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Similarities and Differences between ML and Analytics

Season 5, episode 7 of the DataTalks.Club podcast with Rishabh Bhargava

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Alexey: This week, we'll talk about the similarities and differences between machine learning and analytics. We have a special guest today, Rishabh. Rishabh has worked with analytics and machine learning teams for more than seven years. Most recently, he led a sales engineering team at a data infrastructure company called DataCoral, which was acquired by Cloudera. He was helping analytics teams with their data pipelines there. Before that, he was an employee at, where he built and deployed machine learning models for multiple natural language applications. He also writes a newsletter called MLOpsRoundUp, which discusses challenges with machine learning production. Subscribe to that – it's This is a cool newsletter. I am subscribed, and you should do that as well. Welcome, Rishabh. (1:05)

Rishabh: Thank you for having me, Alexey. (2:06)

Rishabh’s background

Alexey: Before we go into our main topic, let's start with your background. Can you tell us about your career journey so far? (2:08)

Rishabh: Absolutely. You covered a little bit of that, but I'll give you a quick introduction myself. Until recently, I was at this data infrastructure company called Datacorel, which has just been acquired by Cloudera. In my time there, I had worked on engineering, some product work, and then some sales engineering work. Really, the goal for the team was, “How do you help data scientists move data from point A to point B as efficiently as possible so that they're not blocked on data engineering resources?” We had a nice little product that would allow them to do that. (2:15)

Rishabh: Before that, I was doing machine learning work myself at a company called Primer. There, we were basically helping customers make sense of a large amount of unstructured text. A lot of fun NLP problems including summarization, entity extraction, sentiment, classification – all of those fun things. So that was kind of my journey with Primer.

Rishabh: Before that, I was at Stanford doing a Master's in computer science. Lots of machine learning classes there. I was also a TA for a few classes, including the Andrew Yang machine learning class. As you mentioned at the end I write this newsletter called the ML Ops Roundup. It's been a pretty fun journey this past year to research, think about what is interesting to the community, and just write my learnings there.

Rishabh’s experience as a sales engineer

Alexey: What did you do as a sales engineer? I know it's a bit off topic, but I'm really curious, what did you actually do there? (3:44)

Rishabh: Absolutely. It's still a very technical role. It's about helping folks who are evaluating the product – “How to best understand what the capabilities are? What are the sorts of problems that it can solve for them?” Basically, “What are the things that it can do? What are the things that it can't do?” A lot of my work was actually just working with prospective customers, either doing demos or sometimes running trials with them. Sometimes it was just getting in the weeds with their data infrastructure and saying “Okay, maybe you might want to change this little X here, because not only will the integration with us become easier, but it will also make your life easier down the line.” So it was a lot of getting into the weeds with data infrastructure stuff for our customers, and then taking the product that we had and saying, “Here's how it would help. Here's what it could do for you.” (3:55)

Alexey: Which I guess also involved doing some proof of concepts? (4:47)

Rishabh: Absolutely. Yeah. (4:43)

Alexey: Then the customer would evaluate if this POC works for them or not. (4:55)

Rishabh: Exactly. I was responsible for the trials that we used to do with companies and the POCs. Yeah. (4:57)

Alexey: You mentioned that you did a Master’s at Stanford and that you were a TA at Andrew Yang’s course. That's cool. I took that at Coursera. Of course, I think it's pretty different from the real one. (5:04)

Rishabh: It's funny because I think some of the problem sets and such might be similar, or the programming assignments at least, but I haven't seen the exact courses. But, I’m sure it's still pretty good. (5:20)

Alexey: I was also doing my Master’s, though I wasn't really studying computer science. I think I ended up getting a Master's in computer science, but the main direction there was BI – business intelligence. I was studying BI and we were taking courses like data mining, data warehousing, business intelligence – all these kinds of things. In our courses, we studied two types of analytics. (5:35)

Alexey: One kind of analytics was ‘prescriptive analytics’ and the other kind was ‘predictive analytics’. Sometimes for predictive analytics, we would call it ‘data mining’. So it's not like you're just digging something up in your data but you also do some predictions there. I guess these ‘predictive analytics’ are what today we call ‘machine learning’ to some extent – we analyze some data that we have, and we do analytics in order to do predictions. But still, is there a reason why this thing is called ‘predictive analytics’?

Prescriptive vs predictive analytics

Alexey: Do you know what the main difference between these two types is – ‘prescriptive analytics’ and ‘predictive analytics’? (6:46)

Rishabh: This is super interesting, because many different fields have been working with data in different capacities for decades at this point. Today, we're having a conversation about analytics and machine learning and it's very much in the modern context – in ‘today's’ context. You referenced the word ‘data mining’. ‘Data mining’ is an old school kind of term, but it's really about just extracting patterns from data. You can do some extracting patterns by machine learning techniques – sometimes you can do it by clustering and those unsupervised kinds of techniques. (6:53)

Rishabh: But then there's also classic data mining techniques. I'd be curious about the predictive versus prescriptive, because predictive definitely sounds, from my very minimal understanding, very similar to machine learning work. But prescriptive, from what I gather at least, goes above and beyond. It’s also about “How do you explain this decision that was made? What are the implications of a particular decision that was made from a prediction?” So it encompasses a little bit more than the former. Is that generally how you remember prescriptive analytics?

