Data Changemakers 3: Cliff Gibson, Owner, DBR Data
The Data Changemakers series is a set of interviews and interactions with people who have spent their careers working in or around data and data management initiatives. They have a vision for the data journey and we want to understand what they have learnt and how that drives what they do today. What are their war stories and what advice can they give others embarking on the journey?
Cliff Gibson has worked across Electronics, Automotive & Life Sciences over the past 20 years, always looking to drive value out of information and people. Recent achievements include an end- to-end implementation of a Master Data Management solution to support Identification of Medicinal Products (IDMP), delivering Single View of Product across multiple global organisations within a complex federated environment.
Please describe a little about your own background and you ended up working with data?
“I guess my journey into data was one born out of frustration of not being able to get or provide answers quickly and accurately for my customers!”
In my personal life, particularly in relation to sport and fitness, everything I do is connected and available. I can track every element of my quantified self, yet in the office it was totally the opposite! I set out on a mission to be able to deliver my customers the same connected experience I knew was possible.
Career-wise, I started my journey in Finance, before moving into a logistics/purchasing role and then moving into IT as part of an ERP implementation. My first IT role was as a software engineer working with a mixture of electronics, retail & automotive customers across 13 years. I then had the opportunity to move into Life Sciences for the last 9 years, where my career moved into Information Architecture.
Would you say that you are a business person or a technical person or something else?
Something else for sure! I’ve never set a career path or had prior formal qualifications, each job was an opportunistic move at the time. I believe this gives me an appreciation for both sides of the tussle between business and IT! I like to think I can apply technology to business problems and exploit it to gain business advantage.
What is your current role and its main responsibilities as they relate to data?
I have just left a role as an Enterprise Architect in Life Sciences, and started DBR Data, with a vision of improving people’s lives through data, one engagement at a time!
Whether this be via articles and sharing of knowledge, or implementations of Governance capabilities, MDM solutions, Low Code platforms etc. they all make a difference.
What has been the most challenging data-related project you have worked on and why? What was your role in it and was the project a success and why?
The most recent was the most challenging. It was an MDM implementation to meet the needs of the EU IDMP obligations. This is a very complex set of requirements impacting many individuals that don’t normally share data – R&D, Manufacturing, Commercial and IT have to come together despite having different drivers. I led the implementation of Semarchy’s MDM platform, working with Entity Group. This included overseeing the project from CIO level down to data stewards including the design, road-map, vendor relationships and stakeholder engagement.
The project was a success due to there being a small team – only 4 on core team. This meant we were able to maintain a strict focus on what we were trying to deliver supported by technology that enabled us to deliver incremental changes. I worked with Entity to maintain a bigger vision of the peripheral benefits in domains outside of IDMP that were to come later.
What did you learn from the experience?
The technology was interesting but I learned not to sell that but to sell the “Why?”
Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” found its way into many of my presentations. I tried to convey what the benefits of MDM would be, so rather than it being about cool technology, it was about: “Let’s go and use it to do things better”. We talked about Inventory Reporting, IDMP, Patient Safety etc instead of Master Data Management.
“Very few people get excited about MDM (fortunately I seem to know many of them!) but everyone wants to save cost, increase revenues, improve efficiency & reduce errors.”
Identify the people and their problems, discover the data, overlay the processes and then comes the technology.
What do you think are the key trends in data management today and how do you think it will change the way we all do business?
We see a lot of talk about Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Internet of Things etc, and these are clearly the trends but many are sold to us for making sense of bad data.
“I’ve never been one for trends. Whilst all these technologies are cool, I still see many companies struggling to get the basics right.”
The use of these tools to extract data from unstructured sources as an example, is often because businesses have not yet put a good structure around their structured data. They have no governance in place, and so they need the new technology to make sense of what they’ve organically created.
For me a combination of three things is where companies should focus, Information Governance, Master Data Management & Low Code Development. Understand your data, build your data platform, develop your apps on top of the platform – relatively low cost, quick to execute with immediate returns.
Cloud etc – how far into that are you? Have some of the concerns about off premise data gone away?
I am not overly convinced about Cloud. Maybe I am being selfish and concerned about the sprawl of unconnected data that is happening before us.
“We are seeing lots of cloud applications and therefore lots of data in the cloud which is not connected or managed effectively.”
This is a necessity, unfortunately, as IT is still seen as being too slow to deliver and cannot offer a viable alternative so the trend will continue. If we can get the right platforms in place to help IT offer a viable alternative then that will make things better.
Where there is benefit, is engaging with data services or algorithms that are cloud hosted. For example, getting daily exchange rates, ISO definitions or even forecasting algorithms that can remove the need for having in-house forecasting software. Where you are subscribing to regular data feeds like these or carrying out ad-hoc complex calculations cloud can certainly add value.
