Without treatment, his doctors told him he has about six months to live. With treatment, including a new experimental cancer drug and chemotherapy, he could live for a couple of years. He would like to see both of his children graduate from high school. But he knows that he only has an 8% chance of living for five more years. Berry has confronted his own mortality, told his family about his chances, and shared it with friends on Facebook.
After all, he is a data scientist. He spent many years at Microsoft and Facebook, and recently he has been consulting as president of DataGenetics.
It’s a sad situation, as Berry is a beloved character in the game business. I met him years ago talking, as he was a regular at the Casual Connect (Now GameDaily Connect) game events. Berry is a very intelligent man, and he had a knack for diving into game analytics and coming up with interesting explanations. He was named one of the 50 over 50 in Kate Edwards’ latest list of the top people in the game business. And he has enjoyed blogging about things like how long it would take to count a trillion dollars (31,688 years).
But cancer is something that triggers strong emotions, and the numbers associated with survivability are unmerciful. A year ago, Berry was walking 12 miles a week and swimming 20 minutes most mornings. Now he may gasp for breath after climbing a flight of stairs. He is undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, and it is helping. But Berry knows that at some point, the cocktail of medicines will eventually poison his body and become unbearable. If anything makes him angry, it’s the bureaucracy of the medical establishment, such as getting permission from an insurance company for a treatment that actually cost nothing, as it was experimental.
Berry is trying his best to survive, and he is also making the best use of his time that he can. He took his daughter to see a show in Las Vegas. With is son, he visited the San Diego Zoo. A week ago, Berry took his family to Disney World. He visited his hometown in England with a friend. And he officiated a wedding for the first time. I was lucky enough to grab some of his time at the GameDaily Connect event in Anaheim. He was an emcee for a day, and then he went home for another round of chemotherapy.
We talked about data science, his love for games, how he is dealing with his cancer, and his legacy. I teared up a few times during our talk. But Berry made it easy to converse. He refers to his body as a “sorry sack of cells,” and he has kept his sense of humor. He was serious and precise with his words but kept control of his emotions, like a man who has come to terms with his illness and life.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Nick Berry: When I grew up, I was the first kid in my village with a computer. I loved writing games. I taught myself to program. I found out there was a kids’ summer camp where the kids would go for a week — it’s very popular in America, but it was new in the U.K. You’d go to this place and sit there with lots of geeky kids. I was one of the older kids there. I did that for a week, and then come back and teach and mentor. I’d go to school, and then in the summers, I’d teach at this camp, teaching assembly language and BASIC. I used to write little video games like Space Invaders. That’s how I got my start in all of this.
GamesBeat: Did you go right into games, or were you doing computer science in general?
Berry: No, games were the thing I liked most. Again, it’s that Space Invaders time. I was fascinated by it, and I wanted to write those myself. It came time to go to college, and in the arrogance of youth, I said, “I’m not going to university to do computer science. I already know more than these professors. Why do I want to go learn about punch tape?”
GamesBeat: What years were these?
Berry: I was born in 1967. In the U.K. you finish high school at 18. I decided to study rocket science at university. I did a master’s in rocket science and aircraft design. I did an apprenticeship at the ministry of defense designing fighter aircraft cockpit stuff. I was just about to go to another career, and then one of the other supervisors who taught the kids’ summer camps said, “Hey, we’re starting a software company. Come and join us.” Sure, I’ll join that.
It was related to electronic mapping. If you use any of that route software, starting here and finishing here using Dijkstra’s algorithm, we pretty much invented this idea of turn by turn route instruction stuff. It was called NextBase in the U.K., but we sold it as Automap in the U.S. We grew up to about 50-60 people and ended up selling to Microsoft, which was how I moved to the U.S.
GamesBeat: Is this in the ‘90s?
Berry: It’d be 25 years ago. I could look it up. I worked on maps for a couple of years. Then I wanted a change at Microsoft. They’d just acquired a company called Electric Village, which was into gaming. The Ed Fries days, if you know Ed Fries. The internet had just been discovered, the superposition of the internet and gaming. It was what become the Microsoft Gaming Zone, where you’d dial online with your modem and play a game of chess or checkers or spades. It would matchmake you with somebody.
I joined the Gaming Zone, and the first question I asked people was, “This is interesting, but what time of day do people play the most games? Do you they play at lunch, in the evening, on the weekend?” “Well, we don’t know.” “Yes you do, you have these servers running this stuff. You should be monitoring this.” “That’s a bloody good idea. Why don’t you do that?” There really wasn’t a data science title at the time, but I started logging, every five minutes, the number of people playing chess and checkers, and I plotted that data on graphs.
