Lessons in Agile Machine Learning from Walmart

Takeaways from Sam Charrington’s May, 2017 interview with Jennifer Prendki, senior data science manager and principal data scientist for Walmart.com


I am very grateful to Sam Charrington for his TWiML&AI podcast series. So far I have consumed about 70 episodes (~50 hours). Every podcast is reliably fascinating: so many amazing people accomplishing incredible things. It’s energizing! The September 5, 2017 podcast, recorded in May, 2017 at Sam’s Future of Data Summit event, featured his interview with Jennifer Prendki, who at the time was senior data science manager and principal data scientist for Walmart’s online business (she’s since become head of data science at Atlassian). Jennifer provides an instructive window into agile methodology in machine learning, a topic that will become more and more important as machine learning becomes mainstream and production-centric (or “industrialized”, as Sam dubs it). I’ve taken the liberty of capturing key takeaways from her interview in this blog post. (To be clear, I had no part in creating the podcast itself.) If this topic matters to you, please listen to the original podcast – available via iTunes, Google Play, Soundcloud, Stitcher, and YouTube – it’s worth a listen.


Overview

Jennifer Prendki was a member of an internal Walmart data science team supporting two other internal teams, the Perceive team and the Guide team, delivering essential components of Walmart.com’s search experience. The Perceive team is responsible for providing autocomplete and spell check to help improve customers’ search queries. The Guide team is responsible for ranking the search results, helping customers find what they are looking for as easily as possible. Continue reading “Lessons in Agile Machine Learning from Walmart”

“Agile Marketing” is not just a buzz phrase, it’s a potent tool

Agile Marketing: what is it; what are the benefits; links to resources.

Two weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised by the Social Media Club of Seattle (SMCSEA) panel about agile marketing. Going in I had assumed they were using “agile” as an adjective, as in “nimble”, where in fact the panel began talking about my old friend Agile, as in the highly effective team collaboration and product delivery tool from the realm of software development. Although it was news to me—in fact you could have knocked me over with a feather when they said it—it appears some folks have been applying Agile to the work of marketing departments, and these departments (or at least the panel members and their departments) love the results.

The SMCSEA panel:

What is Agile?

I may take some lumps for going rogue here (or is is “going rouge”—I’m never sure anymore since that spate of Sarah Palin bios came out), but here’s my Continue reading ““Agile Marketing” is not just a buzz phrase, it’s a potent tool”

Making the Scene With SharePoint 2010 Enterprise Social Media Features

Social sharing - how is it different in the workplace?

I discovered an interesting video recently while helping a client demonstrate how users of a SharePoint document management system can share information about the documents they are managing. The video is by Michael Gannotti, a technology specialist at Microsoft, and it apparently shows how Microsoft uses SharePoint 2010’s social media features in-house. The video covers other SharePoint 2010 features as well, but I found 2 segments particularly relevant.

Social Media features in SharePoint (from timestamp 6 minutes 49 seconds to 15 minutes 50 seconds):

  • people search — users can find people who are experts on the subjects they’re researching;
  • publishing — via wikis, FAQS, and blogs;
  • user home pages — users can fill out their own profiles, add types of content, see their friend and group feeds;
  • viewing other users’ pages — users can find out more about co-workers and their work;
  • adding meta-information — tagging, liking, and adding notes or ratings to alert others about the relevance of content to oneself, to a project, or to a topic; and,
  • publishing (blogging) options — users can post to SharePoint either via a rich web-based text authoring environment or direct from a Word document.

Using One Note For Sharing (from timestamp 17 minutes 34 seconds to 18 minutes 34 seconds):

  • can create the equivalent of wikis and FAQs;
  • is web-editable;
  • may be better for printing; and
  • can also be used offline.

