?
Nic Ryan: I just don’t know what it is with Wednesdays. I guess it’s not like Tuesdays where you’ve got all the specials and you can go out and eat really cheap and everything like that. And Thursdays, you’re getting close to the weekend and you’ll probably go to a bar as well and they’ll have a jug of Margarita or something, you know? So, Wednesday’s like the nothing day right in the middle. And I try not to do too much on a Wednesday. So, Wednesday morning, for instance, I took my kids to the beach, several beaches, actually. A couple of beaches and different parks and just had a coffee with them. And they had ice cream. And that’s kind of like my Wednesday morning.
Cindy Tonkin: Nice.
Nic Ryan: Yeah. So, it’s all right. But I’m probably going to drop dead on a Wednesday. I think Wednesday is probably going to be a bad day for me forever.
Cindy Tonkin: Right, so when you’re 80 and you’re still working, you will still be not working. Maybe you just don’t work on Wednesdays.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. Yeah. I try not to do too much on the Wednesday. But working for yourself, you do have that flexibility
What makes a good data person
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? So, we talked about your routines basically by talking about that. You’ve been in the data industry for a long time. Talk to me about what makes a good data person in your experience.
Nic Ryan: Look, I think a lot of the skills can be commoditised. Like, I really do think with the online learning and the way that education is really democratized, anyone with a laptop can learn these things. But at the end of the day, what we’re doing is not really picking up the latest and greatest technology, we’re still trying to solve business problems. And that’s why my grounding in actuarial studies has really helped me to try to work out where the cash is, where the dollars are. And if I’m going to go down this path, does this mean the net effect of this is saving $27.50. Do I spend six months on it? Or are there bigger fish to fry? And even in rapid prototyping as well. So, if something needs to be done, I tend to work in two week sprints.
Nic Ryan: So, I want to get a minimum viable product out in two weeks because that’s good for the customer, it’s good for me, it’s good for everyone. And so, I’ve seen examples where you can get a pretty good model out in two weeks. And maybe a couple percentage increases in accuracy might take you another few months. And so, often for-
Cindy Tonkin: 80-20 rule.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, that’s right. That’s it. See how it goes and let’s implement it and let’s see what happens. And then we can improve it over time. And everyone’s kind of happier that way. You don’t need to spend six months or more building something perfect when you can get something out the door pretty quickly and iterate on that over time. So, those sorts of quick wins are really what I’m after, what I’m chasing. People who can identify that and people who can articulate that are very valuable, and as opposed to someone who’s technically brilliant.
Recruiting for data scientist and analysts
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, who can’t necessarily do that. And how do you recruit? When you’ve recruited people for a team, which I assume you’ve done, have you?
Nic Ryan: Yep.
Cindy Tonkin: Should have asked that question first, that’s rude. What do you look for? How do you test for those things? What kind of questions do you ask?
Nic Ryan: Well, the way that I’ve had most success with doing it in the past is you do need to have a technical test, but not make it so hard that people are trying to bite their tongue and bleed to death while they’re doing it just to make it so that there’s a basic level of skill that people need to have to be successful in the job, otherwise they’re going to be hitting their head up against a wall. So, it’s your basic SEQUEL, maybe basic scripting languages. And you’re really just looking for their problem solving ability at that stage. But it’s a great filtering mechanism as well because maybe only 60-70% of people will return that tech test to you. So, that’s good.
Nic Ryan: And then you can have a look at some of those. So, say you might get 50 applications, maybe you’ll only have about 25 or 30 people giving them back to you. And then of them, maybe you can pull out five or 10 of them that you think are really good. You can see the logic of how they’re working out things to be quite good. And so, then it’s all about, once they’re in the door, to prove how passionate they are. And the simple test for me is, “Is this person as pumped and excited about data science as I am?” And if they are, tick, that’s it.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah. So, pumped and excited is an important thing. Yeah. It’s interesting because I’ve been asking this question now for about 20 podcasts now. And one of my friends, Glen Bell who’s a data person, he said, “I’m just looking for someone who’s not sleepwalking through life.” If they’re sleepwalking through life, “Sorry, you just-
Nic Ryan: That’s right.
Cindy Tonkin: … you don’t even pass.” So, passion is the other end of that spectrum of, “I’m not sleepwalking, I’m actually passionate about it.” Cool.
Nic Ryan: I’m after crazy hand gestures. I’m after them gesticulating going, “This is awesome. I’m so happy. Thank you so much.” And then I’m like, “This person’s excited. This person’s cool. This person’s in.” And in terms of education, I don’t care if they haven’t finished high school. I really don’t. It doesn’t matter, because some of the best people I’ve worked with are un-credentialed. They’ve either learnt through online courses, or there was a software developer who was a landscape gardener who picked up software and he was awesome. One of my former bosses, he was a CTO and he had a degree in classical Greek literature. So, just because someone doesn’t have the right credentials, I don’t think you slam the door on them. I think that’s-
Cindy Tonkin: No, if they pass the technical test and they pass the passion test, that’s good enough.
