A Field Guide to Millennials and Gen-Xers in Social Data Analytics


Background: This was vaguely solicited advice to a funding agency which, exercising the usual discretion characteristic of this site, shall remain anonymous. [1] Hence the organization into ten points rather than the usual seven.

1. They are digital natives: You cannot manage them unless you speak that language, and fairly fluently at that. They will instantly detect posers in this domain.

2. They are very social and travel in non-exclusive herds or, as they prefer, tribes. They are innately collaborative and remarkably adept at self-organization, including long-distance collaboration.

3. Consistent with their social ethos, they share and expect others to share. In the data analytic world, if you aren’t on GitHub, you might as well not exist.

4. Observational evidence suggests that they can survive a total of between three to ten hours of exposure to the 200 yellow-on-green, 8-point-type PowerPoint slide presentations that characterize monthly program reviews. Ethical constraints have precluded establishing this number precisely, though they will usually respond to such treatments by fleeing the project—see Point #10—rather than clawing their own eyes out.

5. They are fearless adopters, assessors and modifiers of new technology. Contrary to stereotypes, when properly motivated they have a remarkable capacity for work: A millennial working on the early stages of one project I was involved with ended up in the emergency room due to dehydration after a night of data-wrangling. He survived, and now teaches at Princeton.

6. They like feedback, intermediate rewards and have a possibly overly acute—though generally accurate—sense of injustice when assessing organizational management.

7. Unlike the notoriously sexist first generation of political methodologists (and the hopelessly sexist game theorists before them [2]) they are fully open to participation of, and leadership by, women. In fact they find exclusively male environments rather odd and alienating.

8. They prefer to approach their work with a sense of humor: at the recent New Directions in Text as Data conference, the first slide of the first presentation was a drawing of a squirrel with a martini glass [3]. The presenter, a woman, said “Every presentation at this [predominantly Millennial and GenX-er] conference needs to have a picture of an animal.” This had not been announced in advance, but indeed every subsequent presentation contained a picture of an animal.[4]

9. They are skeptics, and if someone tells them something is impossible when they know it has already been done—the forte of physicists and engineers talking about social science research—you will lose them immediately. They are also skeptical of each other: the recently established Millennial and Gen-X journal Research and Politics has the strongest replication norms in political science, and quite likely anywhere in the social sciences..

10. Every reasonably-sized data analytics company in the world has at least half a dozen openings: a Millennial’s alternative to working for your project is to work for Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Microsoft. Not Starbucks.

A Gen-Xer social data analytics researcher I know seeking to escape an academic institution in a rather remote village interviewed with each of these five, and within weeks had offers from every one; she went with Microsoft Research in New York City. Another, who had taken several graduate courses from her institution’s statistics department, concluded that the methods required for publication in a certain social science were completely useless, so she quit and after a few months at a data start-up, ended up at Apple, in a city which is probably at the outer limits of the possibility curve on the dimensions “coolness” and “affordable.” A final example—though I have more—involved a student with considerable experience in conflict data analytics who took a summer internship at an insurance company where he wrote a little model to predict the location of pirate attacks, which the company then used to secure a contract with the world’s largest shipping company. You will be shocked, shocked to learn that he has an offer for non-academic employment as well. Also in what has been considered one of the world’s coolest cities. During the time of the Roman Empire. Before that unpleasantness with the Saxons. I digress.


1. Which is to say, blindingly obvious to almost everyone likely to read this. It is not Penn State.

2. Where various personality disorders at the clinical level also seemed to correlate with professional success, and I’m not just thinking of John Nash. Though apparently John von Neumann was a pretty nice guy.

3. It made sense in context…well, sort of… The martini had an acorn rather than an olive. I do not know whether the martini was shaken or stirred: it wasn’t that kind of squirrel.

4. My contribution (taken at a workshop I attended in South Africa):blackswan


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2 Responses to A Field Guide to Millennials and Gen-Xers in Social Data Analytics

  1. From the description it sounds like the image on the slide was the same as on the Planet Money t-shirt, representing “animal spirits.” http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2013/05/10/182928856/episode-457-why-pink

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