Here’s his video (hosted by Vimeo):

Other resources

Another useful resource concerning social media in SharePoint 2010 is this blog post by Microsoft Senior Technical Product Manager Dave Pae at TechEd earlier this month: http://community.bamboosolutions.com/blogs/sharepoint-2010/archive/2010/06/07/live-from-teched-overview-of-social-computing-in-sharepoint-2010.aspx. This also links to a post about social search which not only discusses the types of content (including meta-information) which can be searched, but also covers phonetic search capabilities: http://community.bamboosolutions.com/blogs/sharepoint-2010/archive/2010/06/07/live-from-teched-in-new-orleans-what-s-new-in-enterprise-search-in-sharepoint-2010.aspx.

Social media tactics are transforming corporate knowledge management

New tools are putting the collaboration into “collaboration software” by creating a social media-inspired user experience for Enterprise knowledge management. But it’s taken a long time to get here.

Old school collaboration: floppy-net and shared drives

Bruce WilsonUntil around ten years ago, when people talked about using software for “collaboration” in an Enterprise setting they usually meant transferring files point-to-point by email or handing off a diskette, aka “floppy-net” (or worse, by passing paper that would require re-typing). Advanced collaboration involved establishing shared “network drives” where documents could be stored in folders accessible to everyone on the local network. But under this “system” for collaboration, even when people devoted a significant amount of time to maintaining document repositories it could be difficult for others to find useful documents, or even know whether useful documents existed in the first place. Labeling was limited, document sets might be incomplete or out of date, authors, owners, or other contextual information might be unclear. Much like the internet before Google-quality search, folks could spend a lot of time browsing without getting any payoff.

The New York Public Library

Such collaboration systems are still quite common even though they aren’t very efficient because of the way that they rely on limited personal connections, memories and attention spans. In such a system the best strategy when hunting for a document is to ask around to try to figure out who might know where to find useful documents. People asked for help – if they have time – try to remember what documents are available, then either hunt through the repository themselves or point towards likely places to look. This system obviously doesn’t scale very well because there is a linear relationship between the number of documents being managed and the time and expertise required to manage them. Emails sent by people seeking help finding information can become a significant burden, particularly in the inboxes of the most knowledgeable or best connected. And because managing documents in this system is relatively time consuming and unrewarding, most people have little incentive to use or contribute to document management. Countless document repositories under this model suffered from neglect or abandonment simply because they were so impractical. And unless a critical mass of use and contribution is achieved, the appearance that a repository is abandoned or neglected in turn reduces the incentive of new or returning community member to participate. Instead people would rationally choose to “reinvent the wheel”, recreating documents or processes from scratch simply because the barriers to finding out whether what they need already exists are too high.

SharePoint and other web-like Information Management solutions

The rise of the internet has helped propel Enterprise collaboration forward, thanks in part to a new generation of internet-inspired collaboration software exemplified by Microsoft’s SharePoint. Sharepoint offers features such as alerts, discussion boards, document libraries, categorization, shared workspaces, forms and surveys, personal pages and profiles, and the ability to pull in and display information from data sources outside of SharePoint itself, including the internet (“web parts”).  Access controls have also evolved, enabling people to have access to the files and directories that pertain to them, while limiting access to others. Meanwhile data storage capacity has exploded, costs have plummeted, and access speed has rocketed. Naturally, for most organizations the volume of documents being managed has ballooned exponentially. But we still need to ask: have knowledge management and collaboration scaled in proportion to the volume of information that is available and could be useful if more people could get their hands on it?

Notwithstanding features like Enterprise search, notifications, and improved metadata, many information management hubs are, in effect, still data silos where information is safe and organized but inconvenient to explore and share. In truth, despite powerful automated solutions now available, effective collaboration is still largely dependent on the quality of user participation.

Adoption and Engagement

Two key elements of effective collaboration are adoption, which corresponds to the percentage of team members who are able to use the system, and engagement, which corresponds to how many of them use the system regularly.