Alexey: Exactly. If I translate what I studied to the work I'm doing now – to the work we're doing at OLX Group – I would say that ‘prescriptive analytics’ is what data analysts do and ‘predictive analytics’ is more what data scientists do, in addition to building services. At university, we were focusing more on algorithms, but not on actually putting these things in production. From what I remember, this was the main difference. So prescriptive is going through the data, understanding what’s there, and then coming out with a report. This is what I see my analyst colleagues doing – coming up with reports or dashboards. While predictive analytics is coming up with a model and then again, BI. This model would continue doing some predictions for time series. Then you would put this on a dashboard. (8:10)

Rishabh: That makes a lot of sense. It's funny, right? I can totally imagine that five years from now, if we have this conversation again, I bet the names would change a little bit. And we'd be talking about a slightly different concept, but it feels similar to what we've seen before. I think that's just how it goes. (9:15)

The problem with the term ‘data science’

Alexey: Actually, in the question that I initially put, I wrote ‘data science’. Then you left a comment saying: “Hey, let's not use ‘science’ here because it's too ambiguous. It can mean too many things.” (9:32)

Rishabh: It's too overloaded, at least to me. At different companies ‘data science’ can end up being just vastly different jobs. If somebody was being interviewed for a data science role, I think it's pretty important to just ask the team exactly what they mean and exactly the kinds of projects that they can imagine that the person will be doing. Because it can mean everything from writing some SQL and writing some code, all the way to building machine learning models – everything in that space. (9:45)

Alexey: You mentioned that it's interesting how this would be different in five years. It’s curious to me how data science will be different in 5 years. (10:18)

Rishabh: I mean, we're seeing some of those changes already. I think I saw that you interviewed somebody that was in analytics engineering. Is that right? That's a very recent thing. It's only maybe gained steam in the last six months to a year. So we're already seeing a new thing emerge that is probably here to stay. (10:30)

Should machine learning be part of analytics?

Alexey: Yeah, definitely. Who knows what will happen with ‘data scientist’ in the future? So, we talked about ‘predictive analytics’ and ‘prescriptive analytics’ – can we say that machine learning is actually a part of analytics? Or are they two different things? (10:48)

Rishabh: Hmm. Let’s put the ‘predictive vs prescriptive’ thing aside, because there might be some connotations of it being a subset there. To me, analytics and machine learning feel distinct. The goals there are slightly different. Maybe this is a good time to go into them in a little bit more detail. To me, analytics is about looking at data in the past. It's about looking at history and trying to understand what happened so that you can answer certain questions. The data is there, so there's a true answer that you're looking for, assuming that you've collected enough data. It's about “Here’s what happened.” (11:09)

Rishabh: Whereas machine learning work is often about looking at data in the past, but “Can you predict stuff in the future?” It’s always forward-looking. It's about making predictions and making forecasts. There are no guarantees that you're going to get it right, so it's about coming up with the best guess. At least when viewed from that lens, they end up being different things. Although, they might have shared data infrastructure or they might have the same people working on them. But often the mentality and the outcome of these two end up being a little bit different. Coming back to your original question, maybe some people would classify machine learning as a part of analytics. And maybe that's because often machine learning work begins in classic analyst teams – where they're sort of in a place where they can train a machine learning model. Maybe that's how it emerges for a few companies. But to me, they feel very different.

Alexey: Yeah, I saw something on this in a couple of talks about data engineering. Data engineers, at least in those talks, refer to machine learning things as ‘analytical workloads’. Things like training the model or scoring customers – they would refer to this as ‘analytical workloads’. I guess from a data engineering point of view, it's kind of similar. You're going through the data. You're doing something with the data. Then you’re producing more data. Right? From this point of view, maybe it's not that different. (12:54)

Rishabh: Yeah, that's possible. Look, I'll caveat this with – because I've been in the field, maybe similar things feel different to me. Whereas maybe somebody's looking at it somewhat from the outside and it may seem like kind of the same thing. But yeah, I totally hear that. (13:31)

Day-to-day of people that work with ML

Alexey: So basically, analytics is looking at the history and then describing what happened there. While machine learning is more forward-looking – describing what will happen. Okay. So, for analytics, usually, it's the data analysts that are working on this. While for machine learning, we can argue whether it's data scientists or somebody else doing it. But let's say that it's data scientists. For the people who work with machine learning, what does their day-to-day work look like? (13:48)

Rishabh: The starting point for that is “What is the outcome? What is the thing that the data science/machine learning team is producing?” Typically, it's going to be either a live-running system, which basically, you submit questions to it and it returns with the prediction – something that is a machine learning model behind an API. That's the live system that they're producing. Or they might be producing predictions that are computed on a daily basis and then stored in a database so that they can be consumed by the product later on. So, if you think about it, it’s a live system that they're producing and there are predictions to be made. (14:25)

Rishabh: You can imagine that some of the work that they're doing is figuring out “How do we make the prediction quality better?” That involves a whole set of machine learning activities – gathering data, labeling data, training models, hyper-parameter tuning. Then you get into some of the more ‘system’ aspects, which is, “How do you actually deploy it? What are the SLAs that the live system needs to produce?” Many companies have fraud teams that are trying to detect fraud. So initially, they start out as rules-based activities, but eventually, they transition into doing some machine learning.