Nic Ryan: They’re in. Yeah. As far as I’m concerned, they’re in. Yeah.
Nic’s Professional Development
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah. Nice. Talk to me about professional development. What do you do to keep yourself current or to develop?
Nic Ryan: I guess I’m really lucky in the same way that you are. When you’re consulting, you get to see a lot of places and what they’re doing all around the place. And you speak to a lot of people and you can see what’s happening and you can say, “These guys are doing this. And that’s a really good idea.” And then, maybe help someone else. So, obviously not with IP and that sort of thing and like, “Here’s the source codes for this person.” No, it’s not like that. It’s more like-
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, “Here’s a person I picked up, just borrow them.”
Nic Ryan: It’s more like, “These guys have got a really good idea about using this particular tool. Maybe this is the same sort of tool that you can use here. It’s freely available. It’s open source, use it.” That kind of thing. And so, being able to speak with a large number of people and being able to see a lot of what’s going on, having a bird’s eye view of the industry is really helpful. And so, it does allow me to see where different organizations are on their journey as well, and to be able to quickly identify some of the things that an organization can do to step up. And it’s something I’m continually learning. So, in the same way that someone’s reading a book, I’m usually doing some kind of online course in the background all the time.
Cindy Tonkin: What kind of courses are you doing?
Nic Ryan: So, for instance, one that I did last month was a data engineering specialization through Coursera. I had a bit of time. And if you plug away at it for an hour or so a day, you can quickly get these things knocked over pretty well. But that was really good. And so, I will go down the path of doing some other ones as well. And so, I just tend to have these going all the time.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, you’ve just got something and certainly in my case, I don’t always get through the end of them. But the beginning stuff is, “Oh yeah, this is great. This is great. This is great. Do I need to finish it? No.” Like you said, 80-20.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. Sometime you’re just pulling information out. So, when I started doing a lot of public speaking, for instance, I saw that there was a public speaking specialization on Coursera. Now, I didn’t get the qualification, but I watched all the lectures, every single one of them. And then started implementing some of that and then doing a lot of the speaking work that I do. So, whenever I-
Tips on public speaking
Cindy Tonkin: You got any tips for the public speaking for the data analysts who hate this kind of stuff? What’s your big tip?
Nic Ryan: The biggest thing that I learnt was it’s the spoken medium, as opposed to writing. What a lot of people do is they’ll just write something on a piece of paper and go, “Oh yeah, I’ve got it.” And then their actual presentation will be the practice run. And that’s just not great. And so, I do public speaking in the same way that I write software. And so, it’s like an Agile development. So, I try it out. I’ll pace around here and I’ll see how it sounds and I’ll see if I’m hitting points, what sounds natural, what doesn’t? What sounds a bit jangly. Sometimes I’ll get my wife to listen in to it, even though it’s painful for her beyond belief. And she’ll say, “Yeah, I lost you two thirds of the way in. I have no idea what you were saying after that.” And so, that’s really good.
Nic Ryan: And then I’ll rejig and I’ll change my presentation based on feedback. And so, by the time I’m actually getting stand up to do it, I would have run it through at least eight to 10 times. And for a particularly important one, more like 20-30 times. And so, it sounds-
Cindy Tonkin: Practice makes perfect.
Nic Ryan: Well, yeah. It’s going to sound natural and polished because it’s been rehearsed massively. And so, not every single word. But the main points, I’ll have them there. And I might have a little card that I’ll take in. But I never really need it. But that’s it, just the intuitive development over time. And so, just practice, practice, practice. And you can get-
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, I just last week actually was running a presentation skills program for a cancer charity. And basically, the thing, exactly what you’ve just said is, “Preparation isn’t practice. If you’re a researcher and you’ve got a thousand things to say, don’t think you can just walk in there and dump your research because you’re not going to get it done in the 15 minutes you get given to explain. You’ve got to practice it after you’ve prepared it.” Or as you say, prepare iteratively, so that what you end up with is something that kind of hits the three points you really want to make, because that’s about all the time you’ve got.
Nic Ryan: That’s it. And so, it’s always a case of trimming stuff down. So, I’ll always have my draft. And I’ll say, “Okay, these are the five points.” And then you’re right, then I go, “Actually, I can’t cover the last two. I’m going to have to drop them. It’s going to have to just be three solid points and that’s it.” Yeah, and then expanding those points as well. So, there might be sub points. But yeah, that’s the way I kind of structure it.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, nice.
Nic Ryan: Yeah. The other thing as well is that people don’t realize, and I really sucked at this as well, I really sucked at conferences. And so, I thought that the conference was about doing the presentation. So, I’d be in my room, I’d be terrified, I’d be going through it like 30 times and terrified. But everything around the conference is about networking, meeting people, making friends. And this is really just an excuse to be there. And so, that’s what I kind of do now. So, I just hang out and have a drink with people and have a laugh. And then, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to do my speech.” And so, I guess that comes with time as well, being less worried.
