We Named Our Data Warehouse After a Bacteria

Proteus 2004

Side by side pictures of Proteus the sea god and proteus the bacteria

In the early 2000s (peak Kimballstar-schema-business-intelligence era), my team launched a data warehouse at a hospital in New Jersey.

We were a scrappy, hard-working team and wanted people to get excited by no longer needing IT intervention for custom reports about patient stay lengths and insurance companies who weren’t paying us.

Alas, the phrase “data warehouse” wasn’t generating the appropriate enthusiasm, so we clearly needed an exciting code name for our work.

At our next meeting, the team’s mythology nerd suggested that we rebrand as Proteus, after the omniscient Greek sea divinity:

[Proteus] can foretell the future, but, in a mytheme familiar to several cultures, will change his shape to avoid doing so; he answers only to those who are capable of capturing him.

We all agreed that positioning our data warehouse as the mechanism for seizing an elusive, all-knowing god was very clever and that we were obviously marketing geniuses.

Thirty minutes later, I got back to my desk and Googled Proteus, only to find that in addition to being a minor sea god, Proteus is also a bacteria:

Proteus mirabilis is a Gram-negative bacterium which is well-known for its ability to robustly swarm across surfaces in a striking bulls’-eye pattern. Clinically, this organism is most frequently a pathogen of the urinary tract.

A pathogen of the urinary tract 😱❗️

That would have been an unfortunate revelation in any domain, but it was especially unfortunate in a healthcare setting. As newly-minted marketing geniuses, we realized that hospital employees might be wary of a project named after germs that cause urinary tract infections.

I was still sad about Proteus when one of the project’s sponsors (a doctor) stopped by to chat. After hearing the story of the sea god and the UTIs, he paused a second and blurted out “Proteus: it’s not a bug!”

And so we doubled down on Proteus.

“Proteus: it’s not a bug” became our new catchphrase. We plastered it on posters that went up all over the hospital. We printed it on sticky notes. We printed it on pens, which were promptly swiped by the microbiologists.

Proteus 2021

Logos and names of hundreds of products in the data and AI space as of 2021
Data and AI Landscape 2021 by Matt Ruck

I thought of Proteus recently, when perusing the 2021 Machine Learning, AI, and Data Landscape. Surprisingly, the crowded diagram doesn’t contain one single reference to my favorite sea god. A wasted opportunity!

At the very least, Proteus would be a good name for a niche AI that will text when you’re about to get a urinary tract infection. Even better would be Proteus as a bot who rides the waves of the metaverse, using its powers of omniscience to “well actually” all who dwell there.

Yeah, still a marketing genius after all these years.

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