I found out what other games online were doing, like Pogo and Yahoo Games, all the rest. I used to write little web crawlers to go through and pull the page every five minutes and count the number of people playing the games. It was fascinating stuff. It turns out that it’s about 7:30, 7:45 on west coast time, the superposition of the east coast and west coast. And then 2:15 in the morning is the time that’s the lowest. When we did server maintenance, we did it at 2:15 in the morning.
Even looking at the curves you could find things out. When the Super Bowl comes on, you’d see certain games drop in population. Other games would increase, because the bored spouse doesn’t want to watch the Super Bowl. They’ll go online and play a game of checkers or chess.
GamesBeat: And all this came pretty easily to you?
Berry: It all seemed like common sense, which is kind of bad, because — at the time, data science was a relatively new thing. I was working at Facebook doing a lot of recruiting stuff, and people would go in there saying, “What classes should I go to?” And I’d say, “I don’t know. I’ve never been through any formal training. It just seemed natural to me.” I’d come up ways of doing things, and someone would say, “You do know there’s a name for this?” “No, I don’t.” I was just making it up as a went along.
Then I got into scraping the deluxe download games, what the prices were, and I ended up building this database of all those things. I became a subject matter expert in all this sort of gaming stuff.
GamesBeat: I remember Fighter Ace. Was that around?
Berry: Fighter Ace, and there was a space game. I forget what it was. Asheron’s Call, those early pay-to-play games.
GamesBeat: Was it a small group back then? Was it part of the games group?
Berry: It was part of the games group, yes. The Gaming Zone went through many internal name changes. MSN Game Zone, Gaming Zone. They called it Rat internally. Then it split up. The Fighter Ace team and Asheron’s Call team, the actual first-party game studios, moved out and split. It was down to the core casual games team. We did the Millennium games, games based in Windows. Windows played checkers online. That was done through our stuff. We also did the first part of Xbox Live Arcade.
We sat there and said, “This casual gaming thing is really popular.” If you asked people if they played video games, the hardcore gamers, as you know, would self-identify. But other people would say, “I don’t play games. I play Candy Crush.” They didn’t self-identify as gamers. When the first Xbox came out, we said they should put casual games on it, and the Xbox team said, “No! This is a core gaming platform.”
We said, “No, really, this is really popular. You find out that people get it home and they’ll want to be able to justify the purchase. You should have this deluxe download-like experience where you can download demos.” They didn’t want to do that. We ended up developing it internally ourselves and pushed it out there. It was a phenomenal success. Then they all said, “Well, we really always wanted to do that.” [laughs]
Again, don’t quote me on these figures, but you get the concept of phenomenal success. In the deluxe download world, PC games like Bejeweled Deluxe and all those candy games, you do the download and go through and wait for an hour and it would fuse. A good game would convert a certain percentage. Out of 100 downloads, you’d get some that went through and paid to unlock. On the first Live Arcade titles, the Marble Madness and stuff, the conversion rates were much greater. In the first week, it was a phenomenal success, people saying, “This is what we always wanted for Xbox Live Arcade.”
I left Microsoft and spent a year at Real Networks. I ran the analytics team there and built up the tools for that kind of stuff. Then I left there. My parents had been very sick, so I stopped working for a while and looked after them. Then I joined Facebook.
GamesBeat: Do you remember the year?
Berry: I was at Facebook for five years, and I’ve been gone a year. It’s all on LinkedIn. I joined there and I helped to do data science for games. My role changed to a side lead role to help recruit for Facebook. When I joined Facebook Seattle it was about 200 people, and when I left it was about 2,500. It was about giving back to the community, keeping employees happy, that kind of stuff. More of a mayoral role.
GamesBeat: That must have been a wild ride. Did it feel different from Microsoft?
Berry: Very, very different. I loved the culture of Facebook. I have to give a lot of credit to the people. When they set the company up, whether through luck or foresight, they knew the company was going to be larger at some point. They set some very cultural things that are important. When you get to the inertia of a large company, you can’t change the culture, and it’s so important to that kind of company. Even the subtle things, like personal pronouns. How do “we” do this? Not how do “I” do this? We’re on the same team. Part of when you join the company, there’s a boot camp process where the noobs all get together. You meet the execs. You learn the company principles.
If you’re hired as an engineer — I went through the engineering boot camp as part of the data science stuff. You’re almost hired as a blank slate. You’re a rock star. We’re going to give you a job. They recruit all these people. So what are you going to do? Well, you don’t know what you’re going to do, because you don’t know all the things we do at this company. Everybody goes through boot camp. It’s a common experience. You all speak the same vocabulary and do these basic training exercises.
Then you get exposed to different parts of the company. Here’s a PHP bug. Here’s a bit of this. Here’s a bit of that. You get a chance to do these little tasks. About three or four weeks in, this dating starts to happen. “I have to work on billing. Who do I talk to about billing?” “Go talk to Suzy. She’s on the billing team.” “I want to work on this backend stuff.” “Talk to these people.” Naturally, people cluster together very closely. You work where you have a natural talent, where you have a passion, where you have an affinity, where you can move the needle. It works really well. You find the place at the company you’re going to join.