Cindy Tonkin: Look, I used to find that when I spoke at a conference. A similar idea in that I knew that I was there to meet people. But nobody wanted to speak to me until I’d spoken. Once I’d spoken on stage, everybody wanted to speak to me because they had a reason to talk to me. So, now where I possibly can, I try to get early in the bit so then someone will say, “I saw you. I wanted to ask you a question about that.” And suddenly, they’ve got something to ask and I’ve got something ask. And it’s not just small talk. It’s actual, “I’ve got an interest in the topic you’re talking about.” But yeah, conferences are tricky. What kind of conferences do you go to?
Nic Ryan: So, they’re mainly AI, data analytics type conferences that are around the place. Sometimes they’ve been in Sydney. My friend JT Kostman, he’s come over to Australia a couple of times. He’ll drag me along to a couple of things, which is good because-
Cindy Tonkin: I’m going to interview him actually next week. I’m not sure how I got to him, but I found JT. And next week I’m podcasting him.
Nic Ryan: He’s a quality dude. Amazing. He’s a hilarious guy and good value and a really, really likable fellow. And yeah, he really has taken me under his wing a lot, helped me out massively
Cindy Tonkin: Nice.
Nic Ryan: So, yeah, just a nice guy, and just someone that I met through LinkedIn. And then, seeing him in person was fantastic. And listening to his presentations. You’ve got to listen to his presentations. He’s terrific. Like, he’s the master. Like, I’m nowhere near that. He’s like Jedi and I’m like early Luke Skywalker type of thing.
Cindy Tonkin: As long as you’re not Yoda, it’s fine.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, he’s Yoda. Yeah, no, he’s-
Cindy Tonkin: Nobody understands when Yoda talks. His whole syntax is wrong.
Nic Ryan: But yeah, if you want to see someone who’s truly professional, his writing as well as his speaking, just everything that he does, he’s a really impressive guy.
Cindy Tonkin: Fabulous. Excellent. Well, I look forward to speaking to him on the podcast soon.
Nic Ryan: And he’ll teach me about my pug dogs and about the kangaroos that are in my backyard that I’m scared of and all that sort of thing. But with good reason because they’re over six feet and angry.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, I wouldn’t want to tangle with kangaroos. Yeah, sure, throw them some food.
Nic Ryan: That’s right.
Cindy Tonkin: I look at them and photograph them, but I don’t necessarily want to be amongst them. I think that would be just a little bit dumb.
Nic Ryan: Even the dogs, the dogs want to bark at them. But then they look at them and go, “No, actually, I probably won’t.”
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah. Yeah. You’ve got those big claw paw things that could just probably kill me. Yeah.
Nic Ryan: That’s right.
Explaining complex ideas
Cindy Tonkin: So, you’ve spoken about your key or your tip for presentations. What about complex explanations? Explaining like we said with the researchers, they’ve got a whole heap of stuff. And it’s the same with data. You find all these great ideas. But how do you cut it down? What do you do to make it simple enough but no simpler?
Nic Ryan: Yeah. I think that’s a tough one as well. And I think in my mind, it really depends on the audience and who you’re presenting to be able to sort out their level of understanding and to be able to work out that bridge or that divide that you need to cross to get your points to them. And so, if it is a colleague or someone in the team, then you don’t need to water things down so much because they’re familiar with the techniques in your kind of work. But if it is someone that’s lay or someone that doesn’t really know what’s going on or you’re presenting to a local business chamber or something like that, then you won’t be able to make or hit the same points as you would for your team because they’re going to require more definitions and that sort of basic understanding. And so, they won’t be able to cross that divide so much as audiences more familiar with that sort of work.
Cindy Tonkin: Exactly. So, if you were going to have to explain to a stakeholder who’d commissioned some work from you what the output was or what the answer is, how would you go about making that simple enough but not too simple?
Nic Ryan: Yeah, you probably would want to even wind it back from the so what, or in terms of dollars or saving or full-time, or how many hours of work saved or that sort of thing, because that’s really a headline. That’s what they care about. That’s why they’re there. That’s why it’s on.
Cindy Tonkin: Exactly. “Do it for me faster, smarter, nicer.” Yeah, exactly.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. And so, then winding back from that, it’s kind of almost like an appendix at the end, “By the way, this is the stuff that we did to do it.” And then it’s just a point form, because no one really cares in that setting. No one really gives a damn. And so, even in a report that you give, you would have it as an appendix. Like, “This is the methodology,” based on the particular audience.
Cindy Tonkin: Nobody wants to know about the methodology. They don’t want to know your statistical validity or anything like that. They want to know, “What do I do next?”
Nic Ryan: Yeah. You can save it for questions as well. You can just say, “Look, if anyone is interested in understanding more about the methodology, feel free to ask questions or see me afterwards, but this is at the higher level what we did. We took some data, we did something amazing to it. Here’s the result.” Like, that’s kind of it.
