Fast failure could lead to big-data success

Big Data word graphic

Failing fast in big data initiatives is a good way for agencies to avoid failing big, according to Chris Biow, Federal CTO and vice president of MarkLogic Corporation.

Biow, speaking Jan. 30 at a big data symposium hosted by the Defense Strategies Institute, said that despite big data’s increasing popularity as a buzzword, it remains a field of high-risk investments where big agency missteps can bleed IT budgets dry.

Instead, he advised, agencies should try a series of smaller big data investments – with some of those investments doomed to fail – in an effort to find solutions that do work, and then expand upon them.

"These are still high-risk investments, we should expect these projects to fail," Biow said. "It’s about spending your bets. You don’t want to spend them all in one place. Split it out, and let 1,000 flowers bloom."

In the quest for agencies looking to return value from big data projects, Biow said agencies should evaluate progress rapidly, within "weeks or months," and decide quickly whether a project is working or not.

For example, if an intelligence agency cannot pull information that might be useful to an intelligence analyst from a big data prototype after a few months, they are unlikely to get much out of it in the long haul, Biow said.

"If they aren’t returning mission value within weeks to short months, they should be shutting it down," Biow said.

As budgets shrink, Bio said the "fail fast" logic makes more sense for agencies that do not have as much money to throw at IT initiatives as they used to. It also enhances agility, with agencies less tied to projects that might not work.

Biow's argument has parallels in the book "Little Bets," by Peter Sims. In a 2011 interview with FCW, Sims outlined his case.

"Making little bets is the antidote to risk aversion. That’s the beauty of the concept. No one likes to lose anything," Sims said then. "People are twice as likely to want to avoid a loss as they are to want to get a gain. A little bet is a low-risk, affordable way of learning something. So long as the bets are little, affordable, essentially risk free, that gives people the ability to take what the researchers would call an affordable loss."

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group