That sort of culture is great. It’s very flat. You have thousands of engineers working at Facebook, and their titles are just “engineer.” You asked about differences at Microsoft. Microsoft has architect, principal engineer, senior engineer, engineer, intern. You go into a meeting at Microsoft and when there’s an argument about what you’re going to do, everyone looks at the VP at the end of the table. It’s complicated.
The data level is all arguments at Facebook, and hand on heart, you can go to anybody at Facebook and say, “Hey, guys, we’ve been doing this all wrong.” “Show me.” “Well, this is how we used to do things, and I think this is the way we should do things.” “You’re right, ship it. Run a test.” Again, two engineers — if you go into a room and say, “The principal architect says to do it this way and the intern says to do it this way,” which would you go with? But if it’s engineer A and engineer B, which is the most performant?
You make a half a percent improvement in anything that’s done at Facebook, you save a million dollars a month in server costs. You’ve shipped love to 2 billion people. In Africa, you pay the data plan by the byte when you’re downloading pictures. You’ve saved money for all of those people. You move fast. Today it was your way. Good job, group hug, we’re all on the same team making the company better. Next time it could be your way.
At Microsoft, it was very vertical, very fiefdom. Get off my turf. Facebook engineers have access to the entire source code of the company. They can make corrections. There’s no way to launch a nuclear missile. You have to go through code review. But you can make a change to something that’s important. I loved that openness, the way you could — you’d be open and respectful of people, but data levels are arguments about what’s the most performant thing.
GamesBeat: It seemed like during this time, mining data meant real money. You’re saving money or you’re finding the money. Microsoft almost seemed like you might have been in the geekiest of jobs that nobody cared about, but at Facebook, there’s this appreciation for data science or an understanding that it can lead to money.
Berry: I know it’s going to sound weird from the outside, but when I was at Microsoft, when we’d sit down and talk about features, pretty much the first question was, “How do we monetize this?” At Facebook, it was never about that. It was always about, “How does this add customer value? How does this make the world more open and connected? How does this make the site better?” It was never about how to make money. If you get to scale, and Zuckerberg used to talk about this — when we get to a billion people using the site, we’ll worry about the money. If you build it, they will come.
When you get to scale, there are obvious ways you can make money. But we’re not going to design the features to make money. We’re going to make the site utilitarian. They used to talk about Facebook as a chair, or a light switch. There’s a switch on the wall, you hit the switch and the lights go on. You don’t think about it every day. It’s a utility. But if it wasn’t there, you’d sure as hell miss it.
I don’t know about you, but the first thing I do in the morning is to check my Facebook feed, see what my friends and family are doing, get the news. It’s a utility. When it’s got to that point of being a utility, you’d miss if it wasn’t there. Then you find ways to monetize it.
GamesBeat: When did it feel to you like data science was being appreciated for what it could deliver? Was it at Microsoft, or was it more at Facebook? Where I started to come across it was with Facebook games and mobile games. People understanding those analytics in free-to-play games, in particular, were the key to figuring out just how to make money, how to turn a game that had some deep flaws into a game that would last for a long time.
Berry: When I left Microsoft, there was no title in the address book of “data scientist.” I joined Facebook and there was a title there. It’s human nature to walk the edge of the curve and make things better. Out of all things, data science and analytics can make a good game better. They can’t make a bad game into a good game, but they can make a good game into a better game.
I think things are even changing further still. I gave a talk last year. It’s players who are becoming payers, not payers who are becoming players. Once upon a time, people used to walk into shops and buy retail games. You put your $49.99 down to get Flight Simulator, and either you suffer buyer’s regret or you’re really happy. The money would go upfront. Then we went through the web-based gaming, Flash games with adverts on the side. When I was at Microsoft it was one cent per user per hour, if you amortized everything out. If you could get someone’s eyeball for an hour playing a game with a bad advert, you made about a cent. Then the deluxe downloads came along, try before you buy.
There are exceptions, but now the world has moved to the free-to-play game, where the game is an advert for itself. You play the game and after a while either a pay gate comes along or there’s an option to pay a bit more. If you’ve had a bad experience, you’re not going to do that. I was talking to Jesse about this earlier. If you put your $10 down to the latest Star Wars movie and you come out and you’ve had a good time, you’re not upset about spending $10. If you’re playing a game online and you put $10 down and you get $10 of entertainment, you should be happy as well.
If you came out of a Star Wars movie and someone said to you, “Hey, for another $10 now you can see the next episode now,” you might say yes. You get more content. Again, the gaming business is entertainment. If you play an online game and you’re having a good time, you might put $10 down and get more content. It’s a good thing. It’s players becoming payers.
