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Hiring Data Professionals: Mason Dixon Lines and Zombies in Your Job Postings

By   /  April 2, 2011  /  6 Comments

by Karen Lopez

I’m often asked to help clients fill IT professional positions – Database Administrators (DBAs), Data Architects, Data Administrators, etc.  Most of the time the job requirements are sufficient to help them find a good list of candidates worth interviewing.  However, in these times of limited budgets, I frequently see job descriptions that attempt to find the Wonder Candidate of the Century, a person so thoroughly talented that she is a master expert along an entire column of the Zachman Framework.

Wonder Candidates Mapped to Zachman Framework

Wonder Candidates Mapped to Zachman Framework


It would seem to make sense that if you were hiring a data professional you’d design a position that fills in the Data column, right?  No?  It turns out, though, that most people don’t think and work along a column.  In my experience, people aren’t passionate about tasks that span columns from top to bottom.  They normally aren’t skilled along the whole column, either.  Referring to the Zachman Framework, what sorts of skills and passions would this candidate need: planning, architecting, designing, building systems, building parts, keeping the systems up and running.  Think about all the technologies, tools, methods and approaches these candidates would need to master to work at the professional level up and down an entire column: business strategy tools, tactical planning tools, database technologies, design tools, data modeling tools, code generation, query performance tuning, semantic technologies, legacy database systems, query development… Well, I’m getting tired thinking about it.

Roles Mapped to the Zachman Framework

Roles Mapped to the Zachman Framework


I have this image when I read bad job postings of candidates being dragged by zombies up or down a column.  This dragging means we’d need to find people who have great analytical skills while at the same time having great detail-oriented building skills.  But having those skills isn’t enough; they’d also need to be passionate about every task along the column equally.  That’s the rub.  I’m not even certain I’ve met a person who is passionate about all the tasks from planning to keeping the enterprise functioning.  In fact, I think there’s a type of Mason-Dixon Line somewhere around the middle rows that separates the more analytical tasks from the building and maintaining tasks.


Secret Mason-Dixon Line on the Zachman Framework - Approx Location

Secret Mason-Dixon Line on the Zachman Framework - Approx Location


“[T]he Mason–Dixon Line symbolizes a cultural boundary between the Northeastern United States and the Southern United States (Dixie).”[1]

The divide I’m referring to isn’t about politics, but more about where one feels most comfortable.  At a crude level, this is a difference between thinking and designing enterprise systems or building and running enterprise systems.  The line may be higher or lower in the Framework and there may be similar lines as we cross each row and column, but I see the most pronounced difference as we move from top to bottom.

I see job postings all the time that call for a Strategic Conceptual Enterprise Information Data Architect who has strong skills in modeling, strategic planning, query tuning, XML, data syndication, mirroring, SANs, debugging and < insert your favourite development languages here >.   Those people don’t really exist.  There may be people who can do a lot of those things, but in my experience they aren’t passionate about all of them. New hires won’t be happy and the organization will not realize the economies that they think they will.

I recommend that if organizations want to combine responsibilities that they do so across the columns in the same range of rows.  Combining positions where thought processes are similar (business and data analysts, DBAs and developers, etc.).  Analysts in general make for good analysts in other columns.  Operational people tend to think operationally, builders tend to think mostly of building, not planning well.  Let’s not drag people up or down the rows.

Go now and check your job postings.  Do they reflect the true nature of the job?  Or are they actually full of zombies ready to drag someone to an assignment that they don’t really want?

[1]Wikipedia contributors. “Mason–Dixon Line.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Jan. 2011. Web. 3 Jan. 2011.