Rishabh: With fraud, you have to catch that reasonably early. For example, if you're onboarding somebody and you wait a few days – that might already be too late. So they often have to think a lot about these SLAs for the system. So, again, coming back to the original question, I think machine learning folks – machine learning engineers, at least – often spend a bunch of the time on “How do we improve the quality of the predictions when we're training the model, but also on an ongoing basis?” And then also “How do we improve the system such that it actually is performant from a software perspective?” Has that been your experience, as well?

Alexey: Yeah. It’s interesting that you mentioned that machine learning often started in companies in these fraud teams. They first started with rule-based systems, and then added machine learning. To my knowledge, this is also what happened at OLX group. It was before I joined, but as far as I know, this is the first big use case of machine learning at OLX group. This was like five years ago, maybe seven years ago – it was way back before I joined. So it’s very interesting that you mentioned it. (16:32)

Alexey: As for the experience, from what I saw, it's very similar that there is this system aspect, or maybe I would call it an engineering aspect. It's not enough just to create a model – logistic, regression, SciKit Learn – you also need to take care of other things. Because what data scientists do – or you can call them machine learning engineers – but this is what needs to happen to be able to use the model.

From rule-based systems to machine learning

Rishabh: Yeah. I know we're getting a little off-script here. The rules-based system in machine learning is always fascinating. I think a lot of sophisticated machine learning fraud detection teams also still continue to use a lot of rules. The simple reason is – rules are really fast, right? Somebody can just see some data, write a rule, and have that deployed in one hour, compared to training a machine learning model with that as a feature or maybe as a separate model, which can take an order of weeks. So it's about the speed that you get. I was recently talking to a team that does fraud detection. They'll have a team that is coming up with these rules and getting them deployed. Then eventually, if a rule is important enough, it'll become a feature in a model, or it will even become its own model at some point, whereas some rules will die away because those patterns don't work anymore. So it's this constant battle that is going on. (17:38)

Role of analysts

Alexey: Exactly. And these rules – at least what we have at OLX – we have a UI where fraud specialists just go there, click a button, and then they have a rule. Then they can see how effective this rule is. But with machine learning, things will take a few more iterations to actually do. Speaking of that – we just talked about the rule and then seeing how effective it is. All these charts and things. I guess this is something that maybe analysts would do? Doing some sort of analytics – let's say we have a rule and then we go in there and try to understand how effective this rule is, like what the false positive rate is and things like this. Is this something that analysts would do? (18:39)

Rishabh: Absolutely. For example, you might have this person – sometimes it can be an analyst, sometimes it might be a fraud specialist, or an operations person – who might define the rule because it was relevant in that given moment. But then it might actually be an analytics team or an analyst who actually looks at the performance of that rule on an ongoing basis, like “Which rules actually continue to work? Which rules actually flagged important stuff?” Then as they gather the ‘true’ labels, whether a particular transaction or particular users were fraudulent or not, then there'll be comparing of this and saying, “These last 20 rules are not working anymore. Maybe we should get rid of them.” Once they have that ‘true’ data – which were fraudulent or not – they might actually have a good sense of, “Here are the examples of things that were still not caught.” They might be providing those recommendations. But yeah, this would absolutely be some of the work that an analytics team might do. (19:31)

Alexey: This term, ‘prescriptive analytics’ – here, an analyst or a team of analysts would do the analysis. They would analyze all the rules, and then say, “Okay, these 20 rules are not working anymore.” Then they kind of prescribe this, “Okay, throw these rules away. They're useless.” So this would be the prescription. They have some sort of report and some sort of recommendations on this decision, “We analyzed the data. This is what you should do based on our analysis.” Would you say that this is the main outcome of analytical work? (20:34)

Rishabh: It's definitely one of them. If I were to look at a few different things that an analyst would be expected to do – there are some things, like ad hoc queries, that they will be asked to do because their boss or their boss's boss will say, “Hey, I need the answer to this question. I need this because I'm presenting to person X (or team X) and this needs to be in my slides.” So the analyst will probably go to their favorite SQL client, write some queries and get that answer. Depending on the team, that can often be close to 100% of their work. Although it probably shouldn't be 100%. So, that's one aspect of their work. (21:11)

Alexey: Speaking of the fraud example, this request could be like, “Hey, what are the success ratios for these rules for the last month? We have a board meeting and we want to show how effective our team is. Please prepare this. I need this soon.” (21:59)

Rishabh: Absolutely. They could be answering all sorts of questions like “How many fraudulent cases were found? How many were caught in time? What was the overall damage (or whatever the right word is) that was caused by the fraudulent activities?” Yeah, there are so many interesting questions there. Part of their work is this. Another part, as you referenced, is coming up with these reports and recommendations, which is absolutely a super important piece of work. For example, if a data science or data analyst person is embedded in a product team, often they're working closely with a product manager to say, “If we build this feature, it's probably going to impact this kind of user. This is maybe how we can model the improvements (or maybe a particular hit on some business metric) if this gets released to 100% of traffic vs if it was only released to 2%.” There are all these kinds of questions there that they might be helping product teams with. (22:20)

Rishabh: Then there's a whole set of activities that a data analyst might be doing when it comes to integrating different data sets. They might already be working with certain data sets in their database, but then, let's say they find an API for a completely different new data set, which has some symbol for them. They might probably spend some time exploring the data, seeing what that can bring when joined with their existing data. So, there's a bunch of activities there as well. Of course, one of the maybe ‘unsaid’ parts of a lot of this data work is, often a lot of education needs to go into it. Whether it's data analysts, data scientists, or data leaders – often they spend a lot of time telling people, “This is what you actually can achieve and this is what you can’t achieve with the kinds of things that we're doing. Here's maybe the question that you should be asking before you make important decisions.” There's a lot of important work that goes on there in that sense.