Cindy Tonkin: Exactly, “And the answer is blue.”
Nic Ryan: That’s right. But yeah, it’s a bit of Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money,” type thing.
Cindy Tonkin: Totally, exactly. In Suits: Harvey Specter in Suits at one point says to the young apprentice, Jedi Knight, whatever he is, “This is not high school maths. Don’t show me your workings, show me the answer. I don’t care how you got there”. Once we’ve verified that you know how to get there, I don’t need you to explain how you got here because I just want to know, is it blue or pink? That’s the answer. “Which wire do I cut? Red or green. I don’t want to know how you analysed that.” Yeah.
Nic Ryan: And that’s right. And that’s something as well that would take time for someone just starting out in the field to really discover. And it’s quite crushing when you do discover it that no one really cares about your work. They really care about the impacts that it has.
Cindy Tonkin: Exactly. A select few understand what you’re doing. And even amongst them, they don’t actually want to know what you did because they just still want to know the answer. Exactly. I was having a conversation with Helen Lawson-Williams, who has been on the podcast before; we had a conversation just last week. She was talking about her belief that somehow somewhere in the schooling system we were taught that we need to show what we know. And then we come to business, and business basically says, “I don’t want to know what you know. I want to know what I need to do, be, or have to get out of the hole or meet the challenge or deal with the problem or improve my world.”
Nic Ryan: That’s right.
Cindy Tonkin: And I mean, that shift is really hard for people to make, especially smart people spent their lives researching things.
Nic Ryan: That’s right, yeah. And I think people are buying solutions. That’s what they really care about solutions to the problem. And they’re not going to buy research, really. Not really.
Cindy Tonkin: No, and the shame of it is, if you put it in a shiny package and you make the fonts really pretty, sometimes pretty ordinary solutions get adopted because they seem better packaged.
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Cindy Tonkin: They’re not the answer, but they seem like they are. And that’s kind of sad.
Nic Ryan: Well, yeah. I have a friend, a New Zealand programming buddy. And he’s a great guy. But he said as well when he’s doing a software project that what tends to happen is if he makes some huge change in the backend that can’t be seen in the front end, no one really cares, even though it would be quite amazing what he can do. He can optimize the performance of the site. It can be incredible work he’s done.
Cindy Tonkin: I bet I know where you’re going with this. Yeah, keep going.
Nic Ryan: If he makes it so that the graph, the colour bars might animate or something like that, or he picks a really nice colour or makes it all shiny at the front end, that’s when he earns his dollars, that’s when he’s-
Cindy Tonkin: It’s all in the front end. And anything else is just jam.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. And so, the corollary of that for software teams, because again, I have had to work with dev teams, even doing some dev work myself from time to time, even front end stuff, is that you have the front end website reflect as best you can the backend where everything is. So, when someone’s looking at it, if they see that you’ve done the front end first and it’s perfect, it’s like, “Great, the thing’s ready to go.” And you’re like, “No, no. That’s just the front end.”
Cindy Tonkin: It’s not finished yet.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. But if you have really crappy colours at the front and really disgusting looking charts and stuff, then that’s probably actually better to reflect what’s happening in the backend. And so, the problem is that one of my really good friends, he would have hot pink and those sorts of colours in the bar charts to reflect that they are works in progress. And sometimes his feedback would be, “I don’t know about the front end, but that pink colour, we love that.”
Cindy Tonkin: So, are you saying the savvy developers and the savvy researchers who are setting up interfaces will have the real thing just ready to turn on like that and everything looks like shit until they’re ready to turn on the front end. And then they go, “Hang on, I’ve just got a few more… There you go. There’s that pink.” Push one button, “We’ve fixed it.”
Nic Ryan: We’re done. It’s working.
Cindy Tonkin: “You’re brilliant. We’ll pay you double.”
Nic Ryan: It’s kind of funny when you see that. Again, because I’ve worked with a few dev teams, to see some of the fights that they have and see some of the ways that they have to do it. And when you see different people doing different things to try to communicate to stakeholders, that seems to be pretty effective. And so, again, this is a benefit of being around a few different projects and a few different teams.
Cindy Tonkin: Absolutely. And doing some stuff in dev and then doing some stuff in data analytics, you’re kind of carrying across, like we said before, that cross-pollination, that cross-seeding of ideas. It’s kind of cool.
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, go on, sorry.
Nic Ryan: But you wouldn’t want me to build a website that would be disgusting, that would be horrible.
Cindy Tonkin: God no.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. But yeah, to be around those guys.
Cindy Tonkin: There are people who do that. If you pay them money, they do that for you.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, I mean, if you put a gun to my head, I’ll get-
Cindy Tonkin: A virtual team in the Philippines who do all my Word Press for me, why would I even consider doing that myself? Exactly. You’ve got to know how to brief them though. If you don’t know how to brief them, then you get into real hot water.
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Cindy Tonkin: What’s your favourite charity?
