Book Review: Learning with Big Data

Big data, sample image

Recently, I had the opportunity to pick up a copy of Learning with Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier.  The book is one of many in a series on the topic of big data.  In a convenient, bite sized format, it serves as a fantastic introduction on how data/analytics can improve our education systems.  Mainly, the authors explain what big data is and outline its benefits. The book also talks about other developments in the ed tech space, such as MOOC’s (Massively Open Online Courses) and how they can integrate with our data learning systems.

I like that this book included many concrete examples and can appeal to anyone involved in our schools today.  I’m convinced teachers, technology administrators, trustees, board members, professors, parents, entrepreneurs, and students can pick up this book out of the blue, read it in one sitting, and walk away with a refined view on the many possibilities for our schooling environments.

Besides enjoying it, I’ve always felt the world has needed this book.  There are already a lot of misconceptions around big data and its possibilities. So, it’s nice to read a book that can explain the breadth of these opportunities for today and for the immediate future, without any overreaching promises.

I like that the book also raised the critical ethical concerns surrounding data analysis and collection in our school systems and the problems we might face in the near future.  Recently, I was at a meet up on child privacy, where similar questions were raised by the presenter.  It was interesting to hear these same concerns echoed by a CIO for a school board, who was a member of the audience.  It’s nice to see that the author has chosen to cover this topic as I can now pass his book off with confidence to members of the ed tech community at large.

In short, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about how data can help engage their students, improve their teaching methods, and fundamentally challenge the way we look at education.

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Growth 101: Four Benefits Of Email Marketing Your Startup Has to Know About

When it comes to taking on the giants, your greatest weapon is to provide the exceptional customer service your competitors often forget about.  With email marketing, you’ll be able to do just that.  You’ll engage with each of your customers like never before, craft messaging you know your audience will love, and steal the market share your firm deserves.  Email marketing is an essential tool in the arsenal of startup growth.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with a close friend who was thinking about expanding his firm’s marketing activities.  While he was basically asking me for a reliable email delivery tool, I felt he was just scratching the surface of what’s possible with email marketing.

Email marketing is a lot more than just an easy way to distribute your organizational newsletter, which was the use case scenario he had in mind.

Email marketing opens up a whole world of possibilities for all organizations.  It serves as a channel for higher, more intimate level of interaction with your customers and stakeholders.  My experience with email marketing tools has always led to better interactions, relationships, and profits that have paid for the tools themselves several times over.

I couldn’t help but wonder how many other startup founders and organizational leaders weren’t aware of the many benefits of email marketing, so I have outlined some of them below:

Testing and eventually crystallizing your firm’s messages

Besides sending out your emails, email marketing tools allow you to track when a specific customer opens up any of your emails.  You can also insert personalized links into your emails to see which pages each of your customers took the time to check out.

With a nice overview, you can compile the data and see right away which of your emails your customers as a whole took interest in.  Eventually, you can try out different subject lines as well as content messages and gauge how your customers react.  This allows you to shape your future email campaigns in ways you know your customers will love.

It’s common practice to send each of your emails campaigns first to a small fraction of your audience.  You can test out different subject lines and content messages you think could work.  Then, you can send the refined email draft to your entire campaign list knowing it has become more effective.

If you have a sales force, it helps to show them the data from email campaign testing because it can help them understand your customers’ core needs better.

Smoking out engaged prospects

By combining automation tools like Hubspot or Marketo, as well as email marketing tools, you can begin to narrow down which of your subscribers are truly engaged with your firm’s messages. Hubspot would let you track each visitor’s interest in your website such as how much time they might have spent on it as well as which pages (like pricing, perhaps) they might have checked out.  At the same time, Hubspot could also integrate with your email marketing tool and be able to tell if a customer is opening your email messaging and checking out its content in greater detail.  It could also collaborate with your social media accounts, webinars, and other marketing tools to get a bigger picture understanding.

Eventually, it can mark the customer leads that are taking a particular interest in your company’s messaging and detail which aspects of your campaigns are appealing to them.

You can then share these hot leads with your sales force and they can begin crafting their account strategy to win over the client.

A tighter bond between your product and your customers

With transactional email marketing tools like Mandrill or Sendwithus, you can integrate email into your products like never before.  Recently, I was trying out a web scraping product called, after tampering with it for a few minutes, I just could not get it to work.  After a brief cold period where I had closed the product and had begun searching for alternatives, I was blown away when I received an email from one of their support staff.  Here’s a snapshot below:

In essence, they had built their product to smoke out the leads that might have run into some common pitfalls or just could not get the product to work.  Their product would then shoot out an automated email through some type of email transactional tool, to let me know there is support available if I need it.

