Talking Big Data culture at Hadoop Summit with Royal Mail, Centrica, Markel

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman April 13, 2016
Business Intelligence specialists are having a moment in the spotlight, say IT leaders, as senior executives at Hadoop Summit start to recognise their vital contribution to better decision-making.

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In the corporate scramble to turn information into insight, and data into decisions, Business Intelligence specialists are enjoying some time in the spotlight. At the highest levels in their organisations, their skills are valued, their opinions sought and their contributions recognised.

That, at least, was the message from a panel of IT leaders from Royal Mail, Centrica and insurance company Markel, all customers of Hadoop software company Hortonworks, at this week’s Hadoop Summit in Dublin.

Board-level executives, said the panellists, are keen to understand how they might establish a ‘big data culture’ in their organisations and reap the rewards that a deeper understanding of past, present and future business conditions might bring.

Take, for example, Thomas Lee Warren, director of the technology data group at Royal Mail. He told the audience:

I’ve been asked on a number of occasions to come and see Moya [Greene], our CEO and her executive team and tell them what we’re up to. Although they may not be familiar with Hadoop, they’ve definitely made the connection between our analytics platform and better business understanding. They’re very excited about our activities and they’re guiding our work on a month-to-month basis. Moya and Matthew [Lester], our CFO, have a list of things they want from us and they’re very, very keen to see us succeed.

What he’s going to need more of in order to satisfy their demands, he said, are ‘superprogrammers’ - people who combine programming skills with the ability to talk to senior stakeholders, understand their issues and deliver what they need, often by cutting the required own code themselves:

I see that providing tremendous capability and competitive advantage for companies of all kinds, including our own.


At Centrica, the company that owns British Gas, meanwhile, senior systems director Daljit Rehal is interested in developing a crack team of what he terms ‘civilian data scientists’:

I’ve heard a lot of talk about these people, because the academic world is saying that there’s a shortage of people with PhDs that can become data scientists, but that doesn’t mean that others can’t be data scientists. So I think we’re going to see data science shift away from being the preserve of people with PhDs to the preserve of people who can programme, who understand mathematics and who can solve data problems in creative ways. In fact, I’m looking forward to doing some data science myself.

He agreed, however, that there’s a new appreciation among the upper echelons at Centrica of the pool of data talent that the company, which has spent the last couple of years building a Hadoop-based data lake, has already amassed:

They’ve woken to the fact that a company based in Staines, in the shadow of the Heathrow runway, actually has real talent when it comes to Big Data. Many of these executives have come to Centrica from other companies thinking that this kind of talent is more likely to found at Silicon Roundabout in the East End of London.

But one of the conversations that’s now gaining momentum internally is senior-level people asking us to help them with their big data projects and we’re seeing more external requests, too - and by that I mean other companies who hear about what we’ve done and ask us to share how we’ve done it.

That’s reinforcing these sense at Centrica that we do have talent, that we’ve built up a great team, largely from graduates and apprentices rather than people with 35-plus years of experience (although we have them, too) and we’re getting a lot of recognition for our efforts.

But what’s most valued in the boardroom is the results that the organisation is seeing, along with speed of execution, said Neil Winters, head of information management at specialist insurance company Markel International:

To be honest, I don’t know if our senior leadership team even knows what Hadoop is - but they do know that the data lake project and BI team that we’re running today is running at a faster rate than it’s ever been able to achieve before.

We’re turning around solutions and building new components and capabilities at a rate they’ve not seen before - and we’re breaking down barriers between different parts of the business in the process. Our underwriting divisions are now able to see a lot more data from our actuarial divisions and our cat [catastrophe] modelling teams can see data that was previously only available to other areas. We’ve removed a lot of the shunting around of information that went on before.

It’s all enormously helpful, the panellists agreed, in challenging the image of the IT department as the function that likes to say ‘no’ and likes to go slow. Says Rehal:

What this journey has done for my team, and for me as an IT manager, is modernise the culture of work. We’re seen as a team that innovates and that excites us all. So what I tell other IT managers is that focusing on innovation, learning to forget traditional legacy ways of working and approaching things in new ways has the added benefit of creating unexpected behavioural changes, because people feel freer and they also feel valued.

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