As chief data and analytics officer (CDAO), Alan Jacobson is responsible for driving data initiatives and accelerating digital business transformation for the company’s global customer base. A data scientist since before the term became current and having held a number of positions at Ford Motor Company, eventually leading a team of data scientists driving digital transformation across the enterprise, he spoke to DataIQ about the way data and analytics are changing as a practice and how they change the way organisations operate.
Alan Jacobson (AJ): My career path has been varied. I am a mechanical engineer by education and my first roles were all about computer-aided design and software for aircraft design, then data science for optimisation, although it was not called that 25 years ago. Then I moved into automotive manufacturing and worked in many areas from engineering to designing parts for vehicles, including for one of the most popular in the UK, Ford’s Transit Van. I also created start-ups within larger organisations.
The common thread was being able to use data and analytics to solve hard problems in every area. I really enjoyed that - the bigger and more significant challenge, the more so. I also enjoyed the people aspect. The only way to effect change is by working as a team to make it happen.
A year ago, I moved to Alteryx where I have the opportunity to do true data science solving business problems. As a technology company, we are helping other businesses to adopt data science while also building data science into our products. My team is part of both of those digital transformations and they have similar issue - understanding people, financial objectives, controls and audits. There are differences between manufacturing and software development, of course, but products have more commonalities than differences.
AJ: Capabilities today are very different compared to at the start of my career. Compute power is 10,000-times faster than 25 years ago - that is a mind-blowing speed increase. So if you are doing things now the same way as at the start of your career, then you are leaving a lot on the table.
There is an army of algorithms and software like Alteryx available which mean you can build a neural network using drag and drop on the fly in minutes or even seconds and get results from large sets of data. Most analytics when I started were done by people in specific domains, for example aircraft engineering.
More recently, we have seen a trend for centralising data analytics and data science into centres of excellence or IT. But that pendulum is now swinging back towards putting them where they can understand the business problem and gain domain knowledge. You do need a central team to help with the democratisation so it can then be done by any knowledge worker.
It swings back and forth, but the analytics genie is out of the bottle. Companies are at different places on that journey and some are just getting into it now, while others are doing advanced analytics, modelling future behaviour and next best actions. But at least most companies are on the journey.
The pendulum swings back and forth, but the analytics genie is out of the bottle.
AJ: Historically, when the first companies started on this journey 15 to 20 years ago, they appointed their first chief data officers (CDOs). They were all called that and there were no chief analytics officers (CAOs) or combinations. At conferences and in conversations, it was all about the data and there was a lot of hype around whether you had terabytes or petabytes of it.
Five years ago, that conversation changed and it became about what algorithms you were using, or deep learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing and all the other analytical methods. As that hype cycle grew, CAOs started cropping up as a demonstration of what companies were doing with their data.
Now are seeing a new set of job titles, like chief transformation officer. What they have in common is a focus on outcomes. That is a reflection of the maturity from seeing data as the new oil to recognising it needs an engine to drive. So now, return on investment is key.
AJ: Most companies understand that digital transformation and leveraging digital technologies could be the difference between life and death. So they are investing and want to do it, but they struggle with how to do it. They are not sure whether to focus on data governance or on outcomes. They are not sure what the vision is. Most analysts do focus on the outcome and all the other pieces then fall out of that, not vice-versa.
AJ: In the current environment, a good example could be how data science is at the heart of fighting Covid-19 using data on cases. Another example would be when the Caribbean was struck by two hurricanes in a two-week period, Maria and Irma, which damaged 140,000 structures. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was charged with getting them rebuilt, which meant a lot of work to assess the level of damage.
By law, if a structure has more than 50% damage, it has to be rebuilt to a higher standard to reduce future risk. If the damage is less than 50%, it is rebuilt to the same standard because it was able to withstand the hurricane. That assessment would usual involve two or three engineers per structure, which was impossible.
So FEMA changed its process - which is often the hardest part of any transformation - and decided to leverage data analytics to do the job more efficiently and faster. Its engineers were given Alteryx on their laptops so they could use weather data, housing specifications and building codes, water usage data and more to more to model which structures were likely to be above the 50% threshold. Those were the ones engineers were sent to for a physical assessment.
Changing that process made a difference to hundreds of thousands of people’s lives because it helped them to get back on their feet faster. Real transformation is about having that level of impact, not just saving time in an existing process, but adopting different models and identifying where you can have the biggest impact. That level of change takes you from being Blockbuster to being Netflix.
That level of change takes you from being Blockbuster to being Netflix.
AJ: There has been a shift from analysts with domain expertise to bottom-up analytics. Even data science is being democratised in business - it is hard to hire a graduate in any discipline who does not have some data science skills. Even lawyers are using NLP to understand contracts and briefs.
So 2020 will see a continuation of that shift and the democratisation of analytics into every area of the business. In changing times, there is no better time for the reach of analytics to expand and for everybody to have access to these tools. I don’t see that ending. Tools like Alteryx are the platforms that digital transformation can be built on and data is the engine that drive it.