Nic Ryan: My favourite charity. I guess there’s a few that come to mind. But I’m really keen here with kids’ sport, and especially girls in sport. That’s probably a really good thing as well. I’ve noticed that the women’s NBA are pushing a whole heap of stuff out about girls playing basketball because you see the participation rates of girls in sport compared to boys in sport, and they kind of fall off the cliff after girls are about 13, 14.
Cindy Tonkin: Right.
Nic Ryan: I’ve got two daughters. We home school the girls. My wife home schools them. I take them for their code half an hour every morning. I read to them. And I play basketball with them. We go skateboarding. They go surfing with me. They do a whole heap of stuff. And I really want them to be able to do all that stuff and to have the fun that I’ve had with sport and with work and with everything. And to have those same opportunities, whether it’s on sporting fields or with work or anything like that.
Because (it sounds pretty bad) but for me to get where I am, I’m over six foot, I’m white, I speak with an Australian accent in Australia. It’s been a pretty easy run compared to what it would have been had I had a different set of circumstances. And I really don’t want that for my daughters. And so, what I’d really like is an even playing field for them.
Cindy Tonkin: Absolutely. Nice. Sporting charity. Cool.
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Lessons Learned: done is better than perfect
Cindy Tonkin: What about lessons learned? Is there anything that you’d kind of go, “Gee, this was the best lesson”? I mean, you have been giving words of wisdom all the way through.
Nic Ryan: I really like the idea of done being better than perfect. That’s probably a really big thing as well. And it wasn’t just me. It was one of my mates who said that. But I think he actually ripped it off someone from Google or Facebook or something like that. But I think that’s a really good thing is that if you’re putting out a blog or you’re putting out a post on LinkedIn, you could spend a week agonizing over it. Or, as one of my mates does, you could write a blog article while you’re on the treadmill for half an hour.
Cindy Tonkin: And you dictate it to your phone while walking on the beach, yeah.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. And so, getting it out there and getting it done. And look, it’s going to suck. Most of what you do is going to suck. But at least having a go and getting it out there and not agonizing over it is really important. And so, for me and for my business as well, content marketing here is really important because there’s no real businesses that need me for 500 kilometres. There’s just no one around. And so, that’s how I get my work is through content marketing, getting stuff out there and writing and all that sort of stuff. And so, I need to produce a fair bit of work to get work, which is kind of funny. But yeah, having it done, having it out there is so much more important than it being absolutely polished and impeccable because there’s a schedule I need to stick to to be able to get enough out and that’s just-
Cindy Tonkin: You can always go back and fix the spelling errors later. You can get a virtual assistant to do that for you, “Spell check every LinkedIn post that I’ve made in the last week.” They go do it. It’s done. Fixed, finished. Let’s face it, the problem and the beauty of social media stuff is it’s disposable. No one’s going back to look back at what you wrote three years ago. Eventually, someone will mine it to write your biography at some point.
Nic Ryan: Not going to happen.
Cindy Tonkin: Like, “Yes, here is Nic’s history by social media post,” you know? You can see evolution from it. Actually, that would be a cool documentary. “We’re just going to show you social media posts.”
Nic Ryan: The earlier stuff would be terrible. And even the current stuff isn’t fantastic. But it’s out there. And it does resonate with people. And so, it’s kind of good to be able to say to someone, “You know what? You encouraged me to apply for a data science job and I did. And I got it. So, thank you.” And I do get those sorts of messages, even as recently as yesterday. There was a lady I had a chat to because I don’t mind having a chat-
Cindy Tonkin: Because she approached you. Yeah.
Nic Ryan: Approached me, and she said, “I’m going to research. I’m going to do a PhD in machine learning.” And I said, “Hang on. You’ve already got one PhD, just apply for the damn job. Just do it.” And so, yeah, she got the job. So, it’s like-
Cindy Tonkin: Again, progress is better than perfection.
Nic Ryan: Exactly. You could spend your entire time getting a masters or a PhD, or you could just have a go now.
Cindy Tonkin: Or you could go to Coursera, enroll, get the words, and then apply for the job. Or even apply for the job before you’ve done the Coursera thing. Yeah, totally.
Working as an independent contract or consultant: the traps
Nic Ryan: Yeah. And so, what about you, sorry? What are your thoughts on that? I was going to ask you the same question. I’m just curious.
Cindy Tonkin: In terms of what lessons learned, you mean?
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Cindy Tonkin: Or you mean in terms of progress is better than perfection?
Nic Ryan: You’re in the same sort of boat that I’m in doing your own thing and consulting over a long period of time. What advice would you have for different people? I’m just curious to hear your thoughts.
Cindy Tonkin: Wow.
Nic Ryan: We can bring it back to you.
Cindy Tonkin: Well, I did write a whole book that then became six books that then became 11 books on how to set up your own consultancy. So, I’ve been talking about this since 1999 when the first book came out. I don’t do the one-on-one stuff with consultants anymore. But I did write like a couple of hundred thousand words on it.