Rishabh: Do data analysts know data better than data scientists?

Alexey: In my experience, I often see this – let's say, there is a new potential project where we think that machine learning will help. So analysts will often help with understanding the size of the problem. Then we can see “Actually, just 10 users complained about this. Maybe it's not actually worth solving it.” Or like, “Let's give it a lower priority because there’s this thing where 10,000 users complained versus this one that seems to have affected fewer users.” (24:23)

Alexey: The other thing I noticed – I'm a data scientist myself and I noticed that data analysts know data a lot better than me. They know where things are. So, if I need to find something, I usually use this hack where I would just go to an analyst and say, “Hey, I need to find this data. Can you help me?” And then they would say, “Here you go. This is the SQL query. You can just go with this.” Yeah, it saves a lot of time. So I think data analysts know data a lot better – than me, for sure – but maybe better than the average data scientist as well. I imagine they spend their entire day crunching this data, doing all these queries, and then doing reports. Is that right?

Rishabh: Yeah, that's exactly right. That's where they spend the bulk of their time. They are the experts, right? I often think a lot of data analytics work is tying what data we have to important business metrics. The senior folks who've spent a lot of time with the data have a very keen sense of what to look for, and figuring things out like, “What are the common ‘gotchas’? What are the things that commonly go wrong?” They might be classic things where, “Oh! To make this query work and get you the right data, you have to add this ‘where’ clause. If you don't write this ‘where’ clause, you'll get a bunch of garbage data.” Often, that kind of knowledge is with specific people. (25:51)

Alexey: Like tribal knowledge, right? (26:31)

Rishabh: Yeah. (26:31)

Documenting analytics

Alexey: Exactly. Even if it's documented – maybe it's in a wiki somewhere where nobody looks at it – but these people know it and they will just say, “Hey, your query is wrong. Here's the good one.” (26:33)

Rishabh: There are folks building good tools for documentation, but honestly, I've yet to see documentation systems for this that really work. I hope we get there. Because, otherwise, it's kind of hard to scale. I had a quick question around something you mentioned. You said at OLX, sometimes analysts would help answer questions of “It only affects 10 people.” Do you find that analysts are often brought in at the right time to be able to answer those questions? How often are their recommendations headed? (26:46)

Alexey: The setup we use is embedding data scientists and data analysts in teams. So yes – usually it happens at the right time. Sometimes it didn't happen, and then we ended up spending time on something we shouldn’t have. But I guess that happens to everyone, right? (27:22)

Rishabh: Yeah. That's awesome, honestly. I think there are plenty of stories of product managers saying, “Hey, this is the coolest feature that needs to be built.” Often you can write a simple query to say that, “This will only affect a small number of people. Maybe it’s not worth it.” But this doesn't always happen in time. But that's awesome to hear that that happens with you. (27:45)

Alexey: Yeah, we actually don’t call our data analysts ‘data analysts’, but ‘product analysts’. They work very closely with product managers. They're quite deep in the product work, so they are very product-oriented, I would say. It definitely helps that they are close to the product and they know what is important for users and what is not important for users. They know it a lot better than data scientists, I think. I think data scientists need to learn a lot from product analytics in order to understand what is important for the product. (28:03)

Is ML more experimental than analytics?

Alexey: But it's good that we work together so we can always learn from each other. When I think about this, I think that data science work, or machine learning work, is more experimental than analytics. In data science, you have a hypothesis that you want to test. So you build some model or something simple and then you test this hypothesis. While in analytics – I might be wrong, because I never worked as an analyst myself – but I think it's less experimental. It’s clearer what they need to do. There is some specific ad hoc query or some report they need to do. Do you think this is a correct observation? (28:42)

Rishabh: Yeah, I think that's definitely fair. One of the things is – both types of work are fairly iterative. You have to try something, see if it works – try something slightly different, see if it works. So in the world of analysts, they're often iterating on different versions of SQL. I know analysts who have thousands of lines-long SQL queries and they're making small changes as they understand something new about the business. They want to add something slightly different to the queries. So there’s often this iterative work, but it's still in the service of finding something that is kind of true – an answer that is true based on the history of the business and the data that's been collected. (29:30)

Rishabh: Whereas with machine learning work, you're right – it is fairly experimental and the iterations themselves are the experiments. You might have experiments that are running pre-deployment, where you're just testing out a bunch of different models, different features, different hyperparameters, so there are a bunch of experiments going on there. Then, depending on the scale of the company and their infrastructure setup, you might be doing experiments on live traffic. Before releasing the full model to production, you might be running them in shadow mode, or you might be doing A/B tests with the model. So it definitely feels very experimental. A lot of machine learning is just empirical results on the data that you're seeing and observing. Who knows what the right, perfect model is? It’s just one that works ‘best’ – that's the guiding principle. Yeah, I think that the data science/machine learning world and being experimental makes sense.

