Why Data God Jeffrey Hammerbacher Left Facebook To Found Cloudera

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads," Hammerbacher once infamously said. "That sucks."

It's almost mythic: Archetypical data scientist Jeffrey Hammerbacher is sitting across the table from archetypical journalist Charlie Rose in the infinite blackness of the television interview.

Rose repeats to Hammerbacher—who's a founder of data analytics company Cloudera—a line from an interview he gave Businessweek back when he was an early employee hustling stats for Harvard bud Zuckerberg at Facebook:

"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads."

And Rose, in his politeness, left off the last part of the line: "That sucks."

There's a pregnant moment. And then Hammerbacher, radiating a Midwestern mix of shame, honesty, and humor, responds: "That's going to be on my tombstone, I think."

Explaining the epitaph

Looking back through the Businessweek article, the Hammerbacher of two years ago seemed a little peeved by the state of data in tech—thus the above admission. And why, perhaps, BW writer Ashlee Vance described him as a "conscientious objector to the ad-based business model and marketing-driven culture that now permeates tech."

Sitting across from Rose, Hammerbacher shrugs off the characterization. He knew what he was getting into; he understood Facebook's business model. That didn't drive him away. He wanted to do different work.

The job to be done

He came to Facebook to do a tough and novel job: to build a scaleable infrastructure for data storage and analysis at the world's largest social network. (Easy, right?) He was into that engineering problem, but not so much in using that infrastructure to do anaylsis for Facebook, which would be awesome if you're into quantative social science.

But he isn't.

Instead, he wants to build tools to accelerate the pace of science. (Easy, right?)

What Cloudera—And Big Data—Does

In case you don't know what Big Data means at all—and let's be frank, unless you've ever put statistician on your business card, you likely don't—Hammerbacher gives a pithy explainer that'll we'll paraphrase below:

So a few years ago we took all these documents and put them into this thing called the World Wide Web, which is, to put in nerd speak, an open repository. There was "a tremendous amount of value latent in that data," Hammerbacher says, "so companies like Google were forced to react to this onrush of data by building software that could capture, store, and analyze (it)."

Slowly, Google's tools and techniques for doing that moved into the open source domain, via companies like Facebook and Yahoo. Cloudera, then, wants to lead the next migration, bringing those data innovations—and the insights they can yield—away from its native land of the consumer web and into organizations in health care, science, and what you might call "traditional" business.

Sounds like Hammerbacher's decision to flee from Facebook was a good one: Now the best minds are doing something else entirely.

The Takeaway: If you think your scarce skills could be better used elsewhere, be bold and make the move.

[Image: Flickr user Scott Akerman]

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