Path to power
I joined ASDA Stores as a graduate IT management trainee in 1995 with a little experience in scientific computing in Fortran 77 under my belt, having developed a fascination with the nascent world wide web (and establishing that academic life was not for me).
A whirlwind two-year apprenticeship was followed by a fallow spell at a systems integrator with a temporary identity crisis until I was re-united with several of my ex-ASDA managers at Co-operative Retail as the data warehouse manager. I then went on to become the enterprise data architect at the Co-operative Group.
Having worked extensively with Teradata in both of my roles at the Co-op, joining the company as a solution architect to see what the consulting life was all about - I told myself I’d give it a couple of years - it felt like a natural next step. Eleven years later - and after stints as a solution architect, enterprise architect and in the technology marketing group - I am still here, heading-up the big data centre of excellence for Teradata outside of the Americas.
What has been your data highlight of 2015?
I think that we did a lot of good work last year in educating customers and the market about the right way to go about designing and architecting data lakes. 2015 was also a breakthrough year for our Aster Analytics platform - we doubled the size of our Aster and Hadoop business. And we took what we know about delivering rapid, iterative analytics projects and turned that IP into a repeatable methodology. Most of all, I am proud that all of those achievements were about “we”, not “me” - I am fortunate to have a great team and to work for a great company.
So - why data?
My mum is a born retailer - some of my earliest memories are of her and my Dad setting-up one of her first market stalls - with an incredible knack for understanding customers and what they want. When I was part of a small team at ASDA that deployed an early market-basket analysis technology, the idea that you could use data to do what an instinctive retailer like my Mum could do at scale - so that you could identify the wants-and-needs of micro segments in an otherwise huge and faceless group of customers - was just fascinating to me. That was the moment the data bug bit me!
What is the best thing about working in the data industry?
I think that if you are remotely intellectually curious, today’s data industry is just a fabulous place to be. Data underpins almost any kind of understanding of just about every kind of endeavour and the industry keeps re-inventing itself so rapidly that there is never a dull moment!
If you were granted one wish to change something about the data industry, what would it be?
The flip-side of the industry’s perpetual re-invention can be an almost wilful desire to ignore any and all past learning. What is it they say about history? Those who won’t learn from it are condemned to repeat it. We’ll know that the computing industry has grown-up when we stop claiming that each-and-every new invention instantly renders everything that went before it obsolete.
Share something you have learned that could benefit your peer group
Because the first thing that you do when you start a new analysis is often to summarise data in some way, the last thing that you should do when capturing new data is to be satisfied with summary information. There will always, always be a requirement to create new features and to roll the same data up a different way next time. More is not always better, but being compelled to settle for less because of artificial constraints that you have made for yourself is not a good place to be, either.
And what was the toughest lesson?
Don't change jobs only for money, only to find that you have nothing very interesting to do - and no resources to do it with. And don’t over-engineer in pursuit of perfection - knowing when “good enough” really is good enough and focussing on what matters are key skills in this game.
What’s in your data toolbox?
Teradata and Aster, naturally! One of the leading Hadoop distributions. An integration strategy and supporting technology like QueryGrid, because there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions in the industry right now. A good visualisation tool. A good methodology, like Teradata’s rapid analytic consulting engagement (RACE) model, to avoid re-inventing the wheel every time you turn the handle. Good people around you - you can never have too many of those. A healthy dose of common sense and a focus on the desired business outcome to avoid getting seduced by data for data’s sake. And Ockham’s Razor!
What’s on your wish list?
A "long-second" wristwatch - like the one from the cult sci-fi movie Trancers - to stretch one second to ten when taking a tough question from the audience after a keynote presentation. I would definitely pay good money - and even trade my Apple Watch! - for one of those.
Who do you turn to?
I am fortunate that at Teradata I have a ready made peer group of some of the best-and-brightest in the industry. Teradata CTO Stephen Brobst has been - and continues to be - a huge influence. Outside of Teradata, my personal “data ten”, in no particular order, would probably be: Michael Stonebraker, Daniel Abadai, Erik Brynjolfson, Alistair Croll, Steve Miller, Carlos Guestrin, Martin Kleppmann, Flip Kromer, Foster Provost and Gartner’s Merv Adrian. I wouldn’t count all that little lot as my peer group, exactly, but I know who they are and read their stuff, even if some of them don’t know who I am!
Analysts and commentators have been worried about “the information explosion” since at least the early 1940s. Like Mae West said, “life isn’t one damn thing after another, it’s one damn thing over-and-over”.