Analyzing results of experiments

Alexey: From what I see – again, not only at OLX but also at other companies – we talked about experiments on live traffic, usually, it’s A/B tests or shadow testing. This analysis of A/B tests or live experiments is also often done by analysts, or by analysts working together with data scientists. Let’s say the data scientists and/or machine learning engineers work together on setting up experiments. They have two versions of the model – the baseline model and the new model that they improved. Then, together with analysts, they analyze the results and see, “Okay, we have an uplift here. Why did this uplift happen? Is there any specific segment of users where this uplift happened? Or is it an uplift across all their cohorts?” (31:19)

Alexey: So this is something that analysts would do. They would dig into it. Especially when experiments go wrong, like “Why did the new model, which was perfect in offline experiments, did not result in uplift? Instead, the performance was even worse than the baseline. Why did this happen?” And then maybe there is one specific category where it was bad, and in other categories it was good. This is something that the analysts often do, or help a lot with doing this kind of work.

Rishabh: Yeah, I can totally see that. We were talking about this earlier as well. Often, you'll have analysts who are much closer to the business metrics and have an understanding of what is actually improving the top line or improving the bottom line in whatever respect. Having somebody who is helping the machine learning team keep very close tabs on whether it’s actually moving the needle or not – that is pretty important. I think there are some machine learning teams that have that mentality and expertise built-in. But if not, the model that you're talking about is perfect. That's exactly it. (32:47)

Overlaps between machine learning and analytics

Alexey: Yes, maybe we can summarize a bit. In your opinion, what are the overlaps? What are the similarities between machine learning and analytics? (33:30)

In terms of similarities, it's the data. That’s the biggest one. These are both professions that heavily rely on it. Without data, nothing works. And without good data quality, nothing works. Whenever it comes to data, you're dealing with problems of, “How do you store it efficiently? How do you process it efficiently? How do you know where the status is coming from? How do you make sure that the data quality errors are caught as early as possible?” You have all of these data similarities. I think we talked about them being both iterative. Nothing is ever quite ‘done’, right? Not even a SQL is ever quite perfect because there's probably something that is missing. Models surely break all the time and you need to keep updating them.: =One of the other things is – often it feels like the same people are working on both analytic stuff and machine learning stuff. I think that there are teams – or at least within teams – where you'll have specialization. Where the bulk of what somebody does is just working with SQL, while somebody else does more of the machine learning and modeling stuff. But it still feels that there can be a lot of interchange there. Of course, when compared to software, they're both fairly less mature – as ecosystems and processes and how to actually do stuff. There's a lot that will change. There's a lot of change that is going on already, but there's a lot that will change about how this work gets done. In my head, those are roughly the similarities. (33:41)

In terms of similarities, it's the data. That’s the biggest one. These are both professions that heavily rely on it. Without data, nothing works. And without good data quality, nothing works. Whenever it comes to data, you're dealing with problems of, “How do you store it efficiently? How do you process it efficiently? How do you know where the status is coming from? How do you make sure that the data quality errors are caught as early as possible?” You have all of these data similarities. I think we talked about them being both iterative. Nothing is ever quite ‘done’, right? Not even a SQL is ever quite perfect because there's probably something that is missing. Models surely break all the time and you need to keep updating them.: To me, some of the differences come from, “What are the use cases that they address?” Analytics is typically helping the business understand “What actually happened? What worked? What didn't work?” The use cases are often very internally facing – it's for the organization themselves. Whereas for machine learning, there can be internal-facing stuff like “What revenues do we forecast?” But a lot of it is actually making predictions for users – things that will actually directly impact users. We were talking about fraud, so in this case, it would be something like “Whose transactions to block? What users to stop (in some capacity)?” There'll be a lot of externally facing stuff there as well. We talked about the differences around “What are the outputs of these two data streams?” With analytics, you have things like dashboards and reports, whereas with machine learning stuff, you have systems that are the output. It's a live system that you have to keep running.

In terms of similarities, it's the data. That’s the biggest one. These are both professions that heavily rely on it. Without data, nothing works. And without good data quality, nothing works. Whenever it comes to data, you're dealing with problems of, “How do you store it efficiently? How do you process it efficiently? How do you know where the status is coming from? How do you make sure that the data quality errors are caught as early as possible?” You have all of these data similarities. I think we talked about them being both iterative. Nothing is ever quite ‘done’, right? Not even a SQL is ever quite perfect because there's probably something that is missing. Models surely break all the time and you need to keep updating them.: With systems, you often see that they can be fairly real-time. You're talking about SLAs – a return of prediction in 200 milliseconds. But if you think about analytics stuff – their people are comparing week-on-week on how the business metrics are changing, which is a completely different timescale to be thinking about problems on. Of course, there are different technologies, different tools, and in the ecosystems, there are slight differences. Anyway, I can probably go on for longer, but those are some of the key similarities and differences from my point of view.

