This article first appeared on SimpleAnalytical.com, a blog for data analysts looking to grow their data skills and level up their data careers. If you enjoyed this article join my mailing list for weekly(ish) stories, hints, tips and interviews from across the data world.
Remote working has been one of the major highlights of the technology revolution of the past decade.
Taking the dog for a mid-day walk. Picking your kids up from school. Hitting the gym at lunchtime for a serious biceps session (what, just me?)
Can’t do those sitting in an open plan office with 200 other people trying (and failing) to focus on their SQL code.
Working from your low cost of living, no commute, small town means you are miles away from a major city and the in-person tech communities that live there.
It can get lonely. You can feel like you’re being left behind and working in a virtual vacuum.
This can be tough at any stage of your career but especially in the formative early years when it’s even more important to soak up knowledge from co-workers a little further down the track.
Even if you live and work in the city, you might find your rather introverted nature is bringing up anxiety on getting involved with other data professionals outside of your own day-to-day work. So how do we overcome these issues and get more active in the data community?
Here are 10 ways for you to get up and running and find your data tribe. Online or offline, we have plenty of options to experiment with:
Doesn’t matter where in the world you live, fire up your browser and you’re instantly in a massively crowded room full of people looking for the same thing you are - to be part of a data community.
My personal favourite online forum is Reddit. It gets a bad rep sometimes because of it's vast size and the breadth of topics it covers across hundreds of sub-Reddits. Don’t let that put you off.
You can niche down further depending on your own tastes with forums specifically for SQL, Python, PowerBI, Tableau - you name it, Reddit has a large crowd of people ready and willing to talk about all aspects of it.
But to get the most out of your online data community forum experience, don’t limit yourself to just reading the other posts. That’s a great place to start and feel your way into the internal culture of how other forum members talk to each other.
But to really get into the community, you need to chip in on discussions. Add your own take on what’s being discussed, even if you think someone else has already said it. There is always real value in bringing your own experience to the table.
I’ve found the data community on Twitter to be the most welcoming, helpful and (generally) least toxic of all the social networks. Find the right people to start following and then go down the rabbit hole of seeing who interacts with them and who you want to keep up to date with.
There is so much excellent content being shared it can be difficult to keep up so try not to get swamped. As with forums, you’ll get more value out of overcoming the fear of joining in by actually tweeting replies and adding your own take on discussions.
It’s a community so there will be the odd knob. Block and mute are your friends. To paraphrase Van Wilder Party Liaison, arguing on the internet is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.
I have major trust issues with Facebook as an organisation. But it’s hard to argue with the number of specialised communities that it houses in Facebook Groups. Whether you are into Power BI, Tableau, different cloud providers, data science, data analysis, you name it, there will be a ton of Groups sitting waiting to receive you.
That doesn’t mean that all are created equally though so it will take some trial and error to find ones that suit you. The more controlled nature of FB Groups in terms of sheer volume of members means it can be easier to get your voice heard but you do have the downside of less regular discussions coming up from the smaller pot of people. Maybe that suits you better than a wide open space like Twitter or Reddit though.
It’s the number one business-related social network on the planet. There is a vibrant (and talkative) data community discussing all manner of data-related topics on a daily basis.
Everyone who is anyone is on there including all major recruiters for top companies all over the world. But sometimes the feeling that it’s all a bunch of sleazy salesmen selling to other sleazy salesmen can be hard to shift.
I read my LinkedIn news feed some days and feel like I need to have a bath. And then a shower just to make sure. It makes me feel dirty. Saying that, there are some great data folks on there providing daily valuable content.
The comment sections can be hit-and-miss. It’s easy to get lost in the throng of self-promoting big talkers who are always eager to push their gatekeeping agendas. But get the right people to follow and you can learn a lot.
Once you’ve got your sea legs with commenting on Reddit and Twitter, you’ll find the comment and Tweet format aren’t quite enough for all you have to say on a subject. That’s the time to start your own blog.
Even if you are posting articles to the sound of silence for a while until you build up a readership, it’s still the most valuable development programme you can put yourself through.
Own your platform. Self-host using Wordpress or a static site generator (like Gatsby, Hugo or Jekyll) and just get writing. It improves your process of thinking through problems and is a great way to show potential employers that you can 1) write and 2) deliver those thoughts in a clear and succinct manner.
