Frustrated administrator with computer

Published: February 09, 2023

Have you ever had a report stop working and, when you ask why, the reply was something like, “Bob was the only one who knew how that thing worked, and no one’s been able to fix it since he left”?

This experience probably feels familiar because it plagues organizations in all industries and of all sizes. When the owner/designer of a dashboard project leaves, good luck trying to keep it up and running smoothly.

A Technical Problem

Technical teams struggle disproportionately with staff turnover because their employees’ institutional knowledge is particularly hard to replace. Data science and engineering functions–building and maintaining data systems, pipelines, and reports–are especially vulnerable to falling apart when staff members leave. It’s not entirely clear why exactly, but it has something to do with the fact that analytics projects are simultaneously not technical enough and too technical.

Data pipelines and dashboards/reports are not usually “productionalized” enough to be part of the code base, like software engineering, which is scrutinized by and standardized for multiple engineers, but they are still very technical, and therefore difficult to understand quickly, replicate, or debug.

For example, it is genuinely harder to figure out why a complicated SQL query that you didn’t write yourself is failing than to find errors in your colleague’s strategy memo. Documentation and “transition plans” help but are rarely sufficient.

Unfortunately, the remedy is usually for those dashboards or reports to be deprecated (turned off) completely and to build replacements from scratch. This is a huge waste of resources for the organization.

This occurs most often with small data teams, where individual employees are solely responsible for data management and reporting. When you are dependent on single people knowing how things work, just one person’s departure can leave a huge hole.

A Perfect Storm

Can you guess a group of organizations that have one, maybe two data analysts? And also experience higher than average turnover because they struggle to compete on salaries with the tech industry?

Bingo! Schools and school districts.

Most schools and school districts, even fairly large ones, have relatively small technology teams. These teams are stretched incredibly thin, covering tech support and maintenance of hardware as well as software.

Districts often have only one analyst who knows the ins and outs of their data systems (if they’re lucky). Consequently, they are incredibly vulnerable to the collapse of the “house of cards” if that one staff person leaves. If this house of cards is small in scope–just a few spreadsheets, for example–then it’s not a big deal.

But if the analyst had created their own homegrown system of processes, with layers of dependencies and logic, and a set of dashboards that they built themselves (perhaps in a tool like Tableau, which others are not likely to know how to use), then there is considerable risk of the system collapsing when that person leaves.

Potential Solutions

To protect themselves from the potential downsides of staff turnover on their technical team, schools, and districts could consider outsourcing their data infrastructure creation and management to a solution provider. What districts lose in flexibility and autonomy, they gain in enhanced security, lower risk, and better reliability.

In addition, they can potentially even lower their overall technology costs because a third-party provider can achieve economies of scale with data storage, data engineering, and staffing that a district or school cannot access on their own.

It’s important, however, that a district not go down the path of having a consulting firm design a bespoke system for them either, or they’ll end up in the same place as before: when the consulting firm is no longer around to support the system, it falls apart. It will be too specific and complex to maintain. This can happen to even the largest districts in the country.

At Schoolytics, we build precisely the kind of customizable, secure data warehouse and reporting infrastructure that education leaders need while offering a service that is impermeable to internal staff turnover. In fact, school administrators often reach out to us when they find themselves facing a collapsing “house of cards” of their own.

Whether you’re facing a similar situation or just want to futureproof your data infrastructure, we’re here to help! Get in touch with us anytime.