Financial and Retail Conference on Analytics – FAR Con

In my role at SetSight I live in data, specifically retail data. SetSight is a SaaS based retail data intelligence platform that transforms retailer and supplier data into insights. Behind the scenes that means we ingest large amounts of data and spit it back to our clients via reports that are triggered from events of one kind or another. It would be fair to label it as a rather traditional approach to retail software solutions or BI.

Certainly we offer other differentiators to our clients; one recent feature is end-to-end automated ingestion of weekly and daily data direct from a large Minneapolis based retailer into our systems. That’s an example with our developers have saved suppliers and rep firms weeks of employee time as the other option has been manual. While it is a solid revenue generator with extremely high customer opt-ins it also saves time and money around data quality and it allows our customers to focus on what they do best which is increase retail sales for their brands. However, as fun and “API cool” as that is it still holds true that real growth planned on our product roadmap is to extend the ability to drive results from data and do so on a larger scale.

That’s where analytics come into play and can change retail and SetSight. Yesterday I attended FAR Con (Financial and Retail Conference on Analytics) at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management and besides being an excellent event it also showcased the growth of this field. Several years ago I attended a conference put on by MinneAnalytics at the Medtronic campus and in those few years you can see the maturity and changes in these areas. My initial assessment is the FAR Con was more focused on the “why” and “what” that analytics brings to the business then in the past. And the sections dealing with the “how” were also less focused on vertical vendor solutions and included more content on developer level capabilities through open source technologies which brings such joy to the software engineering portion of my brain. I think it also speaks to the change in how people approach working with analytics and areas like #bigdata.

My personal highlights have to start with Doug Berg, the CEO of TrackIf, and his session called “Personalization Via Retail Analytics: Stop Guessing, Start Asking”. Doug’s session was essentially on why retail ecommerce needs a solution like TrackIf. Prior to this I hadn’t known about TrackIf but after leaving I was on board with their mission and product; the best compliment I have for them right now is that it just makes sense. I’m very intrigued with the opportunities and solutions that TrackIf can tackle.

Another presenter that killed it was Armin Kakas and “Open Source Analytics for Smarter Retail Pricing Strategies”; Armin is a Pricing and Analytics stud at Best Buy and besides being easily identifiable as intelligent and humorous also provided a great session on the challenges around pricing in a retail environment. The session didn’t align to my current role as leader of tech product but as any MBA graduate will tell you price is one of the 4 P’s and I learned a bit from Armin’s 45 minutes.

Of interests were a few sessions on Cassandra which while being high-level was another good source of information. Cassandra is so often referenced and its not in our tech stack at SetSight as we use another solution for our NoSQL needs. I don’t see us needing Cassandra unless we have scaling issues and like anyone in growth businesses I hope we see some scaling issues.

I also caught a session on R and connected with Ravi Bapna from the Carlson School as we have some shared contacts.

All in all a great day and a great conference. A big thanks to MinneAnalytics for putting on such a great conference for the local community.

MBA – that Sprint is D-O-N-E

Yes! My latest bout with formal education is over and gone as I finished up my last course, negotiations, over the condensed January term. I had thoughts going in to the merits of a MBA and have thoughts coming out too which I’ll draft in the future but for now I want to celebrate this with a picture.

Courses___Trello

 

I’ve been a trello user since its inception and brought it into every client opportunity I’ve had and organization that’s employed me. And in the world of tech where agile / scrum is the word I leveraged the same style to tracking my MBA education. So the MBA sprint is over as the image shows. I’m not sure if a course would be a story or an epic and I won’t put on my product owner hat since I play one at work everyday; I’ll just celebrate and figure out what’s next.

The Misperception of New Technology – Big Data Edition

Big Data is the answer. It will provide the new customer insights to propel your company to the market leader and do so faster, cheaper, and utilize your existing resources. I’m sure this claim smells a bit to you and with good reason. There are adages for a reason and if “it seems to good to be true then it likely is” seems fitting in this case.

It’s easy to leverage buzzwords in our daily conversations, sales pitches, and marketing materials without really understanding what they mean. Some of today’s buzzwords like “Big Data”, “The Cloud”, “Software-as-a-Service” (SaaS), and “machine learning” are commonly used in interchangeable ways. For example if you’re a SaaS based company with traditional hosting in data centers are you cloud-based or not. If you are then what happens if you transition to AWS? Are you more clouded? I joke to show that there are always gaps between what words mean and how they are actually used.

I’m walking this road today because of an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Joys and Hype of Software Called Hadoop” (http://j.mp/1qZFiAO) and what noise I think it is. The primary point of the piece seems to be that Hadoop and many Hadoop based companies like Hortonworks haven’t been able to meet the expectations of the marketplace and while I don’t dispute that because its always easy to wag a finger at technologies I think the article only touches on the bigger point of using the right technology for the right thing in the right way; and that point is the inherently tougher solve in today’s enterprises.