It’s really important to get things right. Analytics and all the rest of this stuff is one of the ways you track and measure everything that you can possibly think of, to find out what it is that people want to do, what makes the game better. There is a subtle difference between data-driven and data-informed. You can be slightly narrowed if you’re a data-driven company, where you only make decisions based on an instrument. There’s a quote attributed to Ford, although I don’t think he said it. If you ask people what they wanted, before the motorcar, they’d say faster horses. If you only ever think about doing something instrumented, you miss out.
Data-informed is probably a better way of describing it. You measure things that tell you about trends, but it still requires some thinking outside a purely programmatic-driven thing. You can miss that creative spark. You need to make sure that it helps drive the decisions, but not necessarily dictate the decisions. That’s the most important part of the data stuff.
GamesBeat: What are some gems of data science that come to mind when you think about what convinced people that data really matters?
Berry: It’s not so related to gaming, but I remember the famous thing about shopping cart analysis. They were looking through people’s receipts. Based on the amount of beer and diapers and milk, you can predict all this information about who’s in the household, the number of children and all the rest. Somebody said, “Let’s predict who will buy ice cream.” They built this model and this neural network and fed all this test data in and narrowed it down to a score. Then they put live data in and got garbage results on the outside. It didn’t seem to make sense.
It turns out that at the end of the day, the secret is, people buy ice cream when it’s hot outside. They hadn’t put the weather into the network. They were measuring all this and fitting a curve to noise. Making sure that you’re capturing the right parameters in the first place in order to drive things — understanding what the goal is, I think is important as well. For all the machine learning style of things, you need to feed that loop. Here’s the parameter. This is what it is we’re trying to do.
Sometimes that’s not as obvious. The gaming world, it’s even more so. It goes through — what the goal? Is it to improve ARPPU, number of users, all the rest of this stuff? There are interesting network effects that are missing if you just chase one thing. In an online game, a good chunk of the people will never pay. Only a certain percentage of people pay. But the un-paying audience is such an important part of the ecosystem.
A pair of jeans is $10. A pair of designer jeans is $200. Why do people spend $200 on Britney Spears jeans when $10 Target jeans work? It’s fashion. If you’re on a desert island and a pair of jeans washes up, you don’t care where it comes from, but when you go out in the street at night, people say, “That’s a nice pair of jeans.” That makes you feel good. If everyone was blind we wouldn’t care about fashion. It’s the same in online games. If I want to buy a red hat in a game, or a flaming blue sword, it might not change the balance of the game, but of that audience wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be a justification for spending money on that.
Designing a game, you need to make sure that you design it for everyone who’s in this chunk of the market that creates the ecosystem, the people who want to spend. It’s a very strict power law. As you know, the people who spend money on games spend it in egregiously large amounts. You talk about the long tail, the thousands of people who spend 25 cents, but that’s nothing. It’s the tall tail, the people spending more — 99 percent of all the money spent on Facebook games are people who spent more than $10 individually.
GamesBeat: Do you remember a USC professor, Dmitri Williams?
Berry: Yes, I know Dmitri.
GamesBeat: He was talking about social whales. You would miss the whole mark or point if you only looked at people who paid as important. He identified this group of people who were not spending money, but who caused other people to spend money. They were the life of the party, or the person at the bar who gets everyone else to ante up.
Berry: Or patrons. They buy suits of armor for everyone in their clan.
GamesBeat: Identifying those social whales was part of why the non-payers were so important.
Berry: It’s horses for courses, and it also depends on the kind of game. If you look at candy-like games, the way you look at the spending patterns, people play and play, and then they get stuck. They reach in their pocket, get the magic quarter out, put it in, and get a power-up gem or super cube they need. They spend money, go past that level at some cost, and they never visit it again. If you look at the spending patterns, there are lots of transactions, but they’re very small. They tend to be roadblock removers.
In a farming-like game, you buy a chunk of money, burn through that cash, and at that point, you decide, “Am I getting value from this game?” Then you ante up again. You tend to find there are much higher-value transactions with a longer time between them.
Farming-like games, people tend to put a lot of effort into it. They’ve converted real cash into assets in the game. Once they’ve done that, they’re more likely to not let their crops wither. They’ll keep going back to it. They tend to be more loyal. One of the things I looked at early on at Facebook was the number of games that people would play in a week. You found that if people played a farming game, they were almost monogamous about the game. When they had free time they played that game to the exclusion of other games. Slots players would go to a thing, pull a lever, run out of energy, and churn to another one. People who played casino-like games had no loyalty.
In terms of spending, we talked about — there are vanity items in games that don’t change the balance in the game in any way, but they’re important. Again, depending on the game, 20-25 percent of the revenue can be from things that don’t change the balance. That all happens because it’s a social environment. If you play solitaire at home and nobody else can see you, would you pay money to change the backs of the cards? No, you don’t care. But if you’re in an environment where you can spend $5 and the backs of the cards are all Amex Platinum or whatever, that shows your personality to everyone in the room, you might think of spending it. Just because of moving into a social environment — the game doesn’t change if you wear blue armor or red armor.
