Your Christmas Cookies Can Teach You About Data: Sugar Cookies

iStock_000014842218XSmall-Xmascookies

I don’t do a lot of baking. My kitchen is mostly the place where I blend my breakfast and enable my caffeine addiction. But my family has a tradition of making dozens and dozens of cookies every holiday season. Sugar cookies, No Bake Cookies, Snickerdoodles…the list just goes on and on.

As I was looking in my pantry for ingredients this year, I started thinking about how the process of producing cookies was a lot like data architectures. I may have been drinking. I’m pretty sure of it, actually. A lot. I mean I’m a lot sure I might have been drinking. A lot.

This week I bring to you a short series about Christmas Cookies and data.

Sugar Cookies

Yum! Probably the most common version of Christmas cookie is the decorated, cut out sugar cookies. Recipe books, blogs and food network shows make them look so easy. They contain just a few simple ingredients (butter, sugar, flour, salt, vanilla, eggs) that form the basis of almost all other higher forms of cookies.

What makes these special is what you do with that dough. The most exciting versions have you to roll out the dough, cut it out with cute cookie cutters, bake, cool, then decorate them. It’s just cutters and icing, right?

The Big Lie

I’m here to tell you that it’s all a lie. First, unless you have a lot of practice, the dough never rolls out cleanly because a whole lot of things have to go right first. Then you cut them out and they fall apart or tear. You’ll end up burning the first few batches until you know how your oven heats and how your baking pans work.  Maybe you need at Silpat liner. Or parchment paper.  Or an actual baker.

But no amount of equipment prepares you for the disaster of decorating them. They NEVER come out like the pictures. Those cookies on blogs and in recipe books are probably made by specialist magical cookie elves who spent their 10,000 hours learning to make cookies from Betty Crocker herself.  With Photoshop. I’m pretty sure every decorated cookie recipe is shopped worse than a Ralph Lauren model.

There are all kinds of warnings in the recipes: let the cookies cool on a rack. But who has time for that? Be agile and decorate them while the cookies are still in the cooling sprint. Oh. Crap. What the heck happened? If you haven’t spent a lot of time doing some test and training baking, your first set of cookies are going to be an embarrassment.

Burnt Cookie by Flare http://www.flickr.com/photos/75898532@N00/Cookie - http://joshuafennessy.com/

Silver Balls, Silver Balls…

And did you know that those little silver and gold balls that are the key part of the most beautiful cookies ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE EATEN? It says so right there on the label, “To be used as a decoration, not as a confection”. I bet you didn’t even RTFML. You’ve been unintentionally poisoning your kids and grandpa for decades. Or maybe intentionally. I won’t ask.

Silver Balls with warning (c) Karen Lopez

Lessons Learned

What does this teach us about data?

  1. Recipes make everything look easy. A lot of people see the recipe books and assume that making these cookies is very easy. And yet it’s difficult to get them right. The dough needs to be the right temperature and have the right ratio of ingredients to make the dough the right consistency. This requires not just a recipe, but a lot of practice.  It also requires good technique, the right tools and the right environmental factors.

    The same thing applies to data architecture. Sure, one can watch a 45 minute presentation on what all those boxes and lines are, but until they have applied the principles then lived with the results of their practice designs, they won’t really understand why one cannot just use melted butter or leave out the baking soda because it’s easier. It takes a lot of experience to be a good architect. Just like it takes a lot of experience to make beautiful decorated cookies.

  2. Demos of data modeling and design tools make everything look a lot easier than they are in real life. Part of this is because demos take time to give and they have to deal with the easy case. Sure you can migrate a database from Oracle to SQL Server by running a wizard. But you might not like the database or the data that comes out the other end. In fact, I can guarantee it you won’t. Migrating from one infrastructure to another always requires analysis, design, and implementation expertise. Decisions, even. Tools are never a substitute for design.
  3. If you are an amateur, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Heck, even professionals will make mistakes. But amateurs are going to make more.  It’s how it works.  You make mistakes, learn from them, get better. You’re going to burn a lot of data, and therefore users and ultimately customers.  You can read all the recipes in the world and watch all the episodes of Iron Chef, but living with the results of your design decisions is what helps you learn. It’s okay to make a lot of mistakes if you are learning in a class. Or are working on a development project iteration.

    Production, though, is like learning to cook your first meal for Christmas dinner for a close family of 20-30 people. It doesn’t scale well and you’ll just end up disappointing everyone in a big way. Heck, you might even kill some people with your bad design.  You might have some letters after your name, but until you get to the professional level, don’t call yourself a chef.  Well, you can, but your customers aren’t going to trust you after the second batch.

  4. You need to read and learn. Warning labels are a good start. The great think about most data principles is that they haven’t changed a lot. The technologies have, but not the foundations.  If you don’t read and learn, you won’t be in a position to deal with change that is coming whether you want it or not.
  5. Some ingredients for data actually don’t really help the data. Comma delimited data in a column is fast. It allows people to go around the whole data governance process. Stuffing internal-only customer data in to AddressLineFour is fine, right? Until someone prints that on the envelope and mails it to the customer. Sure, these cute workarounds are shiny and happy. You need to be able to see when people are proposing the equivalent of shiny silver balls. They are pretty, but not for use in real life. You can quote me on that.

There are probably a lot more lessons to be learned from Sugar Cookies, but I just wanted to cover the basics. Just like the ingredients for Sugar Cookies.

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