Enterprise taxonomist: How this emerging role helps businesses create order from chaos

Data Taxonomist Mel McCrea discusses the crucial role she plays at Dell Technologies.

By Bit Rambusch, vice president, eServices and knowledge management, Dell Technologies

Businesses now have access to more data than ever before. However, this huge amount of information can easily become siloed, or simply end up as endless needles in endless haystacks. Organizations often find themselves in a data paradox: having so much information coming in at once that it quickly becomes unwieldy and inefficient.

Organizing the data is vital, which is where your crack team of experts comes in. Taxonomists are key players on the team. They classify data into categories and sub-categories, making it easier for employees and customers to find the information they need. Because the role is somewhat of an enigma to some, I spent some time with author Seth Earley, discussing taxonomy.

I then asked Mel McCrea, an enterprise taxonomist at Dell Technologies, to tell us about her career path and responsibilities. This is a summary of our conversation.

There isn’t one ‘type’ of taxonomist

McCrea studied diverse subjects in the U.S. and her native Mexico that paired humanities and science. She has a Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Science, a Masters in Science and Technology Commercialization and a BA in Social Psychology.

Her original plan was to work in academia, having worked as an associate professor in Mexico from 2009 to 2015. She stumbled across taxonomy as a potential career when searching for job opportunities focused on the Mexican market. Auspiciously, having relocated to Austin in 2017, McCrea found a position with a Texas-based company seeking a taxonomy analyst and subject matter expert to design taxonomies for a Mexican audience.

Wanting to expand her expertise and skills, McCrea applied for a position at Dell Technologies in 2021 that included the promise of working with enterprise knowledge graphs, a sophisticated model for integrating and managing taxonomies and ontologies.

McCrea’s first experience with computers was in the mid-1990s. Her father, an accountant, bought her a second-hand IBM PC and hired a tutor to teach Mel and her younger sister BASIC (originally a programming language designed to help students in fields other than science and math to write simple programs). She used the computer mainly for art programs and printing her own drawings but her father’s encouragement to engage with this particular technology left an impression.

McCrea’s non-traditional route and unexpected introduction to taxonomy proves there isn’t one conventional entry point, meaning the talent pool can be that much more diverse. Her journey is also a testament to the field of “digital humanities,” a newfound integration of knowledge of the humanities with semantic web technology standards. “Because the role is constantly evolving, I’m always learning. It’s a great fit,” says McCrea.

Becoming the glue that holds the business together

At Dell Technologies, McCrea designs taxonomies and “controlled vocabularies,” words and phrases used to index and retrieve content from systems and databases to websites. She works with internal stakeholders to bring clarity to the vocabularies. Her peers are librarians, as well as data scientists–which places her at the core of an exciting interdisciplinary field.

“Every day is different,” says McCrea. “I split my time in various ways—from analyzing content to talking with subject matter experts to understand new products and sharing my knowledge with colleagues across divisions of the company.”

While McCrea’s work typically focuses on web-based search, taxonomies exist everywhere. She provides a relatable example of grocery shopping. Without carefully curated aisles of products, shoppers would be confused.

“Imagine how complicated it would be if you were looking for something, but then everything was not in its assigned place. The question is: ‘Where do people expect to find something, and in which form do they expect to find it?'”

“Bringing order and alignment to what would otherwise be chaos is a complex task,” she says. “As well as dealing with vast amounts of data, taxonomists must recognize that individuals may have a range of expectations of where preferred items might be when they search for them.”

Companies that create meaningful data structures can make any web-based search more efficient. “They’ll better organize the products they provide online, and customers will better access the products,” according to McCrea. “When they’re done well, you don’t even know they’re there.”

Tools and principles for best practice

Successful taxonomists keep an eye on standards, such as SPARQL, a query language for graph database analytics used for semantic analysis, the examination of relationships, and vocabularies such as OWL, SKOS and SHACL. Interpersonal “soft skills” are also important, particularly when it comes to interacting with business stakeholders and customers.

McCrea has identified certain design principles that have enabled her to shine in this vital field. She warns against creating navigational taxonomies that are more than five layers deep since “people who are searching for something don’t want to have to keep on clicking.”

McCrea also stresses the importance of designing flexibility into data architectures and metadata management since companies will continue to expand their data. To ensure flexibility, McCrea says taxonomists should ask stakeholders: “How do you want this taxonomy to behave five years from now?”

As a best practice, McCrea asserts that it is important to be forward-thinking to accommodate future changes. “This could encompass what products are currently in development,” she says. “How will you want to support those products, and how will you provide answers to customers’ inquiries?”

It’s estimated that the volume of data created each day globally will increase 87 percent, from 97 zettabytes in 2022 to 181 zettabytes in 2025. Thankfully, problem-solving enterprise taxonomists like McCrea are showing us the way forward and helping us unlock value from metadata and data architectures.

You can watch our full conversation here to dig even deeper into the world of a data taxonomist.

Lead photo by shawnanggg/Unsplash