Then there are the time accelerators and the idea of cutting down on the grind. Kill 10 orcs to get to the next level. You can kill 10 orcs, but you have to find them. My son has finished his homework, he can go online and grind through killing orcs. I may want to keep pace with him, but I’m busy at work, so I’ll pay a gold coin for every orc I don’t have to kill. It’s not that I can’t kill them. It’s just adjusting the balance of the game. Put the windmill down and it’ll be ready in two hours, but I want it now, so I put the money down to build the windmill.
It’s very important as well, in terms of the offers that you go through — Bill Gates walks into McDonald’s, he’ll spend $2.99 on a Happy Meal because that’s all there is to spend his money on. If he goes to a fancy French restaurant, he could spend $10,000 on a bottle of wine if it’s available. If it’s not available, it’s not there. But if you divide one by the other and work out the average, if Bill Gates happens to be in that restaurant that day he moves the average spend — you don’t design your menu for people spending an average of $1,000. But if it’s available, someone can come in and spend a large amount of money.
The third one is harder to control, which is monetizing revenge. For the next 20 minutes, I want a 10 percent attack bonus. If you overpower that, then rich people buy their way to the top, and that isn’t fun anymore.
GamesBeat: Was it Clash of Clans where that was the tagline?
Berry: AJ Glasser was the first person I heard say it. I don’t know where she got it from. She’d probably claim that. But the skill you can buy from that has to be less than the skill you’d normally have otherwise. It wouldn’t be fun anymore.
GamesBeat: What did you think of when all of the whales would band together and have their boycotts of different games? I’ve come across that so often — Zynga, Machine Zone, Scopely, Kabam. It feels like it’s when they’re starting to hit this curve of decline. They either have to accept that decline, or they start to put the squeeze on the remaining players and make it twice as expensive for them to do whatever they’re doing. It’s not science to me. It’s just my observation. But I started to see games where these people were the most loyal players, playing every day, playing many hours, having all their friends in the game, and then at some point, they would feel squeezed and get fed up and stage a revolt.
Berry: I don’t have any direct experience. This is more thinking on my feet. One would hope that people running the game know what it is they’re doing. It’s the total area under the curve that matters. There was a horrible time in the games business where the paywall came up straightaway. You played the first few moves and the money came along. To me, that was kind of like used car salespeople. Fool me once. You might make a bit of money now, but you won’t make any in the long term.
Again, players become payers. If you provide a good experience, quid pro quo. They don’t mind paying. But it’s the area under the curve. It’s shortsighted. If you price people out, then you miss out on this integral going further down. If they’re doing that, maybe they’ve decided they want — it costs money to keep servers online. Maybe they’re trying to sunset the game and milking it for what it’s worth. It seems very shortsighted for them to ramp the price up just to make short-term money if they’re going to hurt themselves in the long term.
GamesBeat: It feels like older games are where this happens.
Berry: Maybe it is. You’re going to shut the game down, so — the vast majority of the money does come from the whales. So yes, if you upset those people then you’re not getting anything.
GamesBeat: A lot of the time the companies would say, “Well, it’s just a very small part of our base that’s complaining.” They would hint that it wasn’t significant, either in terms of the number of players or the amount of money. But it always struck me in that they were the most loyal players. It’s like saying you don’t care about your VIP customers because they’re a small group.
Berry: All the data, as much as I’m allowed to show — all the money comes from hyper-spenders. Something like 90 percent of the money in online games comes from people who’ve individually spent more than $5,000 on that game. If you’re spending less than $5,000 lifetime in a game, you’re in the bottom 10 percent. It’s a sharp power curve. It’s into six digits, the amount of money some people have spent.
If you go to Vegas and you’re a high roller, sheikhs pushing million-dollar chips on the table, those people have Facebook accounts, and one in three plays games. If they can push a million-dollar chip on the roll of a die, spending $100,000 on a farming game is nothing to them, and they do it. That’s where a big chunk of the money comes from.
GamesBeat: If you think of those high rollers, they sometimes have this entitled attitude. “I deserve all this. Where’s my red carpet?”
Berry: I don’t work in the business, but I’ve heard anecdotally about those things. It’s analogous to the casinos. I’ve heard that some companies will run special events and invite all their whales. “Hey, we’re thinking of putting a new dragon here. Should it be red or silver? What do you think we should call it?” They make them feel special.
GamesBeat: One company told me that sometimes they will ask, “Can you make the game easier for me to win? Then I’ll continue to support your game.”