Alexey: Yeah, I'm looking at my notes and I don't think you missed anything. Apart from maybe the point, that data analysts know data a bit more, or a bit better, than data scientists. They tend to spend a lot more time with that. You said it’s because, in the case of analysts, the output is dashboards and reports, which involves a lot of SQL and data understanding, while data scientists spend more time on systems rather than on analyzing data. (37:01)

Rishabh: Maybe to even contradict myself a little bit on this – I do think that some of the best scientists have a very keen understanding of the business. Because without that, sometimes you'll just make bad decisions about what to prioritize and what not to prioritize. The best data scientists, in my opinion, very closely understand why they're working on something and how that will impact the key metrics for the team and the company. But as a rough guiding stick, I think you're right. I think analysts will spend a lot of time in SQL working with business metrics directly, so they often have a much closer sense of it. (37:34)

Alexey: Maybe the same is true for analysts? Analysts who don’t just spend time in SQL, but also spend some time programming and doing a bit of the system aspects – I don't know if analysts actually do this. But definitely doing a bit of programming, like some Python and things like that. I think these can probably be considered ‘great analysts’. Right? Similar to data scientists and machine engineers who go outside of their typical day-to-day work and do some business analytics. That is all good for business, such as maybe data analysts who go and check out data science and how to do this whole machine learning stuff? They're also very beneficial for the business. (38:15)

Bridging the gap between ML and analytics

Rishabh: Absolutely. I think it comes down to using the right tool. So if the existing tool – let’s say SQL – doesn't get you the answers you need, maybe you just need to run some analysis with Pandas or in a Jupyter Notebook or something. It would be amazing if the analysts can just spin that up themselves and write whatever code they need to. I do believe that until recently, it probably wasn't the easiest to set up virtual environments and Jupyter Notebooks for people who are less familiar with them. We're seeing a move into notebooks that are much more inclusive – which allow you to write SQL and Python in sort of the same environment and a lot of things are taken care of for you. I think as more and more of that happens, it will become easier and easier for cases like the one you mentioned about a data analyst who does mostly SQL and a little bit of code. (39:04)

Alexey: Now you're talking about something else a bit. Remember when this thing came out? Not Jupyter Notebooks, but the other sorts of notebooks? I think they were called Zeppelin Notebooks. I don't think it got much traction, but the idea there was that you could write a SQL query in one cell, and then you can write some Spark code in the second cell. Then you could also write some Pandas code and create these nice reports immediately in your dashboard. That was actually pretty nice. (40:01)

Rishabh: I personally never used Zeppelin. If you're working with the Hadoop ecosystem, it's probably a better thing to use. I guess I know a few people who use it – I probably won't name names. But, for example, there are a couple of BI tools today that, in the same interface, will allow you to switch between a notebook experience and a SQL client. There are a couple of smaller companies that make running SQL and Python in similar cells possible. They're seeing some amount of traction. Maybe the time wasn't quite right when Zeppelin came out five-six years ago. Maybe the time is right now. But – who knows? (40:32)

Overinvesting in ML and underinvesting in analytics

Alexey: We already have some questions. The question is, “Do you see that organizations tend to overinvest in machine learning and underinvest in analytics? (41:13)

Rishabh: Yeah, that's interesting. I don't know if I have a clear answer to that. At the highest level, I would imagine that there is generally underinvestment in data teams overall. The value that a couple of good data people, who have the right infrastructure and set up, can bring is often very outsized, compared to the resources that are spent on them. But between machine learning and data analytics? It's possible. Sometimes, folks who are in executive positions – who are making these decisions – often rely on external factors. They might read some piece from McKinsey or whatever, without going into details there, and say “Look, machine learning is the hot thing right now. We should have a team. We should be doing this.” I could totally see that happening. But it's hard for me to say that without numbers. But generally, I think more investment in this stuff is probably better, as long as we start from investing in both analytics and machine learning. There's often a core investment in data infrastructure that often also needs to be made along the side. I think that's often the most underappreciated and underserved part of it. (41:31)

Forgetting to hire data analysts

Alexey: The question continues. It's actually more like a comment that I see a lot. “Are organizations often hiring lots of data scientists, while forgetting about data analysts?” And “Do they often forget to upskill others?” So perhaps, data science can appear sexier? We can talk about machine learning robots and dashboards and stuff. It’s cooler, right? “Okay, let's add a bunch of data scientists. Put them in the room and let them do some magic.” (43:02)

Rishabh: Unfortunately, that sounds very true. That's why I typically want to stay away from the term ‘data science’ as much as possible, just because it becomes so broad. To a point whereby using that phrase, you can convince someone how sexy a particular job can be. But maybe the person actually gets into an organization and they realize that there is no amazing machine learning model that they get to train. There's just these more important, pressing business problems that can be answered with SQL and just getting your data into a better shape. That's just what the business needs at that moment. (43:40)

Rishabh: You may often have some amount of dissatisfaction for people that are hired in. But yeah, it's kind of an unfortunate transitionary period in our lives. Maybe five, seven years from now, things will be a little bit better defined and these roles will be a little bit clearer. Hopefully, the importance and the value that data analysts can bring to the table will become reasonably clear. So it's not the mindset that data scientists are here and data analysts are here – because that's just not true.

Finding senior data analysts

Alexey: Yeah, that's definitely not true. I talked to some people who are hiring both data scientists and data analysts. There was one comment that was a bit surprising for me, but then in retrospect, I thought it probably makes sense. They told me that it's a lot more difficult to find a senior analyst than a senior data scientist. Have you seen this? Do you have any ideas why this might be the case? (44:55)

Rishabh: Yeah, I’m not 100% sure. If I had to make a guess for why that could happen, it's likely because senior data analyst – people who spend a lot of time doing that – if they find a differential in the amount of money that they can make by just moving to a data science role, that seems like a no-brainer, right? They should be doing that. It's also possible that some data analysts actually make the transition from just writing SQL and understanding the company's data, to becoming much more, almost infrastructure people. Because they understand what it takes to have successful and high-performing analyst teams. (45:30)

Rishabh: Maybe this ‘analytics engineer’ role is a trend in that direction. One where they're less about writing SQL queries and answering direct questions from the business, but more about structuring and setting up the datasets in a way where it makes it easier downstream. There are probably moves that analysts would make, either in the direction of data science or a little bit more upstream when it comes to infrastructure. But I think hiring is generally pretty hard right now for a lot of folks. But I can imagine that analysts might be a little bit harder than normal.