To distill it down to one thing, I agree totally with what you’ve just said. Stop thinking you have to get more education. Especially for women, I don’t know why women seem to think, “If I haven’t got a degree, I can’t do that.” Yes, you bloody can. As you said, a landscape gardener can do data really well. And if they can do it really well, we didn’t have to say, “What’s your PhD in?”
Cindy Tonkin: For me, the interesting thing is, to do what we do in terms of being independent and entrepreneurial and solo operators and do all that stuff, part of what I love is the difference and the variety that that offers. For many people, they don’t want that. They want dependability and they want that salary that comes in. And so, a lot of people, they want to do the PhD because they think that’s the safe road. Yeah, I don’t know. What should people be doing? I think they should be doing what suits them. But also, I didn’t choose this, it chose me. You know? I left a safe job and then, someone said, “Would you like this contract?” And I went, “Sure.” And then, someone else said, “What about this contract?” And then I started asking and looking for contracts. And 27 years later, I’m still looking for contracts.
Cindy Tonkin: And yeah, as you say, the social media marketing on that has changed its nature very much. But it’s still people that get me jobs. I mean, somebody just rang me. The people who don’t have their own business don’t know this. But we get constant calls about, “We’ve just noticed your website doesn’t have SEO. And we’d love to do that for you. And you’re probably missing out. We’ve estimated you are missing out on 20,000 phone calls a day.” And you go, “No, I am fucking not.”
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Cindy Tonkin: “Thank you for that estimate. I don’t know what numbers you’ve based that on.” Somebody rang me and said, “I’ve noticed that this website isn’t listed it on Google Business.” I’m like, “Well, A, I’ve closed that business down and I’m just waiting for the domain name to expire before I throw it away. B, Google Business, people don’t buy consulting services from going to a website for Google Business.” No one ever goes, “Look, I need some coaching for my senior level execs. Do you know what? I’ll just Google that. And look, here’s a business that does it that’s got a post office box in Newtown. I think they’ll be perfect.”
Educating the client
Nic Ryan: No, that’s right. I mean, that’s exactly the point. It’s really hard as well because I think an education piece has to come first before you’re doing your consulting. So, it is usually chatting to people and working out what they want and where you fit in. So, it really is a huge piece before. It could be three months, six months, or even longer before you get pen to paper and you get to work.
Cindy Tonkin: 20 years. I’ve had leads that have taken 20 years. My first consulting world job was with Accenture, as I said before. Sorry, which was Andersen Consulting at the time. And there were 40 of us all started at the same time. I learned to program and code. Yay. I hated it. But it was interesting because my first degree is in French. I have a degree in French, linguistics and sociology, and also Japanese. So, lots of languages. But I didn’t do any programming or anything. So, here was me with 39 other people who’d been recruited. About 30 of them were IT people, right? They knew how to program and code well. It was purely, “This is the job I want.”
Cindy Tonkin: But one of the other Arts graduates who was in the program with me, for 20 years she said to me, “I must have you in. I must have you in.” And then she did have me in, about six weeks before she left the organization. But that was my first data science my first time working with data scientists, 2003, 2004. But it had been 20 years. And that’s my longest lead time. And you can never know what’s going to bring the next job, you know? Maybe a podcast.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. And so, a bit of it is banging the drum, finding out what’s there.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, I mean for me as well, it’s kind of interesting in my line of work too because I do speak to people. And if someone reaches out for advice, I do try my best to answer them. But I do sometimes get people sending me their company data and saying, “Hey, Nic. I’m at work right now and I’m having problems with this.”
Cindy Tonkin: What?
Nic Ryan: And I’m like, “Dude, you could get us both into a lot of trouble.”
Cindy Tonkin: No.
Nic Ryan: “I’m going to delete this. Please don’t send this again. Please don’t.” Because I mean, there’s got to be a line somewhere, right?
Cindy Tonkin: There’s got to be a line. Oh my god. Their boss would fire them on the spot, surely.
Nic Ryan: Yeah. And so, that’s the kind of thing. There are sometimes people in my line of work who expect you to work for free. So, it’s just-
Cindy Tonkin: In everybody’s line of work. I do not know a single consultant who hasn’t said, “Somebody rang me and I was being helpful. And then I noticed that I’d spent a week working on this and I hadn’t got any money from that.”
Nic Ryan: That’s right. Yeah. But I’m-
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, one of my big things is how to say no nicely, and how to say no. So, I actually run a program called, How to Make No Sound Like A Yes, because in corporate, it’s pretty much like you’re a free resource because you’re an internal consultant.
Nic Ryan: Yep.
Cindy Tonkin: “We’re already paying for you, so we want you to do more and more and more and more and more.” And the nice data scientists, the nice internal consultants just run themselves ragged and get emotional. Generosity burnout. And it’s the same for me, and clearly for you too, there’s some times you just have to draw a line and go, “That’s really cool. But that’s what I get paid money to do.”
