Using Data to Tell Stories with Thomas LaRock
Thomas LaRock, Principal Developer Evangelist at Selector AI, joins Corey on Screaming in the Cloud to discuss why he loves having a career in data and his most recent undertaking at Selector AI. Thomas explains how his new role aligned perfectly with his career goals in his recent job search, and why Selector AI is not in competition with other data analysis tools. Corey and Thomas discuss the benefits and drawbacks to going back to school for additional degrees, and why it’s important to maintain a healthy balance of education and practical experience. Thomas also highlights the impact that data can have on peoples’ lives, and why he finds his career in data so meaningful.
Thomas’ career and life experiences are best described as follows: he takes things that are hard and makes them simple for others to understand.
Thomas is a highly experienced data professional with over 25 years of expertise in diverse roles, from individual contributor to team lead. He is passionate about simplifying complex challenges for others and leading with empathy, challenging assumptions, and embracing a systems-thinking approach. Thomas has strong analytical reasoning skills and expertise to identify trends and opportunities for significant impact, and is a builder of cohesive teams by breaking down silos resulting in increased efficiencies and collective success. He has a track record of driving revenue growth, spearheading industry-leading events, and fostering valuable relationships with major tech players like Microsoft and VMware.
Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.
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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. There are some guests I have been nagging-slash-angling to have on this show for years on end, and that you almost give up, until they wind up having a job change. At which point, there’s no better opportunity to pounce like some sort of scavenger or hyena or whatnot in order to get them on before their new employer understands what I am, and out of an overabundance of caution, decides not to talk with me. Thomas LaRock is a recently minted Principal Developer Evangelist at Selector. Thomas, thank you for finally deigning to appear on the show. It is deeply appreciated.
Thomas: Oh, thanks for having me. Thanks for extending invitation. I’m sorry. It’s my fault I haven’t come here before now; it’s just been one of those scheduling things. And I always think I’m going to see you. Like, I’ll go to re:Invent, and I’m like, “I’ll see Corey there.” And then, nah, Corey is a little busy.
Corey: Yeah, I have no recollection of basically anything that ever happens at re:Invent, just because it is eight days of ridiculous Cloud Chanukah and thing to thing to thing to thing to thing. It’s just overload and I wind up effectively blocking all of it out. You are one of those very interesting people where, depending upon the context in which someone encounters you, it’s difficult to actually put a finger on where you start and where you stop. You are, for example, a Microsoft MVP, which means you presumably have a fair depth of experience with at least some subset of Microsoft products. You have been working at SolarWinds for a while now, and you also have the username of SQLRockstar on a number of social media environments, which leads me to think, oh, you’re a database person. What are you exactly? Where do you start? Where do you stop?
Thomas: Yeah, in my heart-of-hearts, a data professional. And that can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. My latest thing I’ve taken from a friend where I just call myself a data janitor because that’s pretty much what I do all day, right? I’ll clean data up, I’ll move it around, it’s a pile here and a pile there. But that’s my heart of hearts. I’ve been a database administrator, I’ve been the data advocate. I’ve done a lot of roles, but it’s always been heavily focused on data.
Corey: So, these days, your new role—let’s start at the present and see if we work our way backwards or not—you’ve been, at the time of this recording, in your role for a week where you are a principal developer evangelist at Selector, which to my understanding, is an AIOps or MLOps or whatever buzzword that we’re sprinkling on top of things today is, which of course presupposes having some amount of data to wind up operating on. What do you folks do over there?
Thomas: That’s a great question. I’m hoping to figure that out eventually. No. So, here’s the thing, Corey. So, when I started my unforced sabbatical this past June, I was, of course, doing what everybody does: panicking. And I was looking for job opportunities just about anywhere.
But I, again, data professional. I really wanted a role that would allow me to use my math skills—I have a master’s in mathematics—I wanted to use those math and analytical skills and go beyond the data into the application of the data. So, in the past five, six years, I’ve been earning a lot of data science certifications, I’ve been just getting back into my roots, right, statistical analysis, even my Six Sigma training is suddenly relevant again. So, what happened was I was on LinkedIn and friend had posted a note and mentioned Selector. I clicked on the link, and [all of sudden 00:04:17 ] I read, I go, “So, here’s a company that is literally building new tools and it’s data-science-centric. Is data-science-first.”
It is, “We are going to find a way to go through your data and truly build out a better set of correlations to get you a signal through the noise.” Traditional monitoring tools, you know, collect a lot of things and then they kind of tell you what’s wrong. Or you’re collecting a lot of different things, so they slap, like, I don’t know, timestamps in there and they guess at correlations. And these people are like, “No, no, no. We’re going to go through everything and we will tell you what the data really says about your environment.”
And I thought it was crazy how at the moment I was looking for a role that involve data and advocacy, the moment I’m looking for that role, that company was looking for someone like me. And so, I reached out immediately. They wanted not just a resume, but they’re like, where’s your portfolio? Have you spoken before? I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve spoken in a couple places,” right?
So, I gave them everything, I reached right out to the recruiter. I said, “In case it doesn’t arrive, let me know. I’ll send it again. But this sounds very interesting.” And it didn’t take more than—
Corey: Exactly. [unintelligible 00:05:24 ] delivery remains hard.
Thomas: Yeah. And it didn’t take more than a couple of weeks. And I had gone through four or five interviews, they said that they were going to probably fly me out to Santa Clara to do, like, a last round or whatever. That got changed at some point and we went from, “Hey, we’ll have you fly out,” to, “Hey, here’s the offer. Why don’t you just sign?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll start Monday. Let’s go.”
Corey: Fantastic. I imagine at some point, you’ll be out in this neck of the woods just for an off-site or an all-hands or basically to stare someone down when you have a sufficiently large disagreement.
Thomas: Yes, I do expect to be out there at some point. Matter of fact, I think one of my trips coming up might be to San Diego if you happen to head down south.
Corey: Oh, I find myself all over the place these days, which is frankly, a welcome change after a few years of seclusion during the glorious pandemic years. What I like about Selector’s approach, from what I can tell at least, is that it doesn’t ask all of its customers to, “Hey, you know, all that stuff that you’ve instrumented over the last 20 years with a variety of different tools in the observability pipeline? Yeah, rip them all out and replace them with our new shiny thing.” Which never freaking happens. It feels like it’s a better step toward meeting folks where they are.
Thomas: Yeah. So, we’re finding—I talk like I’ve been there forever: “What we’re finding,”—in the past 40 hours of my work experience there, what we’re finding, if you just look at the companies that are listed on the website, you’ll get an idea for the scale that we’re talking about. So no, we’re not there to rip and replace. We’re not going to show up and tell you, “Yeah, get rid of everything. We’re going to do that for you.”