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Tim Lum, Head of data insights, Virgin Atlantic Airways

Path to power

 

Always challenge the status quo. That has been the main ethos throughout my career, which has been about delivering implementable strategic recommendations that are customer-focused and irrefutable, given both the breadth and depth of analysis of any and all data that you can get your hands on. What really drives me is the ability to impact business through both strategic and tactical analytics, measurable business change, and helping the business develop new KPIs that generate continuous improvement. 
My career started in academia as a quantitative sociologist with a business economics background, running statistical analysis on state-wide datasets in the US. That led to further employment in digital marketing strategy, analytics and database development in the early days of the industry, delivering long-term strategies based on data and insight. It then progressed to leading BI and analytics teams in digital business units and digital start-ups across the US and the UK. 
I spent the last four years at Expedia’s Hotels group starting and leading a team of data engineers, product managers and analysts to deliver support and strategies to help our hoteliers sell more rooms to the public, both through Expedia’s APIs and directly through the hotels.com website. 
Since then, I’ve joined Virgin Atlantic, accepting the challenge of making an industry, well acknowledged internally as being poor at utilising data and analytics, more data-informed and bringing data science techniques and cloud technologies to the forefront of an already well-loved brand. We have since implemented new augmented intelligence tools, cloud-first data platforms and real-time customer data marts that supply data from the ground to the sky and improve our customer experience during the journey.

 

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

 

I think the absolute highlight of my career was when I made the transition from being an analyst to a manager. In that transition, it moved me into my sweet spot of being the translation bridge between business decision-makers and technical specialists and learning that’s where I am my happiest. I’m still continuously learning how to bridge that gap in multiple scenarios and with different challenges posed from each business I impact.

 

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

 

I would tell my younger self to spend more time with how to market myself and my teams’ output better! Now that I lead large teams of data and analytics professionals, I find I concentrate too much on letting the deliveries speak for themselves, rather than continued promotion of the commercial benefit of data and analytics.

 

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

 

2018 turned out generally as predicted. We have continued to see the consolidation of cloud infrastructure providers with analytical platforms which helps companies like ours build end-to-end data pipelines to analytical tools that support and determine business outcomes.

 

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

 

Next year will be interesting with more providers coming out with one-size-fits-all data infrastructure, unifying the querying of data, no matter what the format. This really will start to level the playing field of unstructured and structured data and what expertise is needed to extract value out of it. Moreover, as more and more companies are trying to build out data teams, the dearth of expertise in new technology versus established ways of working will become more pronounced, add huge pressure on the talent acquisition market, and widen the chasm between businesses able to cash in on their data assets and businesses that can’t change quick enough to adapt.

 

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

 

We tackle this in three ways: We are constantly hiring. We always keep our candidates warm, because you just never know when you will need their skillset, personality or experience. Never burn bridges with your candidates and treat them with the utmost respect. University recruitment and internships are how we are looking to improve our pipeline of great talent in our organisation. Additionally, working with great training/junior consultancies like Kubrick Group are ways we bolster our business resilience and training of our internal staff. Virgin prides itself on investing in our employees and we are constantly finding new ways to up-skill our existing employees and working with them to improve their understanding of data, analytics and their commercial application.

 

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

 

I can’t wait for a day where we’re truly using anonymised data to solve poverty, disease and equality across the developing world!

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