In essence, with transactional email marketing tools, you can send out emails to your customers based on how they interact with or experience your product and appeal to them in more engaging ways.

There are many creative ways to engage your customers with transactional emails, a lot of these ways can amplify your product’s bottom line by huge margins.

Creating a real engine of growth

Through email marketing and eventually marketing automation tools, you can segment your customers based on their level of engagement with your brand’s messaging.  You might put customers who are not really engaged into what’s called a, “drip campaign” and send them infrequent messaging every now and then to keep them interested in your brand.  You might try the occasional, special, limited time offer to pull them back into your product.  You might notice some visitors are almost over the fence and are close to becoming customers, in which case, you’ll send them targeted messaging you think will convert them.

You’ll begin to put your customers through what’s known as a, “marketing funnel” and begin fine tuning/crystallizing your firm’s process of converting prospects into satisfied customers.

Through email marketing, you can develop a finely tuned marketing machine that fuels your bottom line.  Email marketing is an indispensable tool for firms of all sizes and the possibilities it has to grow your brand are endless.

Speaking of email marketing, please feel free to subscribe to The David x Goliath email list to keep up with my latest postings.

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The Sunday Night Hustle: Your bed is not a desk space

Night time picture

Since when did you have so much to do moments before falling asleep?  Besides checking your favourite sites and apps, you might:

  • Shoot out some emails
  • Look up a new topic you didn’t have time for during the day
  • Jot down a quick idea/note
  • Write down stuff in your calendar for the next day

In one case, a close friend of mine would chat online for hours with his girlfriend late into every night, until he fell asleep.  However, sometimes they would be talking about tough relationship stuff.  So, I don’t think he really got any sleep at all.

Like many others, I used to sleep beside my phone while it would charge at night.  It’s nice to check your phone uninterrupted in those last few moments of solitude in the day, but I found that it was ruining my abilities to sleep well.  Here’s how I overcame this habit, got better sleep, and became more productive.

Your Bed is Not a Desk Space

Your bed is not a desk space.  So stop looking stuff up that you didn’t have time for during the day and stop answering your emails.

Move your phone away from your bed and get some shut eye

It’s a super common solution: I moved my charger away from my bed, on the other side of the room. This requires me to get out of bed and walk over in order to check anything on my phone.

I made a promise to myself: unless it’s a call, I will not be getting up to check my phone at night.  This means the phone is on silent and I am ignoring all notifications, texts, and emails.  It took a bit of self-discipline, but as soon as I started sleeping better and felt refreshed, it became effortless.

Learn to Wait Until Tomorrow
Protect your sleep time.  Most things aren’t super pressing or require your immediate attention. If something crosses your mind as you’re about to fall asleep, learn to take a mental note and simply wait until the morning.

But, what about my alarm app?
The only time I actually get up to check my phone, is when my alarm app goes off the next day.  Before when I used to sleep beside my phone, I’d have to set up multiple alarms because they were so easy to turn off. Now, I only need to set one alarm since I need to physically get up and walk across the room to turn my alarm off.

But, what if I want to check my phone anyways before I call it a night?
I felt the same way as well.  As a result, I setup a specific reading area away from my bed where I sit comfortably and quickly check any last minute apps/sites.  I’ve attached a picture below:

This is my designated area to check out any last minute updates.  Afterwards, my phone is in the charger and no longer on my mind for the rest of the night.

So, what’s it like, anyways?
I’ve never slept better and I’ve never felt so energized the next day.  The truth is, I missed the solitude, time to reflect, and opportunity to crystallize my thoughts.  It’s nice to separate yourself from the outside world and reclaim the time that once belonged entirely to you.

Often, the battle is won before the war.  In, The Sunday Night Hustle segment, Bakz Awan provides tips for improving productivity and mentally preparing for the upcoming work week.  Subscribe today.

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Free Software is a Tough Sell

I personally believe there is a huge gap between the open-source coding communities and regular computer users that must be mediated. The systems to clearly explain what open source is to friends, do not exist and I feel like members of open source communities overall have done very little to outline the benefits of the open source ideology to the general public.

