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The Startup

The Golden Rule of Tech

How One Rule Sets Apart the Best from the Rest.

I have a nasty habit of arguing with people online who differ from my point of view in either direction. Now don’t get me wrong, I am right when I do.

I know am right because I only argue those matters for which I have hard facts handy. If I fail to have hard facts handy or I see someone making arguments based on hard data I gulp down my ego and move on. Even if I disagree.

This is also the Golden Rule of Tech.

Never Argue with Data.

A business or a person no matter how smart can take a stand contrary to data (meaning evidence) and expect to win. Simple math!

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and most other tech giants have and have had data admiring leaderships. Leaders who are willing to do what data says irrespective of their personal opinions or beliefs.

It always starts at the top. When the top level leadership shows that data has the final say, it trickles down to lower levels of leadership.

It doesn’t matter who’s the CEO, in this new economy data is the boss.

The Alpha Male CEO Jeff Bezos’ persuasiveness and aggressiveness would be what most outsiders guess drive amazon’s decision-making process. Not quite.

“That quest for perfection comes with Bezos’ laser focus on data,” says a one-time Amazon employee in an interview. He goes on to say “Bezos proliferated data as the absolute decision maker.” Former employees have taken it as far as writing “it is not customer service that is Amazon’s secret sauce [as Jeff Bezos wants people to believe], his core innovation was to place data at the center of his corporate culture.”

It turns out this is not a core innovation limited to Amazon. Most of the internet’s best performing companies have data-driven-culture as their ‘secret’ sauce. Google owes its success to it’s relentless and adamant focus on numbers versus opinion. Even from the very beginning their magic formula — PageRank search algorithm had been about prioritizing numbers over anything else.

Google goes extreme lengths with their love for a data-driven-culture. Legend has it that once they tested 40 different hues of a single color — blue (2.5% of visitors were shown a hue each) to determine which hue earned the button most clicks. That’s how Gmail and Google buttons we use now got their color.

That test run by a few lines of code for a little time now earns Google an additional 200 million $ a year from ad clicks.

These Companies’ leadership know that things don’t improve unless they are measured. Everything that can be measured is. Every piece of data is tested and analyzed. We aren’t just talking product features and web-design here, but everything from finance, marketing, operations processes to HR is subjected to scrutiny by data.

Google’s People Analytics department, part of the company’s HR function (which it calls People Operations in order to get the respect of Engineers) has their mission statement as

“All people decisions at Google to be based on data and analytics.”

We need to be able to measure, to find out what does and doesn’t work at Google rather than just adopt best practices. — Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP for People Ops.

Attracting and retaining top talent has always been serious business for Google as their People analytics team has numbers that exceptional technologists have a performance differential of 300 times the average employee. Some of the team’s public insights that are noted and significant

  • helped limit the number of interviews required. Company analysis showed that more than four interviewers didn’t lead to higher quality hiring.
  • Shown how to better manage maternity leave resulting in a 50% reduction in defections
  • and created on-boarding agenda for an employee’s first four days of work that boosted productivity by up to 15 percent.

Their study on team dynamics which found out that psychological safety is the number one key to building successful teams is widely cited in the business circles to the envy of many academicians. Google is borderline academia when it comes to their obsession with anything and everything data.

Now, what are the traits that will make you a great data-driven leader? Here are some of the common traits displayed by the World’s greatest data-driven leaders in decision making.

  1. Humility,
  2. a desire for truth,
  3. dedication to a cause larger than themselves
  4. and a hunger for constant improvement.


When the celebrity founder CEO with a larger than life media image and more importantly 28% equity is countered by a 19-year-old intern (read kid) on their strongest held opinion with hard data before her top colleagues, what do they do?

A data-driven leader will submit to data and be appreciative of the gesture. In the process, she will grow both the business and herself. It’s no longer even hard for them to do so. It’s business as usual.