I’d highly recommend any company engages with a Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB) and reviews their company’s use of cloud apps – many would be surprised with the outcome!
“The convenience of cloud is making the data management problem bigger and this brings a big compliance risk.”
How important is the capital vs operational cost thing? Does it make life easier in terms of getting things started?
The operational SaaS model is certainly attractive, and I can see why people take this option – how many more people now lease cars as they get the shiny new car every three years. The trouble with this approach is it is very short term, when they get to retirement and cannot afford the repayments they have no car.
Personally, I strongly believe you should invest in your people, and not the bottom line of the mega vendors!
“Pick the right tools and build what you need at a fraction of the cost, own your own destiny and build an engaged and dedicated workforce.”
How are the pressures and proof points different now than they have been?
“The difference today can be described in three words: Time to Value.”
Looking back 5 or 6 years it was acceptable to have a 6, 12 18 month waterfall IT project. Today if you wait more than 6 months it is no longer acceptable. Working in small agile teams is the only way to be successful and keep stakeholders engaged.
We read about Millennials and instant gratification – it is so easy to want an application, download it and use it in 60 seconds. It’s the same in business – you need to be constantly engaging stakeholders and showing value very quickly.
Opportunity Vs Obligation in Data Management – Discuss
Eg: Opportunity – digital disruption, transformation,, omnichannel, scalability, services
Eg: Obligation – conformity, GDPR in particular, getting more efficient and cutting costs
I would give a similar answer to both. It’s about ownership – take the opportunity and meet the obligation by owning the data. Put the governance and mechanisms in place to achieve the success.
Typically people still see process first and move the data around. Everything we do, even innovation is a structured process. Flip this to data first perspective, and move the process around the data and you get a very different perspective.
Put in place the structure and ownership with governance and opportunities and compliance will come by default. Own the data and it will support all the trends.
Staffing – with such a wide range of things we need skills in – how do you approach staffing? What needs to be in house? What can be external? What can be consumed aaS? CDOaaS?
For me you need to own the problems, the relationships and the company knowledge. Almost everything else if needed could be outsourced, although I would always question why? If you want motivated staff, don’t send all the cool stuff to be outsourced!
If you are starting up, clearly you cannot have large teams, and outsourcing development, UX etc. is pretty easy these days with the likes of Top Coder and Freelancer.
Certainly for my own start-up, DBR Data, I will be outsourcing the Finance and some development via the above channels.
What are we asking people to do – build things, or get value from pre-built things?
I have come full circle having been a software engineer in the past. I thought we could codify the world. That changed to a more of a packaged solution view when I moved into an Enterprise Architecture role.
Now I think I err more towards a blend of the two – use the right platforms to configure your apps from building blocks. There is a good feeling of engagement with teams if you allow them to build things and people enjoy using them. For example I built my own house and I get a huge sense of pride when I pull into the driveway!
“Invest in your people and your company rather than in others and you will get better loyalty and engagement. With today’s low-code platforms, building is ‘almost’ child’s play.”
What advice would you give to someone embarking on a large data-related project today?
Don’t do it – ha ha!
- Take a little time up-front to understand the problem you are trying to solve.
- Don’t get too engrossed in the technology.
- Look at peripheral benefits, engage with stakeholders and try to deliver incremental benefits. Hopefully then you’ll get the support and budget you need to go ahead.
- Always stop to review. Don’t stick to plan A regardless – be prepared to move the goal posts. Business drivers can change so be prepared to change with them.
Would you have listened to yourself?
Probably not! I guess sometimes it’s best to learn from your mistakes.
Are there any particular skills or qualifications you consider to be vital to your success?
Pragmatism, common sense, vision, curiosity and empathy. Bring them together to get through most challenges! These are definitely also relevant skills in the rest of your life.
What are you best known for or what do you like doing outside of your working life?
Food and sport! I eat a zero-carbohydrate, high-fat diet, supported of course by data and science! This means no bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, root vegetables, fruit or anything containing carbs. My diet consists of mainly meat, cheese, cream, nuts & avocados and I feel amazing on it.
I also enjoy sporting challenges, coming up in January is a 24-hour Mountain Bike race, in the Scottish Highlands (cold, dark & fun) called Strathpuffer, and have recently completed an Iron Man with another to come in 2018.
“I guess I just really like doing things people tell me are very difficult to do!”
My ultimate goal is to complete the cycling event Race Across Europe, 3000 miles in total – if any sponsors want to get in touch please give me a call!
What question would you want to have asked if you were interviewing you today?
Probably, how do you get started in the industry if data is your thing? You are going to ask me to answer that now aren’t you?
Start with the basics.
“Don’t dive into Big Data, Analytics, Data Lakes or the new trend. Understand what the data is used for, the why, and what the benefits of Data Management are for a company. Then work through how to deliver against these problems, be curious and creative, rather than thinking about the technology first.”