Big data offers many advantages over traditional technologies like databases and data warehouses. First is the ability to horizontally scale which allows a faster, cheaper (both in hardware and licensing) way to expand your capacity than traditional vertically scaling options in SQL-based worlds. Second is the inherent flexibility of how data is represented and modeled allows for the possibility of combining disparate data sources in interesting ways and often in quicker implementations. And this is where the sell is.

When I decided to make a change from my consulting practice in 2011 I made the choice to seek out a position in a traditional corporation. The purpose was clear. While I had worked with large clients in my past I had never worked in a large organization, I always assumed it wasn’t for me but I knew I had a large gap in my understandings of the working world and I wanted to shore that up. Second, I was considering building enterprise software in the future and wanted to understand my future customer. That was a unique and interesting experience I’ll comment on another day but for this topic I’ll say that I saw huge opportunities for data mining that were not being taken advantage of.

Banks by nature have so much data about their customers that could be leveraged including demographics, spending patterns, location-based data, and life events but the bank I worked for wasn’t close to leveraging all this data. Why is that? First, they were having a difficult time with their warehousing strategy and were backlogged on all those initiatives. And whenever a new one came in it had to be reconsidered against the Master Data Management strategy and then normalized for warehouse operations. If that was ever completed there was then writing the queries and trying to have the business understand what the data meant in the normalized fashion so they could explore it. By that time the budget was slashed and moved to some IT project that was required under banking regulations and the warehouse was never in a state to provide insights.

Big Data feels like a solve in these instances. Leadership can cite how the warehouse team doesn’t produce and look forward to the words “faster” being put into practice but that misses the larger point that the organization isn’t able to deliver their projects today with technologies they seem to understand. That leads to this quote from the WSJ piece, “The dirty secret is that a significant majority of big-data projects aren’t producing any valuable, actionable results”.  And to this I’d say why end there? Aren’t there a plethora of statistics showing how IT projects in the enterprise fail?

Even if a company implements a big data solution it still needs to understand that they will likely have a shortage of the right talent. Newer tech isn’t understood as well by those immersed in older tech and if your workforce isn’t readily adaptive in capability and buy-in you’ll have issues. Also, the problem is far greater than technology because even if you have the data in place you still need the right people with the understanding of the business and marketplace to deliver the insights.

Another adage is that there is no silver bullet or panacea for your business. Whether its agile, outsourcing, offshoring, NoSQL, mobile, or any other buzzword the keyword is leadership. Leadership to have a vision which leads to a plan for how to leverage the right tech at the right time to solve the right thing.

Even Best Buy likes Serial.

Given the mini-news flash of the day regarding Best Buy’s twit referencing the popular pod Serial its worth mentioning that line that we need to draw between what we think is funny and what is brand appropriate for your company. This tweet is very funny and sharp for those @Serial listeners but looks to have crossed that line from a Best Buy brand perspective.

Best-Buy-tweet

Letter to the Editor – NY Times

In my business ethics course for my MBA we had to find an issue worthy of sending a letter to the editor from an ethical perspective. I thought I’d share mine here now that I’ve nearly parked the car in that MBA garage.

To the Editor:

 

Funny, They Don’t Look Like My References(Business, 11/9/14)

The issue that a LinkedIn reference from a ‘coworker’ with whom you may not have actually worked, and that you are unaware of, could impact your hiring potential shows the risk we walk as we let Big Data drive decision systems. The LinkedIn features on reference searches for their paying customers look to jeopardize the integrity of mega social sites like LinkedIn and needs to be closely watched by both the judicial system and customers.

That LinkedIn did not have the foresight to see this as an ethical issue and risk to their integrity as well as a violation of their expected duty of care towards their users brings alarm to me. If the verdict in this legal case does not find protection for LinkedIn users through its interpretation of the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act then we know we need updated consumer protection to cover the gap in legal rights that the social internet age brings.

LinkedIn is such a part of the lexicon of professionals today that one insular event like this likely won’t cause much stir but I’d hope that the trending news around social would lean more towards stories that actually can affect our lives rather than what celebrity is on the cover of the weekly Paper magazine.

JAKE HACKL

Minneapolis, 11/14/14

When Should You Outsource? HBO Gives a Example.

Outsourcing is far from a new topic in business and there are many depths to which a company can leverage outsourcing to optimize its business. The Wall Street Journal had a recent article around HBO titled “HBO to Use MLB Advanced Media for Stand-Alone Streaming Product” that I found to be a great example of a company understanding their core competencies and deciding to outsource accordingly.

HBO is the leader of premium TV/cable networks. The invented the segment when they introduced original programming to cable and have recently made waves with their plan to create their own streaming service. They opted for this strategy because HBO operates as a premium service that is only available to cable and satellite users and they saw a risk to their model with the growing trend of people ditching these services for streaming only options like Netflix and Amazon Prime. From the article we learn that the orginal intent was to build out their technical capabilities to support this streaming model by ramping up their tech teams by an estimated 200 people. They’ve recently opted out of this strategy and decided instead to partner with MLB Advanced Media for this work.