Berry: Again, I don’t work for any game studios, but I would say no. Let me work with you. Let’s do something else. We’ll name a town after you. We’ll build a land just for you and you can be king. There’s plenty of things they can do to placate them and make them feel special rather than just unbalance the game. Nobody likes to play a game that’s unfair.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if this gets to the difference between Chinese gamers and Americans. Do you see a difference there, where the Chinese accept that VIP status and the notion that you can pay to win in a lot of games?
Berry: I worked for Facebook. China is a non-starter for Facebook. [laughs] I don’t have as much experience in all those things. All the stuff I used to monitor was outside of China.
GamesBeat: It’s what some of the Kabam people used to tell me. They had to build a VIP part of Marvel Contest of Champions in the Chinese version because they didn’t have one in the west. They had to create this part of the game that allowed them to dominate if they were VIPs. It’s an interesting difference between cultures.
Berry: If the rules are clear and everyone’s aware of what’s going on, I guess it works. People don’t like the rules to change, though. If they’re consistent, at least, and everyone does it that way — certain cultures, I used to go to Kyiv. It’s bribery of a kind, but if you got stopped for speeding, you could slip the officer a bit of money rather than take the day out to go to court and prove that your records are in order. It’s just easier. It’s an accepted part of the culture because unfortunately the police aren’t paid enough to live in the center of the city. It’s a corrupt system, but it’s balanced. People know what’s going on.
GamesBeat: I saw your TEDx talk. That was funny. You have this knack for being able to be enthusiastic and passionate about data.
Berry: I blog quite a lot. I have one of the top 10 data science blogs on the internet. I used to post once a week, but my cadence has slowed down quite a bit. I like to explain things. I think it’s important.
GamesBeat: I got a sense you were proud of the data science profession.
Berry: It’s kind of weird because I have no formal training. Again, people ask me about going to school. “Should I do this? Should I do this?” I don’t know. All of it seemed like common sense to me. Always having a goal — measuring data for the sake of measuring data is unimportant. I can monitor the number of cups of tea I drink, but why? You have to have a goal. I want to improve this, so I measure this.
If you want to make a change, measure a baseline. Now make a change. What’s the A/B test? We’ll do this. Now we have a new hypothesis. What percentage change do I need to see in the output that could be attributed to this particular change? Facebook was amazing at that. They had these controls so we could roll out a certain part of the site to these people, a certain other part to these people. It was for subtle changes, a few pixels here or there, changing the font size. A little bit of this, a little more of this, and they would gradually roll things out. They’d have a holdback group and all this stuff. A lot of tools empowering people. You could come in the morning with an idea and by the afternoon have a test live in production, working out what was going on.
GamesBeat: It sounds like a data scientist’s dream. There was so much data there.
Berry: Where I saw the change — I’d been at Facebook for about two years. There was a data science team, and data science was done under Harvey. Then pretty much overnight things changed. Every team now has embedded data scientists, subject matter experts. The games team has data science people baked in the games team. The Messenger team has data science people. Everyone has it. You have engineers and data science people and designers and they’re all part of the core team. It became a discipline in itself.
The core data science team is still there, and they’re given the larger projects, the bigger things, ivory tower stuff. The tools get better every year. It used to be the data scientists would go through and extract all the data. Now the web front end lets you drag and drop and move things around. It’s easier and more accessible. People can access the data very quickly.
GamesBeat: About a year ago, one of these UW grads got a $50,000 salary for a PR job. Their two roommates graduated with data science degrees and got jobs right off the bat for more than $100,000.
Berry: It’s a trendy title. Data science means a lot, analytics and all the way through. The latest trend is AI and machine learning. It’s an overused term as well. Microsoft AI, you can do this. It’s just a set of rules.
GamesBeat: It looked like you applied data science to your illness.
Berry: A little bit, as much as I know. It’s more the other way around. What I’m doing is allowing anybody to — as you know, I have stage 4 cancer. It started as colon cancer, and it’s metastasized. I’m on a research drug, and what they’re doing is just measuring me 12 ways from Sunday. Every week I go in there and they take vials of blood. They measure this and that. I’m turning my body into a series of data points, so it’ll help somebody downstream of me, if I can make a change to something. There’s not much that I’m doing, but I’m providing data points for somebody else.
GamesBeat: You’re in a better position to understand it than most people.
Berry: Unfortunately, cancer is a pretty prolific thing. I go to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. They’re very good at explaining things in easy-to-understand ways as things go on. I understand what they’re saying, but they’re very good at what they do in order to let people know and set expectations.
Health is still one of those interesting — it’s very personal and very private. I can understand people anonymously aggregating. There are probably wonderful things we could do if everybody opened up their body and said, “Hey, measure me.” Who knows what statistically significant things we could have found out? If they’d measured everything about me every year, maybe they could have found some precursors to what’s going on. Maybe they’ll find something out from my research that can help my kids, who might be more likely to have all these things.
