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Firas Khnaisser, Head of decisioning, Standard Life Aberdeen

Path to power

 

I graduated with a BA in Advertising and Marketing in 2005, then started my career in direct marketing in Dubai which gave me a great opportunity to work on some top brand accounts in the MENA region, including General Motors, Nestlé, Danone, 3M, Sony. The consulting services I provided in direct marketing gradually developed into CRM where I had the opportunity to delve deeper into strategy, data and tech. I moved to Scotland after Dubai and took on a marketing role with Clydesdale Bank in Glasgow in 2012 where I helped develop the capability for decisioning and next best action across print and digital channels. I then took on a head of decisioning role at Standard Life in 2015 which I still occupy to this date.

 

What has been the highlight of your career in the industry to date?

 

Taking on the role of chairman of the Direct Marketing Association in Scotland in January 2018 and leading on a project titled the Value of Data. This was conceived to raise the profile of data from classroom to boardroom to invite further investment in data capability and data skills which would in turn power people and the economy. The value of data is a little understood topic. Delving deeper into where the value of data lies and how is it understood by customers, etc, helps organisations unlock the real potential of the data driving value to their customers and respectively back into their businesses and the wider economy. Sitting at the heart of the value debate is the question of values - how important are the organisation’s values and what role do they play in delivering value, how important is this in the AI-powered world we are heading into? This is a piece of work that brings me enormous pride and is brilliant example of how industry, academia, talent, government could collectively come together and build a better society for all of us to work in and live in.  

 

If you could give your younger self some advice about how to progress in this industry, what would it be?

 

Not to worry too much about career paths. I think as you’re coming into the industry, the pundits always have something to say about how you need to do something as a prerequisite for something - you can’t work in x if you don’t have a degree in x, etc. I think it’s refreshing to see organisations worry less about the degree and more about the experience we have and want to learn more about the things we’re excited by and are good at doing. Some really good efforts are happening in terms of neuro-diversity awaraness in the workplace where people with certain “disabilities” turn out to be better at doing specifics tasks than others. I think inclusivity is a very enriching thing for workplaces and societies.

 

Did 2018 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

 

2018 was a great year for data in Scotland - the Edinburgh city and regions deal was signed to help make Scotland the data capital of Europe. This would go towards helping to bridge the digital skills gap, build centres of excellence that would help in the creation of new businesses and drive Scottish industries through innovation - and all this fuelled by data. This is super exciting stuff for us in the industry and those of us operating in Scotland because there’s a brilliant energy around and it’s attracting industry, academia and government to work closer than they ever have before to design the economy of the future. So, I feel very fortunate to be in this place at this very exciting time…

 

What do you expect 2019 to be like for the industry?

 

I think 2019 will the time for less talk about data and more play. People are quick to jump on the buzzwords, everyone is talking AI nowadays or deep learning or whatever today’s buzzword is, but now is the time to ask, what does it all mean? This takes a degree of honesty where people could raise their hands and say, “I don’t know”. That could be a great starting point to learn and discover how we could start leveraging all these capabilities to our advantage. I think this year is when people start getting their hands a bit dirty and maybe have a bit of fun along the way…

 

Talent and skills are always a challenge to find - how are you tackling this in your organisation?

 

By looking in unconventional places. I touched on neuro-diversity earlier, another pool that interests me is the talent that exists in the market and is not able to leverage their skills at the moment because organisation don’t allow them to work flexibly or remotely, ie, mothers returning to the workplace is a very good example of this. Another not so well-kept secret for me in recruitment is the call centre. I work in financial services, and I find that people who work within the call centres are very customer-focused (of course they are), have a solid understanding of products (financial products are complex) and have a good understanding of data and systems. So, with a bit of up-skilling, you could help someone start a great career in data and leverage all the wonderful skills they had acquired all this time and probably thought were worthless.  

 

What aspect of data, analytics or their use are you most optimistic about and why?

 

I’m most optimistic about people wanting to create a fairer society. I have faith in data being a force of good and people making it a force of good. Which is why values sit at the heart of everything we do. If we have no concern for having the right values within the algorithms we build, we are creating a very dark future. If we do and have the right values, tools and guidelines to help us build “better” algorithms our future will be very bright.

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