Alexey: I also noticed that some analysts mainly go to the data science path – many switch careers from data analytics to data science, but also many go to the product aspect. They become product managers. Not many, necessarily, but I saw multiple cases. Because data scientists get quite close to the product, they realize that they like this product management work and they become product managers. (46:57)

Rishabh: That's super interesting. Yeah. (47:22)

Alexey: So maybe by the time they're senior analysts and they see this data science or product management work, and then they just switch over. Not so many people get to the senior position, unfortunately. (47:25)

Rishabh: I hope that changes. If that's true, I hope that it changes. (47:44)

Is data science sexier than data analytics?

Alexey: As you said, maybe in industry, data science does look sexier. Right? There's certainly more hype around this than analytics. Analytics has been around for three, four decades, right? Whereas data science is something more fresh. At least in the contemporary sense – we had this ‘data mining’ thing, which is pretty old. (47:47)

Rishabh: It's kind of funny, I think. I don't remember where I was reading this, but even the terms like ‘data mining’, were not very popular when they started. There was something that made people feel a bit achy about the fact of having to rely on empirical data to come up with the right decisions. At the same time, you don't fully understand the problem deeply – like, from your heart. The practice of digging into actual data to figure out what is correct and what is right was kind of frowned upon when it began. But it's kind of funny that today, everything seems to run on data and everybody's “all about data”. (48:20)

Collaboration between ML and analytics teams

Alexey: Thanks. We have another question. “Should our team work independently or together?” Let's assume we have a machine learning team and analytics team in our company. So should we put them in one room? Or should we put them in separate rooms? (49:01)

That's a really interesting question. Maybe I'll caveat this with the fact that my experience with this is limited. I rely on a lot of other smart people who've written stuff about this. But there are two aspects to where they should sit. One is from the perspective of, “What is the management and reporting structure? Who do they report into? How is their career and growth evaluated?” That's one direction. And the other direction is, “What are the kinds of projects that they do? How fast are they able to work on them and deliver business value? That's the second direction.: =In terms of the first direction, generally, it seems that data people like to be managed by other data people, or at least people who understand what data can and can't do, and some of the challenges that come with data. If you ask somebody who's a business leader or maybe even someone like an engineering leader – someone who doesn't really work with data – to manage people. That can often be a little tricky. Because there are challenges there that are unique. (49:15)

That's a really interesting question. Maybe I'll caveat this with the fact that my experience with this is limited. I rely on a lot of other smart people who've written stuff about this. But there are two aspects to where they should sit. One is from the perspective of, “What is the management and reporting structure? Who do they report into? How is their career and growth evaluated?” That's one direction. And the other direction is, “What are the kinds of projects that they do? How fast are they able to work on them and deliver business value? That's the second direction.: But when it comes to the actual projects that they do, it can be super valuable to have the data person embedded. I think, Alexey, you mentioned this for OLX. Because then they have very close access to what the team needs – what business metrics the team is tracking, what actually works, what doesn't work. Their cycles are much faster, and they're able to make progress much faster. Some of the challenges that they run into then is – if you're too independent, then there are learnings across different data people percolating to everybody else. That can often take a bit of a hit. But then again, if there is a common reporting structure, like a manager who is directly managing these five or six data analysts or data scientists, they should be able to take the common learnings and help the broader team.

That's a really interesting question. Maybe I'll caveat this with the fact that my experience with this is limited. I rely on a lot of other smart people who've written stuff about this. But there are two aspects to where they should sit. One is from the perspective of, “What is the management and reporting structure? Who do they report into? How is their career and growth evaluated?” That's one direction. And the other direction is, “What are the kinds of projects that they do? How fast are they able to work on them and deliver business value? That's the second direction.: But yeah, I would say it's reasonably team-dependent. But as long as there are ways for common learnings to be shared and adopted by the rest of the team and they can be embedded where they're learning from the business domain very fast, that's probably the best outcome. This probably stops being true once the team reaches a very large scale, because then there are probably too many data scientists to have centralized reporting. But at least until the organization reaches around 1000 or so people, they should work.

Alexey: It's interesting that you mentioned that data people like to report to data people. Because what I saw when data science just appeared, it wasn't clear what part of the hierarchy, or what part of the structure, the data team belongs to. Should they report to the product director? Or the VP of product? Should they report to an engineering director? Should they be reporting to the engineering part of the organization? And it's still not clear. Data science, for example, maybe is closer to engineering. But then analytics is closer to the product. Like, it's not clear where to put them. Right now at OLX, for example, we have this chief data officer and the entire pillar – I don't know if that’s the right way to say that – basically, the entire hierarchy comes from the chief data officer down to the data analysts and data scientists. I see more and more companies are doing that and realizing that this is an important thing to do. (51:53)

Alexey: Then coming to this question of “Should they sit independently or together?” I also noticed that sometimes, a bit of both works. Because analysts can constantly get distracted by ad hoc queries. Which often happens in companies, right? Let's say, they're sitting on the team and they're working on some product things like understanding the impact of something. Then somebody comes and says, “Hey, I need this report for a board meeting tomorrow.” So “What do I do here?” So what I see sometimes is that there is a team that takes care of these ad hoc requests. Perhaps large organizations can afford an independent team for these kinds of things. At OLX, we had actually a BI department that was taking care of these ad hoc requests, and also building some sort of infrastructure to enable self-service for this.

