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What's in a Job Title? Moving Past Business Intelligence in Gaming

For Roy Hwang, Arkadium's VP of Data Intelligence, firing and rehiring himself is all in a days work.

I lasted two months as the head of Business Intelligence at Arkadium, a game development studio headquartered in NY. In my place, a young, classy, smart (did I mention humble?) man assumed control. His first course of action was to eliminate Business Intelligence. Oh, I should probably mention the new guy was me.

The seeds of this change were planted over a year ago. I was talking about my then-job as a Business Intelligence consulting director to a bunch of sixth graders at a career fair. Given the audience, I played up the "glamour" aspects of my job. I talked about combing through data to find actionable insights for businesses. I talked about how Target knew someone was trying to have a baby based on buying patterns, how Nike selected next season's shoe colors based on consumer trends, and how games profiled users by analyzing how they played certain levels. After my talk, I opened up the floor to some Q&A.  Here are the questions I received:

  • How much money do you make?
  • Do you spy on other companies to figure out what they are making?
  • My dad is a business man and he travels a lot.  Do you travel a lot?
  • Why won't you tell us how much money you make?
  • I'm confused.  Do you work with computers or do you work with business people?
  • Can you predict what college I am going to get into based on my report card?
  • What do I need to study to be head of Business Intelligence?  It's not math is it?
  • You live in New York City?  I bet you make a lot of money.

Outside of a youthful exuberance for monetary compensation, the questions above reflect my principal issue with business intelligence. My title is really confusing. When people ask me what I do for a living, I can never just stop at my title. There is always a three-to-four sentence follow-up on what business intelligence (BI) actually means. A job title's foremost responsibility is to accurately convey the level and functional area of the resource. After more than 10 years in BI, I can safely say that my job title does not do this. Even at Arkadium, the company that hired me to run BI, I am first and foremost known as the dashboard guy, or the data guy, or the analytics guy. You notice what words are missing? Yep, the words that make up my title.

I thought it would be different at a gaming studio. I thought my BI title would have renewed clarity when viewed through the lens of gaming. After all, a gaming studio is not just any kind of business.  It’s a business with absolutely no market ambiguity.  Game studios make games. We (I use the proverbial “we” because my mathematical model (wink, wink) predicts that if you are reading this, you, too, are in gaming) do not do anything else. We do not diversify into consulting, or manufacture apparel, or sell art on the sidewalk.  For the vast majority of game studios, the entirety of the business is predicated on a few lovingly-built games.  I thought all this would be an advantage. I was wrong. It was worse.

On the day I officially moved into gaming, I called my best friend, a guy who has known me for over 14 years, and told him I was accepting a position as the head of BI at a game studio.  His very first question was, “What exactly do you do there?”  What made the situation worse is that the single-minded focus on games I initially viewed as a plus turned out to be an artificial limit on creativity and reach. My world became centered on retention and DAUs and ARPUs and CTPs. Now don’t get me wrong. All of that is vitally important and should absolutely be utilized to optimize game performance—but what about all the other stuff BI can do? 

We are in the business of games and when we put business in our job title, we implicitly limit ourselves to just the games themselves. When you are talking BI in the games industry, 99% of the time you are talking about game analytics. A BI analyst at a gaming studio is really just a games analyst. What a disservice! After all, we spend our wakeful hours building data collection systems, honing analytical techniques, displaying and championing data—why would we just apply it to games?  Finance departments could use BI to better predict budgets; marketers could improve survey techniques and focus group testing; and artists could predict the "it" color for the next season.

As the front-man and general credit-stealer of a talented game-oriented BI team, I get to wear a multitude of hats.  On any given day, I may help architect the cloud web services that gather user telemetric data, inform game design with user trends or actions, optimize ETL processes, design intuitive visualizations and dashboards, innovate new analysis techniques, communicate market insight to the executive team, and evangelize data throughout the company. I list these roles to illustrate a point: a business intelligence resource is prized most for his or her versatility. To transform data into tangible business value, a business intelligence resource must have the business acumen to deliver actionable output and the technical ability to build and manipulate the underlying structure. This skill versatility becomes increasingly important as you move up the BI role ladder and the very best BI resources can and should have a profound impact on all forms of business decisions. 17 years ago, the powers that be (aka Howard Dresner) coined the term “business intelligence” to explain the field and its requisite versatility. It was a conscious move to get out of the technical abyss and move away from acronyms such as DSS (Decision Support System) and EIS (Executive information system). A seemingly logical movement was born. So after almost two decades of BI, why does the confusion still persist?

The obvious answer is that despite the prominent rise of tech-savvy CEOs such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg and Marissa Mayer, business and technical ability are still considered largely independent. When faced with the challenge of classifying someone who is equally adept at technical and business functions, the technical talent boasts a higher and more specific learning threshold and thus generally wins the naming battle. This is why despite the fact that I scored similarly well on both english and math, I was most known for my math ability. This could also be related to the fact that I am Asian, but that's a different topic for a different time.

The simple truth is that even as a BI professional, I assume little to no technical ability for job titles that start with "business." If I see a business analyst, I expect them to know their way around Excel but not how to actually pull and transform the data they need to perform their analysis. If I see a business engineer, I... actually I have no idea what a business engineer would do. But replace business with the word "data" and the whole expectation set shifts. If you are a data analyst and cannot explain market-basket analysis or navigate through relational databases, you will not be working for me. Data engineer? Welcome to the world of performance benchmarks, columnar indexes and elastic computing. So what skills do you expect a BI person to possess? Both business and data, right? But ultimately, no one calls me a business guy because my technical ability is a much starker differentiator than my business knowledge.  

I say all of the above to get to this ultimate point: the term business intelligence has lost relevance. Let's replace it with data intelligence. Yes, business intelligence resources impact business. But how do we impact business? With data. Data is the lifeblood, the start, the end, the hard and soft currency of everything we do. Without data, we have no intelligence to provide, and accordingly, no games to impact. Plus, here's a secret: the ultimate function of a BI resource is not to make the actual business decisions. It's to inform and support business decisions. You know who else supports business decisions? IT. No one is clamoring to put business in their title.  

So today, I want to introduce myself as the new head of Data Intelligence (DI) at Arkadium. The old guy in charge of BI had to go.

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