One Large Data, Hold the Geek: the Rise of Hilary Mason

“Thank you for making our field less boring and depressing!” – Group thank you note from the big data industry to Hilary Mason

Okay, okay: that’s not true… But it’s close. You only need to skim through the comments on big data scientist Hilary Mason’s website to find out how stoked the nerd community is about her and how ready some dataphiles are to awkwardly propose. One fan, after outlining several elements of a lecture Mason gave that he enjoyed, concluded: “And I must say, your breathtaking voice was such a pleasure with which to listen to them…… [sic].” Yeah, really. That is true.

The IT subfield of big data is not just big really, but enormous and booming. IDC predicted in December that the field would grow to $16.1 billion this year, at a pace 6 times that of overall IT market growth.

Tesla & Business Poster Children

It can help a field enormously when there is a standout expert who defies expectations. For instance, look at Elon Musk of Tesla Motors: his company revolutionized the electric car last year (and brushed off the hooplah over three Model S fires last fall – see the “What About Safety Overall?” Section here).

Musk was not made by Tesla but by previous business experience, particularly as cofounder of PayPal, and no one considered him a tree-hugging enviro-maniac in light of his CEO position at private space shuttle company SpaceX. Part of the reason for the success of Tesla is that it had an improbable poster child who was charismatic but turned heads because he didn’t fit the expected mold.

Hilary Mason is similar. Sure, she’s smart, and she’s much more than just a superficial representative of big data: she’s a thought leader who was Chief Scientist at bitly for four years and is currently Data Scientist in Residence at Accel. Part of the reason she is getting so much attention in the press, though, is that she was as improbable as Musk. In a field dominated by men and mechanistic, mathematical thought, a pretty young woman whose bio states, “I <3 data and cheeseburgers” earns a double-take. In effect, Mason is making big data more fun to discuss. Sure, she’s nerdy, but she’s also attractive and personable.

So She’s Photogenic, What Else?

It isn’t just that Mason doesn’t look the part, but that she wants to communicate with everyone rather than using esoteric jargon only understood by tech professionals. In interviews, she discusses the applications of big data in terms of empathy and understanding human behavior. Put another way, she understands that data isn’t really about data. It’s a means to an end, and big data analysis allows us to process the world quantitatively so that we can improve it qualitatively.

Furthermore, she has helped to define a field the Harvard Business Review calls the sexiest segment of the century (and as we all know, Harvard experts are known for their mind-boggling sexual prowess). Mason is relatively new to the business world, but she started making advances immediately, helping to build the idea of data science and figure out how it could best integrate with business. She rallied data nerds to join forces and juice the field with more power through collaboration. Specifically, she started an annual conference in New York (in partnership with others) called DataGotham and was co-founder of HackNY, an organization to locate and develop young computing talent.

Mason wanted to work with others because she promotes understanding the perspective of a business by listening and feeling for their needs. Of course that makes sense, but it helps to have someone spell it out that analyzing data is just like anything else: the good stuff helps us better understand the world, better understand each other, and better meet the needs of business customers.

What’s New – Fast Forward Labs

Hilary Mason does not want to give out all her secrets for free, though. She has started a consulting group called Fast Forward Labs. The organization doesn’t build applications to mine and analyze data but instead empowers its customers to work with big data themselves and find tools themselves. The company produces an expensive newsletter discussing current and emerging software that can be used to process chunks of data more effectively.

Mason certainly doesn’t care about stepping on toes. She knows that the science is young and still has much ground to cover before it will start realizing its potential – the jaw-dropping capabilities we seemingly all assume are on the horizon. Predictive algorithms that could determine who we are and what we want with small pieces of information are still ridiculously unrefined, Mason told the Wall Street Journal: “They’re actually fairly terrible.”

Hadoop, a repository for data created originally through a partnership of Yahoo and Google, stores data and then analyzes what it has collected. Mason instead is interested in real-time data analysis, understanding information as it streams.

Data at Mach Speed: About Us

Hillary Mason appreciates that data doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in relationship to time. In other words, she knows the incredible value of immediacy, and so do we. Plus, like Mason’s various enterprises, our cloud system is results-based and research-driven. We guarantee optimal performance for app development, and some folks find us as alluring as Mason (we hope).

By Kent Roberts

Image Credit: Crains New York

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