About the author

Karen Lopez is Sr. Project Manager and Architect at InfoAdvisors. She has 20+ years of experience in project and data management on large, multi-project programs. Karen specializes in the practical application of data management principles. She is a frequent speaker, blogger and panelist on data quality, data governance, logical and physical modeling, data compliance, development methodologies and social issues in computing. Karen is an active user on social media and has been named one of the top 3 technology influencers by IBM Canada and one of the top 17 women in information management by Information Management Magazine. She is a Microsoft SQL Server MVP, specializing in data modeling and database design. She’s an advisor to the DAMA, International Board and a member of the Advisory Board of Zachman, International. She’s known for her slightly irreverent yet constructive opinions and rants on information technology topics. She wants you to love your data. Karen is also moderator of the InfoAdvisors Discussion Groups at www.infoadvisors.com and dm-discuss on Yahoo Groups. Follow Karen on Twitter (@datachick).

  • David-Plotkin

    Oh Karen, you sure nailed this one. I’ve been frustrated by all the postings I’ve seen that do exactly what you describe, but hadn’t put it together with the stretch across the Data column in the Zachman Framework. I recently saw the wildest job description for a “Data Governance Manager” I’ve ever seen: the list of requirements was three pages long, and managed to encompass not only the entire Data column, but stretched most of the way across the Framework itself — this individual, if he or she existed, would have been a one-person IT department, plus the business parts of DG, DQ, and data analysis thrown in for good measure. Yeah, right. Good Luck with that!

  • I think it’s getting more difficult for companies to find data professionals who are actually data architects, not just people who have seen data architectures before. I’ve seen a significant increase in job requirements with statements like “more than 10 year’s experience in the data architecture role”. This makes me think that organizations are finding it tougher to fill positions.

    I’m better we are going to see more job postings for “Wonder Candidates”.

    Maybe I need to prepare more business cards with that title.

  • Rowland Gosling

    How about ‘Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?’!

    Nice to see someone pointing out this silly approach.It’s about time someone said it — well done Karen!

  • Alan Nitikman

    I agree with your analysis, that this is a question of “passion” (interest, curiosity, skill maintenance) for the kind of work the position would require. I think, sometimes, Wonder Candidates represent an individual who, previously, did pieces of a number of specialties, e.g. someone who graduated from developer to DBA to Data Architect (of sorts), over time, and could step in a cover these areas. When someone like that leaves, a management that has never had to look at these roles as roles, rather than as a person, try to replace 1:1 and the interviews are satisfying for neither participant.

    There was also a fad, a few years ago, for the “End-to-End” Data Warehouse Analyst: “We have 7 architects who are responsible for the Business Analysis, then the Data Model, then the Design, then implementing the model, writing the BI solution, testing it, and supporting that project on an ongoing basis. Then they move on to additional projects…”
    After the 2 of these interviews, I had a call about a 3rd such position at another company. I interrupted the guy when he said the magic words “End-to-End” and said: “Let me tell you how this plays out: I do the analysis, design, development, QA, and then I attach the company cellphone to my body. Now onto my next project, That first design was pretty good, but I’m not as great a developer as a data architect, so the phone starts ringing. I do a less thorough analysis and quick-and-dirty design on Project 2 because I’m making changes and fighting fires for Project 1. By Project 3, I’m facing burnout and don’t really have time for design. I get a call, a good offer and I’m out of here. And, since I handed off to no one, I documented nothing and no one really knows my Projects but me. One of the other E2E analysts gets my project dumped on them, overworked as they already are, and you’ll likely lose them, too.”
    — “But, we have weekly touch-base meetings”
    — “Which no one has time to attend, or, if mandatory, to pay attention to. They’re too busy doing lousy work.”
    I asked “Why would you WANT me to do development? I’m an excellent Data Architect with a background in DBA. But I’m not the best DBA and I’m a mediocre developer. I can write SQL, but why wouldn’t you want to hire the best in each of these specialties, rather than developing a team of mediocrities who hand off to no one and take all that knowledge out the door with them when they leave.
    That hand-off from expert to expert means that someone has to explain and justify their design. That communication is a natural and necessary check. Take that out of the process and you lose knowledge, flexibility, the ability to move people around and cover.
    They think they’re gaining flexibility by raising a team of “well-rounded” “jack-of-all-trades” analysts (or “engineers”), but what they get is a dwindling, ragged team of burned-out masters-of-nothing.

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