Let’s face it: if you’re a nerd, you probably think open source software is great. While open source licensing for a product can vary, open source software is free, generally more secure, and support is usually available through community forums. The great thing about some open source projects is that they are disassociated from commercial interests and the decisions being made for a product are considered best for the application, instead of the shareholders. To top it off, if you’re an even bigger fan of open source, you can contribute your own code to a project, write manuals, learn from the code, fix bugs, construct a modification to extend functionality, or assist struggling members within the community.

The sad part is, a lot of non tech-savvy users take advantage of the open source mindset everyday without even knowing it. They experience the benefits of open source directly through common open source projects such as VLC media player, Firefox, Thunderbird, the Android operating system, or even Open Office. These applications are used by millions of users everyday, with several of these users not even knowing about the open source ideas which made these products possible to begin with.

I usually have no difficulty in finding an open source alternative to the software I want and often find better alternatives compared to closed source solutions. I’m very pleased with the diversity and quality of open source applications available, but trouble arises when I explain what open source is to my non-computer savvy friends.

Whenever I explain the difference between an open source application and a closed source application, my non-tech savvy friends say things like, “oh, its free? It must really suck” or “open-source software? Sounds too nerdy for me” or even, “it’s free? It must be so hard to use. Other common responses include, “will it give me, like, a virus? Is it glitchy? So, who writes all these open source applications? Adobe? Apple?”. More often than not, I find myself bombarded with these questions and I don’t know where to start, or what to say. By the time I have fully fielded all of their questions, the idea of it seems too skeptical for ordinary users and my explanations get too advanced for them to understand.

I think the root of the issue is that, as a coder, I find myself more personally attached to the idea of open source, to the point that it’s almost too internalized and intuitive to explain; and frankly, a cut-and-paste definition from Wikipedia or of open source doesn’t cut it. It isn’t just a word; it’s an ideology. It really is hard to explain what open source is to individuals of varying and especially lower levels of computer experience.

The root of the issue also lies in the fact that open source really is too good to be true, so I don’t blame my friends for being skeptical. When you list the advantages of open source (free, more secure, community-driven), it’s almost overbearing; but that doesn’t make it a bad thing. At the heart of its benefits, open source is generally free. As a marketing student, one aspect of psychological pricing includes the idea that a cheap product is automatically considered to be of poor quality; thus, when high quality software is given, especially for free, one assumes it must be terribly written code.

I think the open source communities need to collaborate on publicly addressing such levels of skepticism. I’m not, in any way, saying we should discontinue closed-source applications but I think innovation overall could benefit from greater awareness of the open-source mindset.

Put quite simply, if coders and open source community members spent more time collaborating on how to spread the mindset of open source in a meaningful, simple, and powerful way we’d have more members contributing to open source projects. Open source documentation, tutorials, funding, and coding would experience the benefits of multiple perspectives, more volunteers, and greater accessibility. We’d have more thriving project communities and the general public would appreciate the value/impact of open source and realize that there is something within the ideology itself worth talking about.  I, for one, truly believe there is.

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Confessions of a Non Gamer: How Spec Ops 2 taught me to appreciate gaming

In all honesty, I don’t enjoy video games.  Mind you, I don’t hate them.  I know they’re considered the epitome of art, technology, and story telling.  I also recognize that it’s a multi billion dollar industry.  In an effort to get hooked, I’ve tried a multitude of games on my own and with friends.  I’ve just never been into them.

The reality is that you’d, “expect” a guy like me to be interested in them.  After all, I fit the demographic.  I’m in my 20’s, I’m a male, and have a strong interest in media and technology.  I grew up with all the same consoles and have siblings who game passionately.  So the heart of the question is: what holds me back?

As a side note, yes, guys like me actually exist in the world.  We’re rolling our eyes when the topic shifts to games. We’re, “button mashing” and trying to act cool when we know we’re embarrassing ourselves.  We’re also missing character/plot references left and right in everyday conversation and reading news headlines about the gaming industry with no idea what all the fuss is about.

I’ve never seen gaming as uncivilized or some kind of nerdy activity.  In fact, I see it as a phenomenal past time for all ages. I see it as a celebration of our humanity. An ability to dream, imagine, and push the boundaries of art and technology.  In short, I don’t look down on gamers or see them as nerds.

You could make the argument that maybe I’m just bad at gaming and that’s why I don’t enjoy them.  I couldn’t argue with that, even when it comes to using a game controller properly, my experience is lacking.  Perhaps there is a learning curve in gaming at first and it just becomes enjoyable after that point.  However, I’ve never really had that drive that other gamers have to make it past such a learn learning curve, solve a level, or complete a game.

