People ask me a lot about what it's like to have a data warehouse. I tell them it's most comparable to having children. The ones who have kids at home respond with a knowing look that reflects the enticing mixture of endless promise, pride, frustration, perplexity, mystery, excitement, fun and fear that is part and parcel of being a parent. The ones who don't give me the same blank stare they give all of their friends who used to be a solid bet for a few beers with the game of the week or a reliable shopping partner at a moment's notice, before they disappeared into a fog of disposable diapers, school waiting lists and baby-sitter hotlines. Just as with children, the conception of a data warehouse is great fun. Be it in an article, book or standing live before an apt executive committee, there's nothing more fun than sketching out the concepts of what an ideal data warehouse is and what it can do for an organization. Of course, that's the easy part; the long hard job of putting it together follows. To brighten these increasingly challenging days, just like friends throwing a baby shower, the organization will bestow unexpected gifts upon the data warehousing team. Resources, hardware and software will appear, as if by magic, wrapped with the burgeoning expectations of unlimited potential implicit in the coming birth.
Of course, the actual delivery is a tremendous amount of work. Indescribable to anyone who hasn't experienced it, impossible to describe in scope, duration or intensity. And, like an obstetrician, consultants will be there to assist in the delivery, share in the initial moments of bliss, glory and celebration and chalk up another successful birth, only to disappear into the sunset, leaving large bills in their wake.
And there you are. Alone with a bundle of joy that represents all your hard work, planning, preparation, fears, hopes and dreams and with absolutely no operating experience and no owner's manual. All the well wishers are gone, the balloons have all shriveled, it's 2 a.m., the jobs are all abending, the alarms are screaming, and nothing you do seems to make a difference.
Yes, a data warehouse is just like a newborn child. It requires endless investment, continual attention, care and feeding. It makes messes and is constantly changing and evolving. And just like a new parent, you are quickly introduced to the reality that the real work starts after the delivery, not before. Every day is an adventure with ever-changing challenges, expectations, lessons, triumphs and tragedies.
When I try to explain this simple fact that the challenge is not in building, but in sustaining I get a lot of empty stares and minimization from people who've never actually built a data warehouse or, more importantly, sustained one. It's very similar to trying to explain what it means to have kids to a young, childless couple. "But we have a cat," they explain. "We've had little Timmy over a lot of times, so we know what it's about," they are quick to offer. "We have a full grown dog, and let me tell you, she's a lot of work with twice-daily walks, grooming and boarding. It just never ends," they say earnestly, desperately trying to earn their way into this mysterious guild of parenthood.
But that can never be. Until you have children, you can never really understand. Until you try to raise a child, day after day, year after year, you can never understand the joys and frustrations, the sleepless nights, the heart-bursting pride, the first steps, the first words, the first recital, the first date, the first driver's license the endless stream of "firsts" that defines "parenthood." Similarly, until you live with a data warehouse, day after day, month after month, you can never know. Until you fight the sustainability battles of recruitment and retention, fend off the resource raiders, beat back the excess expectations, test and implement recalcitrant tools and technologies, find and retain funding, survive the political wars and use your data warehouse to deliver value to the business, you can never understand.
So think long and hard about who you rely on in data warehousing. You wouldn't turn to a family counselor who was unmarried and had no children. You wouldn't count on a spouse who was only good for conception, development and delivery. When it comes down to the day-to-day reality of data warehousing, you need more than theories on conception and the ideal child, more than diaper salespeople, more than obstetricians, more than chums who are quick with advice but short on experience. You need team members (internal and external), advisors and counselors who have been there, done that over the long haul.
And speaking of the long haul, if this analogy of data warehouses as children holds true over time, we may all face some hefty challenges. We have four teenagers in our family; and let me tell you, if adolescent data warehouses are anything like teenagers, I'm changing careers.
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