How Dyson is engineering an optimal data engine

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

The role of data has been undergoing a change at Dyson. Head of data, Ryan den Rooijen explained that data has always mattered at the consumer technology company insofar as it has powered applications such as the CRM system. However, it was not exploited to its full potential as it was not accessed or analysed regularly. Furthermore, within such a dynamic company, data fell into the background and proliferated while people were not paying attention to it. Suddenly a database with 30 tables could jump to 20,000.

Ryan den Rooijen, head of data, DysonWith so much going on at Dyson, it is understandable that, at times, data might fall under the radar. Eleven months ago, founder Sir James Dyson stated that a former WWII airfield had been purchased near its headquarters in Wiltshire to house a new research and development centre, 10 times the size of the current one.

There is also an increase in the range of products and services with company announcing in September that it is developing an electric vehicle,  due to launch in 2020. The tech firm is also experiencing robust growth in Asian markets. So, the internal landscape is becoming more complex.

"You treasure what you measure. You respect what you collect."

When it comes to KPIs and analytics, Den Rooijen said: “You treasure what you measure,” however in relation to data, he said that a better refrain would be: “You respect what you collect.” This phrase was used to indicate the Catch 22 situation of data’s value not being clear until it is properly compiled.

“Get people to cross that initial hurdle and start investing, and once they do so they experience it for themselves and they think it is very hard to ignore,” he said.

In keeping with Dyson’s reputation for being guarded about its activities, Den Rooijen did not share many specific details about how the data transformation journey at the company has been taking place for the last 18 months. He was, however, more than happy to impart the three essential lessons he has learnt from the process so far.

The first is that it is critical to understand and be able to visualise the intended impact from the very beginning.

Dyson hand held vacuumFor Dyson, this meant having a very good understanding of what it wanted to achieve, and so the data team asked: “What is the North Star and what are some of the key business challenges we believe we can really address in a transformative manner using data?”

The second is to have a clear plan of the what the company landscape is like before any changes happen and what alignment needs to take place internally.

To do this, Dyson mapped out where it was as an organisation and created a great many architecture diagrams to illustrate this.

"Being able to work with poeple to get through those tough moments is incredibly valuable."

And finally, be smart about how you build relationships with peers in other companies, vendors or technical partners. “It’s critical because there will be moments where the going gets tough and being able to work with people to get through those moments and draw on the best in class expertise is incredibly valuable,” he said.

Dyson productsDen Rooijen reiterated this point about relationships several times during his presentation. He said that there are several “fantastic” solutions out there for MPP (massively parallel processing), cloud storage and security and so choosing a partner to work with should be less about what works and more about who you trust and who you want to work with.

"Partnership is critical."

This is incredibly important for when times get tough such as when things break, or processes fail, or something runs slow or expertise is needed. “This is where partnership is critical,” he said, as at this stage friends or vendors or both can be approached for help to find out how others have solved that same problem.

Den Rooijen said there is no shame in finding some of this tough, adding: “I’ve been in technology quite a long time and I find these projects tough every single time. But it’s not about falling down, it’s about picking yourself back up again.”

"Being able to align and speak the same language is critical."

He added that it is important for relationships to be forged within the organisations across different departments for data transformation to be successful. “It’s no longer a discussion between IT and procurement. It is IT, procurement, legal, regulatory compliance, commercial and logistics. Being able to align and potentially speak the same language is critical,” he said. Essentially, everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

Den Rooijen’s parting piece of advice was: “Stay hungry, stay humble.Stay hungry because this stuff is really exciting, but at the same time realise and respect the rate of change and the scale of these challenges."

Ryan den Rooijen was speaking Cloudera Sessions London.