Nic Ryan: Even with the regional innovation start-ups. Like, I’m a real fan of that. And here in regional Queensland, we have a problem with unemployment. It’s a massive problem. And so, because the council do get me as the only person that’s like an entrepreneur here doing stuff, to come in whenever they have a mayor or someone who’s coming along. But you’re looking around the room and it’s like, “Well, you’re getting paid 150 grand, you’re getting paid 120 grand. You’re getting paid, you’re getting paid, you’re getting paid, you’re getting paid. Why am I not getting paid?”
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah.
Nic Ryan: “Everything’s on me for actions, so I probably don’t want to be part of this one, sorry.” And so, that comes across being really bad. But they kind of guilt you into it. And it’s like, “Hang on, guys. Come over to my place on the weekend and paint my fence if you want me to help out.”
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Nic Ryan: So, yeah. You do have to draw the line somewhere.
If you’re good at something don’t do it for free
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, because there’s so much stuff that needs to be done, and so many people who have such little understanding especially of stuff like data where it’s like everybody wants data but nobody understands what it is.
Like I said, if I have to explain it to a client what data is and she’s a very well-qualified person working in a pharmaceutical company where they access data all the time and she doesn’t know, I mean, bloody hell, what’s the council going to do? They just don’t know anything. But it’s that balancing the doing and the consulting which is hard. The advice can be free. But Taki Moore, who does a lot of programs for coaches, talks about that friend who says, “I’m going to become a consultant. Can I pick your brain?” And you go to a coffee shop and you dump everything and they don’t take notes and they don’t do anything you’ve asked them to do. And you go, “Well, that was a waste of my total life, wasn’t it?”
Nic Ryan: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. And so-
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, when I’ve been on boards and things like that, I’m sure it’s the same thing as the council. You’re kind of going, “Hang on.”
Nic Ryan: Yeah. And that’s again JT’s advice as well. He said, “If you’re good at something, don’t do it for free.” And that’s like the Joker thing. The Joker meme, you know? “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” And he’s right, you know? Because you have to. Your kid’s got to eat. Otherwise, if you’re doing things for free, it’s like, “Sorry girls, you can’t do your TaeKwonDo classes because daddy’s doing things for free.” And so, it’s just like-
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah. And when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound right, does it? It just doesn’t sound right. No.
Nic Ryan: Yeah. And so, it’s kind of a fine line between helping people out. But then, helping them out with procurement or seeing contracts go KPMG and all that sort of stuff, and then them getting you to sign off on contracts from KPMG for nothing. And then you’re just like, “No, I’m not going to do that because that’s risking me for zero dollars. So, come back to me with something and then we can kind of go ahead.” So, it’s really weird sometimes. But again, for someone learning or someone who’s aspiring, absolutely hit me up. But if you’re a business and you’ve got money, then I do need to see dollars.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah, totally. And yeah, it is. But we want to help.
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Cindy Tonkin: I was reading something yesterday that talks about post-40 years old, people start to go, “How can I give back?” Rather than, “What can I become?” It becomes, “How can I give back and help others become?” And that’s certainly been the case for me over 40 that I’m like, “How do I give back? How do I help?” But yes, you can’t get that confused with, “How do I go broke?”
Nic Ryan: That’s right. That’s true. Even out there, there are some really amazing people doing a lot for the community. And some of them as well, I think if they could get thrown a few dollars, it would really support their business and it would allow them to do some more stuff for the community as well. So, I think it is really important for organizations, like local councils who really are like the big business around here, to support local entrepreneurs with consulting work and stuff to enable them to do their thing so that they can keep going. And not necessarily me because I’m getting different work from different places. But there are some people who are doing it pretty tough in the local community. And when they see contracts for what they’re doing, whether it’s installing cables, whatever they’re doing, go to places in Brisbane, then it’s really upsetting for them.
Cindy Tonkin: It is.
Nic Ryan: Yeah.
Why don’t we source this locally?
Cindy Tonkin: Yes, exactly. And I’ve got friends who live on the central coast, and since you were there back in the day. They would be asking, “Why are we bringing someone up from Sydney when we can do this locally? Why are we getting someone from Newcastle when we can do this locally? Why are we getting someone from Brisbane when we could do it” Yeah. And I think that’s … Yeah, the world is an interesting place.
Nic Ryan: It is. It’s a challenging place. But I’m quite happy being here in that it does kind of come with its challenges. But I think being out somewhere in the sticks like this, it does make you by nature more entrepreneurial because you have to do this to survive. For me, my work has got to come from the cities. I’m nowhere near a city. I’ve got to do something smart. And so, that’s been really beneficial to my business.
Cindy Tonkin: And you have a virtual assistant or you have someone who looks after your calendar?
Nic Ryan: My wife is brilliant. And that’s who Leslee is. She’s my wife. And so, she is a nurse by trade. But she’s also got a business and law background. She’s had her own consulting company from a young age and stuff. And so, she dropped that to have kids and stuff. But yeah, she organizes my life. She manages a lot of what I do. Some days where it’s all too much and I’m about to cry, she writes down my-
Cindy Tonkin: On Wednesdays, usually on Wednesdays.