Rishabh: Yeah, that sounds reasonable as well – if there is common infrastructure work that is being done by a separate team. I'm guessing the analyst must be happy that some of the ad hoc requests can be sent over to somebody else. (54:02)

Alexey: Only some, unfortunately. Not all. But also, the embedded mode, I think works really well, because analysts sometimes get too many ad hoc requests. (54:17)

Rishabh: When I say ‘data people’, data shouldn’t have to do with the title. It's about, “Does the person understand some of the natural challenges with data?” I'll give you a fictional example. Sometimes, data has all sorts of weird problems, right? A good analyst or scientist would basically look at that and say, “There's something really fishy here. I better investigate it.” The ideal thing to happen would be – if they're being very paranoid and diligent about the quality of data, which they should be. They should be able to spend hours, or maybe a few days, just investigating “Where is this record coming from?” And now if you go to somebody who hasn't faced these things before, they'll be like, “Well just ignore it. It doesn't matter.” But that can have all sorts of negative consequences down the line. It’s almost like what you need is some kind of support, right? It's like, “Yeah. This is probably important.” Then the data person can go into detail and explain, “Okay, here are all of the problems that can happen downstream.” That's not ideal. So at least that's my thought process on reporting. (54:26)

Building data teams

Alexey: Last week, we had a guest, and we were talking about building data teams. Tammy Liang was here talking about her experience. She suggested that if she could start building a data team again, she would start with hiring a data engineer, and hiring a business analyst and data analyst – preferably a senior data analyst – and only then hire data scientists after these two-three people. Would you say that you would do it the same way? Would you hire an engineer and then analyst and then a data scientist? Or would you change something in this approach? (55:41)

Rishabh: That seems pretty reasonable. I'm sure Tammy has a lot of good experience to back it up. I think data engineers, or somebody who can just get stuff into a good place – that is pretty critical. Not much work can happen without that. I think for most companies, this strategy seems reasonable. There are probably some companies that are very machine learning focused – their entire product might just be a machine learning thing. This could be everything from self-driving, in the very extreme case, to even smaller models that are in FinTech or Healthcare. So when the core business is machine learning, then the team structure ends up developing very differently. It might be a set of PhD students – or maybe not students, but folks with PhDs who are getting started – and then you add engineers once you have to make prototypes and productionize them. But for most teams, I think that that advice from Tammy seems pretty reasonable. (56:21)

Alexey: We talked about the idea that companies tend to overinvest into data science and data analytics, but maybe when they hire a person who knows in which order people should be hired, maybe they don't need to change things. If we still see this overinvestment in data science, maybe we can say that these organizations are not mature yet. Maybe they need to hire somebody like a chief data officer or a data person who would structure the hiring – someone who can say “This is the order in which we should hire people. First we need to have data engineers, who have infrastructure. Then data analysts, to make use of the data, and only then the data scientists.” Right? (57:23)

Rishabh: That sounds pretty nice. Hopefully more and more organizations will move in that direction. (58:14)

Rishabh’s newsletter – MLOpsRoundup

Alexey: Before we finish, I wanted to ask you about your newsletter. Maybe you can tell us a few words about this? So, what are you writing about? (58:19)

Rishabh: Absolutely – yeah. So, a friend of mine and I, for maybe years, have been trading notes and information about things that we're seeing in the world of machine learning. Not so much research, but more, “How do you take machine learning and make it work in production?” Then sometime last year, we just decided that maybe we should just take some of the stuff that we're discussing, put it into a newsletter, and at least share it with some of our friends. So that's kind of how we got started. Even today, we just think about “What are the common challenges that teams are facing in production with machine learning?” All sorts of stuff around – some system stuff, some machine learning stuff, and “How do you make these systems work?” So, that's something that we've been focused on – the overall ecosystem. Many folks call it ML Ops, so our newsletter is called the ML Ops Roundup. It's on Substack. Please check it out and let us know if you have any thoughts or feedback. (58:28)

Alexey: Yeah, I just realized that I mispronounced it at the beginning. I kept reading it as ‘ML Ops Rounds’ and you didn't correct me. [laughs] (59:35)

Rishabh: It's all good. I think I didn't write out the name explicitly. I should have. (59:42)

Alexey: Yeah, but the link is correct, because I copy/pasted it. So the link is fine. I'll put the link in the description, of course. Thanks. How can people find you? (59:48)

Finding Rishabh online

Rishabh: You can find me on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @rish_bhargave. I’m also in the DataTalks.Club Slack channel, so feel free to find me and send me a message. I’m always happy to chat. (59:59)

Alexey: Okay. Thanks a lot. Thanks for this fruitful discussion. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks everyone for joining us today and for asking questions. (1:00:20)

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