For a collaboration system to be effective it must maintain a critical mass of active users or risk becoming ignored and thus irrelevant. There’s a chicken and egg relationship here. A collaboration system must achieve and maintain a critical mass of adoption and engagement to be self-sustaining. Few people are going to adopt and engage if nothing of value is happening on the system because not enough other people have adopted and engaged. To attract this level of participation the experience should be easy (low frustration), useful (practical results are usually obtained), and emotionally rewarding (users experience satisfaction or even enjoy using it). Otherwise a collaboration system risks turning into a quiet information cul de sac no matter how impressive its technology.

Enter social media

Lessons learned from the social media phenomenon – examining the virtual footprints of the hundreds of millions of people using Facebook – are radically enhancing Enterprise knowledge management by promoting ease of use, practical results, and emotional gratification within collaboration systems. To get more information about this development I recently met with J. B. Holston, CEO of NewsGator, whose Social Sites solution adds Facebook-like features to SharePoint. Available for only 3-1/2 years, Social Sites’ committed customers already include Accenture, Novartis, Biogen, Edelman, and Deloitte, among others.

The basic idea behind Social Sites (my take, not necessarily J. B.’s) is that SharePoint users experience less frustration, find better quality material, and receive more emotional gratification when their SharePoint experience is more like Facebook. And because a social media approach to collaboration is both useful and gratifying, more people use the collaboration system – adoption increases – and they use it more often for more purposes – engagement increases. Teams get more done while having more fun. Additional benefits of a social media overlay on top of a standard SharePoint install is that it to draws attention to and promotes increased use of available resources and encourages users to find out about and experiment with collaboration options they weren’t using before, which may convert them into more valuable collaborators themselves.

Social Sites extends the functionality of SharePoint in a number of respects. The first generation of Social Sites added features including:

  • marking and tagging items;
  • providing custom streams of their “friends” activity updates (imagine keeping up with important developments with key people down the hall, in other regions or departments as they happen);
  • making it easier to move content in and out of SharePoint; and
  • making it easy for people to connect with the people who posted specific items with a single click.

The latest generation of Social Sites offers even more features (70 webparts in all are available), such as:

  • “liking”;
  • comment;
  • ratings;
  • idea development (“ideation”);
  • wikis;
  • threaded conversations;
  • bookmarks;
  • feeds;
  • the ability to follow people and events;
  • automatic updates when specific things of interest happen;
  • the ability to ask questions;
  • the ability to make requests; and
  • the ability to pass word along about things that are happening.

An open API makes it possible to customize activity streams open to groups of users that is also accessible from mobile devices. Social Sites also lends itself to community management and governance.

As icing on the cake, Newsgator also offers iPhone and iPad applications for Social Sites to enable everywhere, all of the time mobile interaction with SharePoint (including Social Sites social media features), completing the Facebook-like user experience.

For companies already using SharePoint, Social Sites allows them to upgrade their team’s collaborative performance without fundamentally reengineering their current knowledge management systems. For example the way information is stored and structured and integrations like workflows can be preserved. They can also avoid the costs of migration, retraining employees on new systems, or hiring specialists to manage the new systems. On the flip side, to the extent that Social Sites upgrades SharePoint to make it competitive with, or superior to, other collaboration options, the combination improves SharePoint’s attractiveness to companies considering swicthing over from competing knowledge management solutions. Finally, customers who seek to make this level of interaction widely available within their organizations may buy even more SharePoint licenses and invest in more customization.

Special thanks to J.B. Holston @jholston and Jim Benson @ourfounder for many of the ideas and information that found their way into this post.

If you can lead, you can be effective in social media

Trading fives - in Jazz leadership moves aroundI recently participated in an in-person discussion about leadership attended by a number of people I know through social media. Because the instigators of the discussion, Pam Hoelzle and Ethan Yarbrough, publicized the event online, the composition of the group and the conversation itself were flavored by a social media perspective. The discussion delivered several valuable takeaways, but one idea that stood out because it was useful and a little counterintuitive was this: Effective social media participation is like effective leadership.

By “effective social media participation” I mean purposefully interacting with people via Twitter, blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media to find people and information we need to accomplish business and personal goals.