It’s very sensitive data. There could be a huge amount of value if everybody went to have a complete workup and then all provided it anonymously into the cloud. We could find some wonderful things. But I’m not sure how that would happen.
GamesBeat: You got the value of clarity from them, the picture of what’s going on.
Berry: Yes. They have some survivability, half-life curves that tell you about the expectations. I’m part of a clinical trial, test subject number one. Two and three now follow me. I don’t know how well this is doing, whether it’s going to improve things. We’ll have to wait and see as to how things go.
GamesBeat: I saw you put it as you can see how much runway you have.
Berry: The day I had the diagnosis they said I had six months without treatment. If I started the treatment, the odds were that I’d have a 50-50 chance of getting to two years, which of course you take. That was the vanilla cancer treatment. On the research drug I signed up for, that may help improve those things.
Unfortunately, the five-year survivability for the cancer I have—I think it’s eight percent. I keep my fingers crossed. I’d like to see my kids graduate high school. That would be a goal. It’s a difficult conversation to have with your kids, that you might not see their high school graduation.
I’m at peace. I got through all those stages pretty quickly, denial and bargaining and all. It is what it is. I’m just doing all that I can to keep healthy.
GamesBeat: How did you then decide what was really important to you? I can see you’re doing some of those things.
Berry: I’m not really sure. I don’t think I’ve come to a conclusion. Some days I live normally. Other days I try to make memories, is the best way I can describe it. When I was diagnosed I didn’t feel anything at all. Your body doesn’t have pain receptors on the inside, so I didn’t feel the cancer growing inside me. The side effects of the chemotherapy are actually worse than the thing itself. It’s going to come down to a quality of life issue. The chemo is gradually killing me, but so is the cancer. At some point, the chemo ceases to be effective because the cancer mutates, or I just can’t deal with it anymore. I’m not at that point yet.
I can’t visualize where the end of the runway happens. They talk about figures, but — a 50 percent chance, a 25 percent chance, this half-life going down, it’s kind of meaningless when you don’t have any feeling as to how — I guess someone who goes out and gets knocked over by a bus doesn’t know today will be their last day. It affects you in weird ways sometimes. I bought a new pair of shoes and I thought, “I wonder if this is the last pair of shoes I’ll ever buy.” [laughs] Such a bizarre thing. I just took my kids to Disneyworld. “Is this the last time I’ll go to Disneyworld?” That’s a weird feeling to think about, that you wouldn’t normally think about.
GamesBeat: You can prioritize that too. Should I put Disney World off, or should I go now? Going now makes sense.
Berry: It does make that a little easier. I’m also trying to simplify my life. I’m still dealing with my parents passing away. There’s still the estate. I’m trying to deal with trust funds and bits and pieces because my father left money in the U.K. and the U.S. It’s a nightmare. Years later that’s not been resolved. The last thing I want to do is leave behind a pile of things for my family to deal with. I’m in the process now of simplifying finances, life, and other stuff.
Other silly little things as well. I have a library at home. I love books. I’m a nerd. Every kind of programming book or math book or engineering book. I’m inviting friends round to the house and saying, “Hey, come around for a beer and help yourself. Pick a couple of books from the shelf.” Rather than going to Goodwill. I know they’ll appreciate this. “Here are some CDs you’ll like.” I’m giving away things to friends and family, people I love because it gives me pleasure knowing it’ll go to someone that will appreciate it. I have some paintings and pictures. “Have this, have this.”
GamesBeat: Legacies, in a way.
Berry: Just giving it away to other people who’d appreciate it. If you’re ever in Seattle, you can come on by. [laughs] Help yourself to my library of things.
GamesBeat: I guess those sorts of things are more meaningful when they know they got them from somebody.
Berry: You find, as well — you get shorter-tempered. Sometimes when something’s not going the way it should be, whether you’re arguing about the utility bill, or some stuff in the U.K. — normally I would yell about it. “You need to get this sorted out. I don’t have all the time in the world.” Sometimes you flip in a not so professional way because you get frustrated. I have other things to spend my time on, instead of wasting my time on silly little things. Time is a precious resource.
Other times it works in the other way. You just let things go. If someone angers you, pulls in front of you on the freeway — I don’t care anymore.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to see how this makes you focus, and also maybe that there might be some lessons here for people. When you’re forced to decide what’s most important, to prioritize things, what comes out of that process?
Berry: I’m still learning. Some things you let go. Other things you get angry about. It’s hard because I want to make — my brother died of cancer when he was 16. I was only 14. My parents never told me he was dying. It was a bizarre thing. I was smart enough to realize what was going on, but they never explicitly told me that he was dying of bone cancer. Honestly, I was angry at my parents. “You could have told me.”
