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Custom Car or Daily Driver?

Tammy AmmonMarch 19, 2019

This week I’m attending the Gartner Data & Analytics conference for the second straight year.  (I highly recommend it, by the way.) And twice today I’ve heard references to an open-source car. Basically, the presenter puts up a slide with a picture of a bunch of mechanical parts, and the premise is this: if you had access to all of the parts you wanted or needed for free, could you build your own car?  The presenter poses the question to the audience of hundreds, and maybe one or two hands go up, if that many.  Let’s face it – most of us can’t even change a tire anymore, much less build our own car.

But the point of the open-source car analogy is this: to take your data and analytics practice where you’d like it to go AND in the amount of time you’d like to get there, you’re going to have to do some outsourcing. It might be a platform, it might be a tool, it might be services – AND, news flash, you’re going to have to pay for that.  Bottom line – you’re going to need some help to do the things that aren’t native to your business, and depending on free parts you have to assemble when you are not a car guy or gal is likely not a winning combination.

Now this analogy brings me some deep-down joy because my better half actually does build cars for a hobby.  He’s crazy talented, and it’s his creative outlet.  You can usually find our garage filled with some combination of car parts, hopes, and dreams (and occasionally profanity – it’s not an easy hobby).  He simply likes to build things.  Sound familiar?  If you are an engineer or data scientist, you also likely suffer from the proclivity to build things.

But my closeness to this analogy made me think of another reason it truly does work.  There’s just something about building a car that makes you dream, that makes you feel empowered.  It allows you to ask yourself “What if?” quickly followed by, “How can I?”  These are wonderful questions.  And if you don’t have to hop in the car to go get groceries or take the dog to the vet or get to work, you are free to dream and experiment, try, fail, and try some more, and you’ve given up very little.

The reason you’ve given up very little is because you’re likely not doing these building experiments on your daily drive. For your daily drive, you expect to get in the car, turn the key, step on the gas (maybe a little too hard), and go.

In business, you need a daily driver.  You need those data and analytics tools, platforms, and services you can count on.  You need to be able to get answers easily and quickly when your business is depending on you.  You need to run a model, view a dashboard, or interrogate your data.  You just need it to work.

At the same time, you also don’t want to give up the ability to dream.  Here’s the rub.  Organizations often try to make a custom car their daily driver, and we all know what happens then.  It takes you five years to finish the custom car, and by that time, you’ve found an entirely new chassis you would have built the car on if you only knew then what you know now. And you’re ready to start over.  Meanwhile, with no daily driver you’re left to hoof it, Uber, bicycle, or hitchhike your way around as you try to continue to get all of those daily tasks done.  It’s expensive and frustrating. Yes, the parts were free, but you’ve cost yourself way more than you saved.

Now, if you are Chip Foose (Google him, it’s totally worth it), building custom cars is your jam.  You have clients, and you are paid to build those custom and powerful beauties.  But that is his job. He gets paid to make cars.

What does your business get paid to do? It’s an important question, because it can help you know when to go custom vs. rely on buying a daily driver. Look at those areas that you know best, areas that are unique to your industry, unique to your business model, or unique to your customer relationships.  That’s where you need to invest your time.   For everything else, buy a daily driver (or two).

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