Nic Ryan: She’ll write down on the whiteboard, “This is what you need to do today.” And so, she’ll drag me out of the hole. And so, we’re pretty good together. Yeah, she really-
Cindy Tonkin: That’s fabulous.
Nic Ryan: … massively, massively helps me out. And so, without her, I think I’d be in a lot of trouble. And so, on top of running a house and homeschooling the girls and growing her own fruit and vegetables and looking after seven chickens and all that sort of stuff, she’s pretty amazing. Amazing girl.
Cindy Tonkin: Wow. That’s fabulous to have someone who supports you like that is just wonderful. Yeah.
Nic Ryan: Well, I write code, but she takes care of the website because she’s just better. So, she does a lot of that.
Cindy Tonkin: Okay, I’m going to record that and send it to her, just that little bit, “She’s better.” And so, she’ll be hearing that. Or does she already know? She already knows-
Nic Ryan: I think she knows.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah.
Nic Ryan: Anything that looks like design as well, she takes care of.
Cindy Tonkin: Love it.
Nic Ryan: There’s a lot that she does that is hugely valuable and-
Cindy Tonkin: Takes all the pressure off. Yeah.
Nic Ryan: Yeah. It’s just great. She even manages the accounts and the money. The only problem is if I go to play basketball, I have to ask her for $20. Like, you know? I’m in a bar with my brother and it’s my round, I’ve got to call in $40, that kind of thing. She manages all that. So, it’s really very helpful.
Nic Ryan’s Advice: We’re actuary 2.0
Cindy Tonkin: That’s fabulous. Aside from everybody needs a Leslee, have you got any advice as a final kind of word? Advice for would-be data scientists or advice for data science leaders?
Nic Ryan: I don’t know about advice. I mean, I think at the end of the day, we’re kind of like actuary 2.0s. We’re out there just trying to solve business problems. And so, I think that involves a mixture of skills. Talking to people, thinking about problems, thinking about dollars and cents. And at the end of the day, the icing on the cake, the very last thing is the particular model that you’re going to develop. So much of it is understanding the data, understanding what you’re trying to do, wrangling data, thinking about the different pipelines and flows. And then, everyone gets excited about the model development. But really, the model development is the last finished-
Cindy Tonkin: Thin slice. Yeah.
Nic Ryan: That’s right. And so, I don’t know why there’s so much emphasis on it in testing for skills or even for education because it really is not critical. Everything leading up to it is critical to it in my mind. And so, I think, don’t focus on that icing on the cake, just everything else is really critical.
Cindy Tonkin: Yeah. Chris Carr, who I interviewed a couple of weeks ago, published a couple of weeks ago, works for a major bank in pricing. And he basically said, if he were to start a pricing analytics team now, he would go for business people and teach them the data stuff they needed to know because they have that contextual awareness. And it means that they come in with, “What’s the problem we’re trying to solve here?” Rather than coming in with, “How can I use my new toy?” Which probably isn’t true for a lot of people, but yeah. That’s the feeling you get, isn’t it? It’s like, “I’ve got a toy. I want to use this toy. I want to …”
Nic Ryan: Well, I mean, you get business people, and you get domain experts, and you get really good leaders, and you get some data scientists, some programmers together, and collectively they can make something.
Cindy Tonkin: Yes, and you can solve anything.
Nic Ryan: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, I think that’s the key. I’m aware that you probably need to dash-aruni pretty soon. But-
Cindy Tonkin: I’m just looking at my clock and going, “I’ve got a four o’clock.” But thank you so much for talking to me on a Wednesday.
Nic Ryan: No problems, Cindy. That’s okay.
Cindy Tonkin: You’ve spoken so beautifully. I do hope that it has recorded properly.
Nic Ryan: Me too.
Cindy Tonkin: But if not, we can just re-record.
Nic Ryan: That’s not a problem.
Cindy Tonkin: Thank you so much. It’s been fun. We’ll be in touch. We’ll keep in touch.
Nic Ryan: Absolutely, Cindy. Thank you so much. And thank you for making my least favourite day of the week so much better.
Cindy Tonkin: I love it. Thanks.
Cindy Tonkin: This is Cindy Tonkin. I’m the consultant’s consultant. And you’ve been listening to Smarter Data People. This is part of what I do to understand how it is that data scientists can be more effective in the workplace smarter, faster, and nicer. And if you have a team and you’re finding them harder to manage than they could be, if you’re constantly trying to squeeze more out of your budget and out of their time, and if you’ve got stakeholders or they’ve got stakeholders who are less than happy sometimes, maybe a lot more than sometimes, it can be really annoying and it can make you feel incompetent. I can help you help them get to the important problems faster, target the wasted time and save you time and money, and ultimately delight stakeholders so that you can feel competent again. It’s such a good feeling.
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