I decided, the day of my diagnosis, to tell my kids. You pull the bandage off very quickly. “I’ve got some terrible news to tell you.” We cried and hugged and all those things, but I wanted to be very open about it and let people know.
As you’ve probably seen on Facebook, I’m making fairly regular posts. The world has changed. Facebook is both private and not private. There are various different friends and family I call beforehand. “I’ve got some news to tell you.” But they have their own networks as well and they want to talk about it. At some point, they’re worried about betraying confidences about what’s going on. So I finally decided it would be easier to post on Facebook. The next stage, I’d post to Facebook and say, “Hey, this is what’s going on.” I’d put up regular updates. On my blog, I then put a posting about what’s going on.
Out of all the — friends and family, they’ll say “I’m terribly sorry” and all those things. But unsolicited messages from people I’ve never met before are the ones that cause me to have tears. I get two or three a day from people saying, “I saw your posting. You may not know this, but your blog inspired me to have a career in this.” Or, “I’m a teacher, and I use your blog in my class.” All the kids in the class would write little emails. “My teacher just told me about what’s going on. We’re terribly sorry. Wish you all the best.” These people all over the world you’ve never met before sending these messages, it tears me up more than my auntie saying, “We’re terribly sorry about the news.”
GamesBeat: I don’t know if “easier” is the word, but is there some resolve that comes from being able to share it with people?
Berry: I guess? I’m not sure. People generally want to know what’s going on, so I want to share as much as I can. It makes me feel better giving status updates and letting people know what’s going on. So yes, I think it does help. I’m going to continue to do regular little postings. Good turns, bad turns.
It also makes it — again, the benefits of the social network. It makes it easier when you don’t feel so compelled to respond. If someone sends an email saying, “Hey, Nick, what’s going on?” you want to respond to that. But by posting it into the cloud, then everyone in the thread comments and talks about things. You don’t have to acknowledge everything. You can give a thumbs up on something that’s nice. Everyone’s aware of what’s going on rather than having it individually, one-on-one. It’s a multi-cast rather than narrowcast kind of thing.
GamesBeat: Hopefully they’re respectful of your time, too.
Berry: That’s not so bad. It does make things easier because I can share when I’m going into treatment at different times, so people know not to bug me around those sorts of times.
GamesBeat: Or they tell you things that are important.
Berry: I’m going to start getting in a few more trips with the kids. Now that they’re back at school, it’s going to be harder to thread things in. The schools have been very good so far in helping out with things.
GamesBeat: Does it become harder to stay a data scientist when it’s about yourself?
Berry: No? I don’t know. In some ways, you feel as though you want to know, and at other times you don’t want to know. If I held an envelope in front of you and said, “This is the day you die,” would you open it up and look? When I go in, I kind of like the probability. “You have a 50-50 chance of making two years.” If they said I had two years, that would be another thing, but the 50-50 chance, I kind of like that. In some ways, I almost don’t want to know too much. Hope is one way to describe it.
The day I did the TED talk, Dr. Jim Olson did a talk the same day. He’s the guy who does the cancer paint. It’s based on scorpion venom. It’s for brain cancer. It reacts to ultraviolet light and makes all the cancer cells glow, so they can scrape out the bad bits. It’s fascinating stuff. One of the parts of his talk, he talks about how he’s always asked to tell the parents about what their kids have. He tells one parent, “Your kid has this thing. She’s going to die. There is no chance.” Because you always have to tell the truth. And these parents just collapse in front of him, which is normal, what these things do.
And one woman got up and said, “Don’t you ever say that. Don’t give me no hope at all. Give me some hope, even just a half percent.” And he said, “My goal in life is always to be able to improve the treatment so I can say to people, ‘There is a chance. It’s very small. But there is a chance. We’ve moved science enough to give you a chance.’”
It’s funny. I’m very jovial about it. As I say, I’ve gone through all the stages. I’m at peace. Every now and then I’ll get this — something will trigger off and I’ll cry and get upset. But most of the time I’m fine with it. You’re not going to put your foot in it by saying anything wrong. I don’t mind.
GamesBeat: I certainly hope you defy the odds, no matter what the data tells you.
Berry: I hope so too. Again, it’s weird. I had no knowledge of what was going on. If they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known. That seems so bizarre. The downside is more the effect of the treatment. So at what point is the inflection going to happen? If the chemo gets me further and further down. At what point do I say, “Coming off the drugs will leave me with six months, but at least those six months will have a reasonable quality of life”? As opposed to six months of being nauseous and lying in bed being a pincushion. Am I going to get any value from that? That’s going to be the most important inflection point, the point where I decide I’m not going to have treatment anymore.
GamesBeat: It’s important to keep your mind as strong as it can be.
Berry: Coming to events like this, seeing friends and family, is helping, to do some normal things. I think about what I would have changed. If you knew you only had two years to live, six months to live, what would you do? Would you want to know?