I’d like to draw a comparison. In the same way people don’t have an interest in swimming, or extreme sports, or chess, I just don’t have an interest in gaming.

Despite this lack of interest in gaming, just recently, a friend insisted I try out the Spec. Ops. 2 – The Line game. While I was reluctant to take part, he insisted I try it out for him.  I’d like to take this opportunity to share my experience as I worked through the game.  While I can admit I’m still not hooked on gaming, I hope that an outside perspective can provide a refreshing review for such a phenomenal game.

In the spec ops game, I was, naturally, part of a special operations team sent to rescue captives in the post-catastrophic wastelands of Dubai. The Special Forces team arrives with little idea of the events that took place prior to the catastrophe.  The team has to piece together the events that happened as the story progresses.  Having close friends caught in the middle of this disaster, the main character has an emotional connection to rescue the captives involved.  I played the game at novice level and my friend got me through the more difficult parts.

A key takeaway from this game I found was the thought of, “what, exactly, is going on”?  During the game, you end up deeply questioning exactly whose side you represent. While you’re wearing a US army uniform and navigate through challenges with other members in your team, you often find the enemy itself is wearing that same uniform or perhaps, even used to serve with you.  You end up questioning what a casualty even looks like or who it is that you should rescue.  At the beginning of the mission, my general motive was to save every person wearing the same US army uniform, but towards the end of the mission, I was regretting such a thing.  As a character, I had to come to terms with what my former army colleagues had done.  As the gamer, I was overwhelmed with confusion and difficult, straining emotions.

For the first time ever, I found I was feeling a unique kind of empathy I’d never felt before with other kinds of media.  I had come to the realization: do actual Special Forces teams ever feel this alone?  It’s very difficult to piece together key details as they unfold, and identify the culprits and the causalities.  How do actual Special Forces personnel make such tough decisions?  I couldn’t help but feel empathic for some military leaders – a thought that had never occurred to me before.  It would be very difficult to detail my decision making process as a leader for this team to a court or military tribunal.  I found these thoughts led to a unique kind of empathy I had never experienced before.  Having been inside the main character’s mindset, making decisions for him, and learning key details as the mission unfolded I couldn’t help but relate to the character and the difficulty of his job.  At the same time, I grew to appreciate the art of gaming.

A key part of the game involved being held at gun point and having to choose between saving a fellow soldier or a civilian, both were accused of wrongdoings.  Immediately, I found myself siding with the soldier, only because we were from the same background and were wearing the same US army uniform.  I killed the civilian right away.

Another key part of the game is when you’re given the option to use chemical warfare to increase your chances of meeting mission objectives.  I used it without thinking twice and later found out they were all innocent civilians.

These decisions I made, which made sense to me during the mission, created a stain in the back of my mind and I couldn’t help but wonder: what could I have done instead?

Clearly, my choices within the game said a lot about me as a person.  Chances are, if I was brought into a Special Forces unit, I would make similar decisions.  Does this make me a bad guy?  I had found it difficult to explain my actions to others later on and felt a kind of guilt I’d never felt before over making such calls.  I felt this was a unique experience you could only get with gaming.

In summary, I’m glad my friend had shown me the game. Since I was left thinking about these kinds of questions, this clearly meant the game had gotten under my skin.  Notably, I hadn’t experienced this with any other form of media before in my life.  While I don’t think I’ll become hooked on games simply because I’m not in the habit, I have a greater respect for gamers now.  I can see where they are coming from, and can truly understand what it means to experience a game.

I’ve learned that gaming places individuals within situations like no other form of media.  It isn’t really just graphics and technical achievement which make a game great. I’ve found that the beauty of a game overall is the craft of the experience itself.  Placing the audience in unique situations, cornering them to make tough decisions, bringing out their raw identities, and emphasizing the consequences of all of their choices – making the best experience possible – is the true craft behind game development.

I would highly recommend to any of my non-gamer friends out there to at least try out the Spec Ops game and to sit through most of it with an experienced gamer friend who can offer valuable feedback and perhaps even navigate you through the challenging parts.  If you chunk out an evening, you can get through most of the game.  Even if you don’t end up getting hooked on games, at the end of the day, you will at least have walked away with a refined perspective on where gamers are coming from, much like I have.

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