There are details we don’t know but it sounds as if there was some disagreements about whether the streaming operations where important enough to be in-house. Granted we don’t understand the costs or details but I’d still contend this is an excellent example of a business understanding when a project/task falls outside their strengths and to outsource it. Technology is amazing, I’m in it and I love it, I’d want to build this platform and own it but that doesn’t mean a business should hold all things shiny and new.

At my current company we leverage outsourcing in areas that are far from our core competencies such as: data center support, video creation, and copy writing. There are some areas where I don’t think we should leverage outsourcing and that deals with defining plans and key internal processes. That is one area where I think a business must spend the time to understand how it currently operates and how it should operate to achieve business goals, at least at a high-level. Once that is done the outsourcing of nitty-gritty can be much more effective because you still own and understand the overall vision.

One example from my past of when to not outsource, at least on the basis core competencies and doing what you do well, is the advice an entrepreneurial friend gave me when I was running my software consulting business years ago. I was knee deep in a busy cycle and trying to juggle existing clients, projects, and trying to find time to bid on projects. Time was in short supply, I was stressed and he suggested I outsource everything to offshore teams.This technique had been applied by my friend as he started building his wealth years earlier and I respected his advice but knew it wasn’t for me.

Up to that point I had outsourced a few, very specific and extremely detailed bits of work to offshore teams but never had I gone as far as he was suggesting.  For me to outsource all of these tasks would leave me to focus on the management of all the projects with offshore teams which isn’t something that brings me joy (I could of course outsourced that as well). Additionally, the rest of my focus would be on landing new clients to be able to leverage this new ability to scale but selling is something I’m able to do but that doesn’t mean its a core competency of mine.

So in short I’d be trading what I did really well at that time in my career for areas that either don’t bring the satisfaction or weren’t areas of strength. In my case the outsourcing didn’t work and I’m glad I didn’t pursue, even at the potential cost of my current net worth.

How I Eat – Part 3 – Information Sources

This is the third installment on how I eat. If you missed the first or second post feel free to take a look.

How I Learn

There is so much information today and some say it doubles every two years so how can you keep up? My take is don’t focus on the quantity and figure out what it takes for you to locate quality that aligns with your purview. This is an approach I had to learn when I first entered the tech industry 15 years ago as a web developer. There was always a new framework, programming language, and approach being written about and if I spent time researching them all I’d never be able to actually utilize them in building products for my clients. What worked for me was taking a high-level approach and asking simple questions like: “what differentiates this language?” and “Is it trying to solve a problem that is unsolved today?”

This still wasn’t enough and I needed to find sources that I could trust who could summarize and present trends in the industry to me. This would free me up to work (aka bill hours) while also allowing me to stay current. It takes time to figure out the sources you trust and I spent years accumaling them via books, blogs, and magazines and today we also have podcasts, videos, and social to sort through.

Hopefully I can help build trust

I think I can help you build that trust by sharing my sources and then you can take a test drive with each of them and decide if they belong in your reference section or not. I did not have this starting out and there were plenty of blogs, books, and podcasts that had poor content, misplaced motives, and bad production. I’ll only share those that I recommend and save the hate for the rest of the internet.

My Favorite – Gold Seal

If I could only choose one trusted source then I’d go with Angelo Coppola from the Latest In Paleo podcast and Humans Are Not Broken. Angelo has been putting out great podcasts for years now and was the source my wife and both like to listen too when we began our journey to better health. At that time we were painting our living room and we played the back catalog which have aged well; he’s now over 120 episodes. What I like best about Latest In Paleo is that Angelo acts as a news aggregator around health so you always feel current on what is being researched, talked about, and presented in the news. And while he has his own views on these topics, like we all do, he presents a balanced perspective and often leaves me thinking deeper about an issue or ideology. Also, he’s genuine and not a constant marketer / pitchman and produces one of the best podcast out there. I couldn’t recommend him more. As a fun note, I was able to work with him at a tech conference breakout team project when he was still working in the tech space and he was just a cool dude; that’s actually how I learned about his podcast.

I want more Podcasts

When I was starting down my journey I also like the Balanced Bites Podcast. The production quality wasn’t great but these two ladies present good material. For newbies their paleo pitfalls podcasts are very good. Here’s Part one.

The Bulletproof podcast is one I really enjoyed when starting. Dave Asprey is a smart guy who brings many good topics to the stage although I admit I listen less these days as the marketing and sell approach has been too amped for my liking for a while. He’s coming out with a book about his branded diet soon that I will give a read.

Others:

  • Tim Ferriss – the guy keeps busy, shares good content, and is entertaining
  • Robb Wolf – he puts out SO MUCH content its impossible to keep up but the material is solid

I want to hear from a Doctor

I hear you, we get comfort when we listen to our doctor even though their nutritional training may not be much more than yours. Here are some books I’ve enjoyed.

  • Wheat Belly – Dr. William Davis – Is a great book and he has a blog as well.
  • Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers – Dr. David Perlmutter

Other Names

There’s loads more of course and I’m not intending on providing an exhaustive list but this is plenty to get you started if you choose too.