I think bad leaders follow their intuition blindly, and what good leaders do is that they test their intuition recognizing that intuition is just subconscious pattern recognition. Your intuition is built up through years of experience and what you want to do is make that subconscious pattern recognition conscious and figure out “Do the patterns I have learned in the past match up to the kind of situation I’m in the present?” — Adam Grant, Organizational Psychologist at Wharton.

If Data-Driven Culture has a stark opposite it’s the HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) Culture. In a HiPPO office its opinions and beliefs that have the final say, not data. Which is ultimately sad because they are living a lie.

A Desire For Truth

Data meaning truth.

Data-driven leaders are after the truth, not what they believe is to be true, or what they want to be true. Truth by definition is mutually exclusive. It’s either A or B. Never both.

Google has stopped showing me gym membership ads even though I still have it as a top goal on online profiles. It instead tells me how orders on ubereats are now 5% cheaper for an hour. You are what you do; not what you say you’ll do.

Data is NOT how great an email newsletter you think you write, it’s your open and click rates among others. Data is NOT what they tell you they’ll buy but what they actually buy with their finite money.

Never confuse evidence (data) with intentions.

Dedication to a cause larger than self

What I mean by having such dedication to a cause larger than oneself is in the words of Werner Erhard- “to be committed in a way that shapes one’s being and actions so that they are in service of realizing something beyond one’s personal concerns — beyond a direct payoff.”

Maybe it’s taking a personal beating from the media for the greater good of the company or it’s letting a pet project drown because data says it’s trash or even letting a dear friend go.

While nepotism is not much of an issue in the West, in India, Pakistan and many other Asian countries it’s a different story. People spend a lifetime building a business and hand it over to a close family member instead of the best person for the job. This happens even in publicly traded companies. People accept it as the norm. Corner offices in some countries, like royalty, is sexually transmitted.

It has no emotions, all that data respects are results.

A data-driven leader would make sure they do a democratic and data-driven succession. This would instil confidence in employees and ensure the company is in the best possible hands it could find at the time.

Microsoft Chairman John Thompson sharing his thoughts on Satya Nadella as he is elevated as the CEO.

Hunger for constant improvement

Data will always present data-driven cultures with opportunities for growth. These leaders are those who aren’t just interested in offering a better service/product than their competition but are obsessively committed to improving their offering as often and as much as they can. These are not just necessarily small incremental progress, but huge leaps too.

Microsoft’s excitement with finally breaking into cloud was that they would now be able to track how their users used their products and bring in improvements consistently instead of once or twice a year, among others.

Google updates their search algorithm more than once a day on average because data shows there is a better way to go about it. Most of which are small marginal improvements.

Data makes improvement a continuous process for leaders who will listen!

Being a data driven culture is a winning formula as evidence has it. While the direct benefits of being a data-driven company are clearly evident as discussed, there are a couple of crucial indirect benefits that it offers a culture.

4 Indirect but no less real benefits of having a data-driven culture.

  1. Analytical thinking: Wits and spontaneity don’t sell here too much. One is expected to back up his ideas and opinions with hard data or shut up. This gets people to do their homework before walking into a meeting. Being unaware always shows in a data-driven culture.
  2. The antidote for Office Politics: When everything is driven by data, there is less room for irrationality and emotions. There is transparency and it is evident to all. In a data-driven culture the focus is not on who but what, why and how.
  3. Promotes growth and learning: When employees get the hint that the culture respects result alone it motivates them to invest in growth and learning, providing for a better, more competent and consistently improving workforce.
  4. A democratic work environment: A workplace where the leadership isn’t busy pushing down their opinions down the hierarchy and is open to ideas from the crew is an altogether healthier environment to work in.

Of all the benefits tech has afforded the business world, this would be the most precious — The ability to listen and adjust itself to the changing environment around it effectively and efficiently.

People of a data-driven culture knows how each and every decision was made irrespective of end results — by utilizing the best possible information one had access to at the time the decision was being made.

Now that’s a Leadership that has done it’s part well and good.

Thank you for reading through. If you enjoyed it give some claps 👏 to help others discover it.

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Tijo Philip

Tijo Philip

Growth Obsessed Fractional CMO.

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