By “effective leadership” I mean motivating high performing people to work towards a common purpose, whether or not we are are the “manager” of those folks (one can lead by influence even when one isn’t in a position of authority).

During our discussion three common threads came out that connect effective social media participation and effective leadership: selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Selection. In both social media and leadership we benefit by choosing our contributors carefully.

In the context of social media I often call this “filtering”. A LOT of potentially useful information is Tweeted, blogged, Buzzed, or otherwise published by people analyzing (or simply regurgitating) what they discover. In fact, there is so much of this information, and meta-information, there isn’t nearly enough time to skim it all efficiently much less read it all. After participating in social media for a time–if it wasn’t obvious to us from the beginning–most of us recognize that just because someone Tweets brilliantly and has a large following doesn’t mean we’ll find the time to read their stuff very often (sorry, @StephenFry). Social media is best managed like a lavish all-you-can-eat buffet: even something that looks very tasty won’t make it onto our plates if taking it would require sacrificing something we desire even more. In social media an information source must be consistently relevant and efficient for our purposes to be useful, not just beautiful in our sight.

Similarly, in a leadership context an impressive resume is just a starting point when determining whether there’s a good fit between a potential team member and a position on our team. Which is why personal relationships and recommendations from people we trust are so valuable when recruiting team members–and when choosing social media sources. One must be selective to be effective.

Delegation is the powerful outcome of good contributor selection in both social media and leadership. Whether social media networks or work groups, ideally we implicitly trust our teams to produce quality results for us. Otherwise we’re tempted to second guess our contributors, which deprives them of the rewards of our recognition, duplicates effort, and leads us down the path of information overload. Like we trust the curator of an art gallery to collect and display a worthy collection or art, like we trust the editors of our favorite publications to discover and accurately portray stories for us, like we trust our auto mechanics to keep our cars running, we should trust our teams to do their jobs. If and when we don’t feel we can rely on our team, whether we’re working as a leader or as a participant in social media, that’s a not-so-subtle sign that we will benefit from improving our approach towards selection, reciprocation, and vision.

Reciprocation. Both social media and leadership require reciprocation to be sustainable. Other people contribute to our successes, and we contribute to theirs. That’s the nature of the bargain. The biggest mistake I see would-be social media “power users” and would-be leaders make is not focusing enough on what success looks like for their team members. A true leader (as distinguished from a “manager”) provides team members with what they value above and beyond their pay checks, for example, by encouraging them to take responsibilities that will help them develop personally and professionally. And just as leadership requires more than a checkbook and a list of instructions for employees to follow, social media mastery requires more than pumping out branded messages to subscribers. Social media rock stars listen to what is said in their networks, recognize needs, and respond by offering referrals, links, analysis, or whatever else they have to help meet those needs.

Vision. Last but not least: to be effective in either social media or leadership we must communicate a clear, consistent vision that lets people know what we want them to contribute, and thus (directly or indirectly) what they will be rewarded for contributing. If we can’t sustain the insight we need to define and communicate our vision we’ll have a difficult time selecting people who can contribute to it, and neither we nor our team members will be particularly good at providing what the other needs.

One final thought. As a leader, or as a participant in social media, we get out what we put in. Just as putting time, focus and energy into leadership is essential to be an effective leader, putting time, focus and energy into social media is essential to be effective in social media. Those of us who believe leadership or social media are among our core responsibilities are thus obligated to make studying and practicing our craft a high priority for so long as we wish to be effective.

Thanks to everyone who participated in the conversation, including but not limited to: Moderators @pamhoelzle and @Ethany; graphic interpreter @pdobrowolski; hosts @petechee and @alyssamag; and @jdkovarik, @colleencar, @ShaunaCausey, @coolguygreg, @cherylnichols, @RJHSeattle, @pmcmortgages, @blainemillet, and @shannonevans (there were other folks not mentioned here but I don’t have their details). The opinions in this post are my own, and these folks may or may not agree with what is written here, but either way I benefited from their contributions.