Get enough people reading your posts and start a regular email newsletter list as well. This is hands-down the best advice I can give to any data professional. Bar none.
I prefer Dev myself as the community here is smaller and a little more cosy than in other places. Don’t just drive-by post and then run off. Get involved the comments on yours and other posts and become a proper part of the community.
That’s what it’s all about after all. Offering up your own articles and thoughts is just your table stakes. The real value comes after that by helping others and joining in discussions on what they have to say about what you have to say.
Medium is bigger but they have a paywall and I don’t think it improves the service for readers or writers. Plenty of data people disagree so it’s purely a matter of personal taste.
“Just a small town girl living in a lonely world”.
Journey had it right but it doesn’t have to stay that way for you in your hometown forever. If you have a large town or small city nearby, look on meetup.com for any data-related local meetups, make the effort to visit and meet some real human flesh people.
If you don’t find any then start your own. Even if it’s a handful of people from your town sitting around one small table in a coffee shop, it’s a start. And you might be surprised how many others like you are out there just waiting for something to materialise.
If you are on the introvert end of the scale (like me), you might even be better off organising your own as it gives you a job to do and something to focus on rather than sitting like a non-speaking extra at the side of the room. Just a thought.
Following local data community people on Twitter might give you an insight into where and when they go to meetups and a quick DM can be a great icebreaker.
The souped up version of local meetups. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of people milling around. Salespeople on booths trying to grab your interest. Too many talks to see in a day. And ticket prices that can run into thousands.
None of these are selling points to me. I don’t like big crowds for a start. Conferences can be incredibly useful though if you take a strategic plan of action to them.
Get your company to pay for it. Always.
Have a very targeted pre-plan for which talks you want to see. Don’t just wing it on the day, it rarely works out well.
If there are other people you’ve been in contact with on social media or forums (you have been interacting haven’t you?) then pre-arrange to meet up with them for a coffee in-person if it suits them and they have time.
Probably best not to wander around until you spot them and leap out from behind a booth to tell them you’re their number one fan. Personal boundaries and all that.
No-one wants to be friends with Annie Wilkes no matter how much they enjoy their ego being stroked.
The good thing is there has never been so much fantastic free data and analytics content available on the internet. The bad thing is...there has never been so much free data and analytics content available on the internet.
How to sift through it all to separate the wheat from the chaff? You can’t read or listen to everything or else there would be no time to do the actual analysing. So signing up to some of the data community leaders’ newsletters is a good start.
Some like Avinash Kaushik’s Occam’s Razor are excellent as learning pieces in and of themselves. Others are a great way to get curated links to interesting content from a wide range of sources, some you may never have seen or heard of on your travels.
Interacting with those running the newsletters can be as simple as replying to their email, most are more than happy to discuss what they’ve been sending out. Plus you can also use those articles you have been writing for your own blog and pitch them as potential content for the newsletter in future.
Win-win scenario for all involved.
There are two simple steps to generating some interest around yourself and the things you are doing in the data community:
1) Make something.
2) Tell people about it.
Doesn’t get much simpler than that (in theory at least). But what do you build that hasn’t been done before?
For starters, who said it never had to be done before? Get a data source, could be open data or even scraped from the web. Transform it, display it and put it somewhere people can see it. Job done.
Could be an interactive dashboard. A niche job board scraped from various other sites. Or convert a spreadsheet with some measures about different cities for travellers into a fully fledged public-facing product like Pieter Levels did with Nomad List. I don’t think Pieter classes himself as any kind of data scientist but that doesn’t matter.
Data is the glue that holds together all areas of business. Ideas are all around you.
And once you’ve built v1.0, get back onto your blog to write about it. Then tell people in the forums and social media groups that you’ve been befriending and see if it starts any new conversations. And who knows where that might lead for you?
I hope these have given you some ideas for how to move out of your comfort zone in getting further involved in the data community. There are so many options available, both on our doorsteps and across the globe, but they’ll only become valuable if you make the effort to join in and contribute.
Creation, not just mindless consumption, is the key and that advice crosses over to more facets of our lives than just data. Good luck in your adventures!
If you have any other suggestions for ways to get involved in the data community or experiences you want to share, please get involved in the comments.