Here is an interview with one terrific person who has always inspired my writing ( or atleast my attempts to write) on data and systems. Neil Raden is a giant in the publishing and consulting space for business intelligence ,analytics, and decision management. In a nice interview Neil talks of his passion for his work, his prolific authoring of white papers, his seminal work with James Taylor and how he sees the BI space evolve.
The history of BI pretty much follows the history of computing platforms. First we had time-sharing, then mainframes, then mini’s, then client-server vs. PC, then a number passes at distributed computing, such as CORBA, then SOA and now the cloud.- Neil Raden
Ajay- Describe your career in math and technology and your current activities. How would you explain what you do for a living to a group of high school students who are wondering to take up mathematical and technical subjects or not.
Neil- I didn’t earn a dime at the career I was meant for, consulting, until I was 33 years old. So I would tell college students not to be in such a hurry to corner themselves into a career. It may take a while to figure out what you really want.
Though I went to college to study theatre, within a few weeks I was inspired by a math professor and switched my major. From that point on, it was pads of paper and sharp pencils. I was totally in my own head with math. I never took a statistics course, or even differential equations, because I was consumed by discrete math (graph theory too), topology and logic and later game theory/economics.
When I went looking for a job in 1974, in the midst of a deep recession, I was confronted with the stark reality (in New York ) that I could be a COBOL programmer or an actuary. I chose the latter. Working at AIG in New York in the 70’s was pretty exciting. We broke new ground in commercial property and casualty insurance and reinsurance every week. I was part of a small R&D group under the chief actuary, who reported directed to Maurice Greenberg, the legendary (but now maligned) inventor of AIG, and I loved the work.
I had to go back and teach myself probability and statistics to get through the exams, but ultimately, two kids and one on the way in NYC on one not-so-great salary was a deal-breaker. I left AIG and joined a software company doing modeling and prediction. The rest, as they say, is history. I formed my own consulting company in 1985 and I’m still at it.
To me, consulting isn’t something you do between jobs or a title you get because you implement software for clients. Consulting is a craft, it’s a career and it is rather easy to do but very difficult to learn. I work very hard to teach this to people who work for me. It’s about commitment, hard work and, most of all, ethics and being authentic with your client.
Ajay- Writing books is a lonely yet rewarding work. Could you briefly elucidate on your recent book, Smart (Enough) Systems?
Neil- I have to credit my partner, James Taylor, with the concept for the book. He was working at Fair Isaac (now FICO) at the time and this was exactly what he was doing there. It was a little tangential to my work, but when James approached me, he said he wanted a partner who was proficient in the data integration and analytics aspects of EDM (Enterprise Decision Management).
James made it pretty easy because
1) he is very prolific and 2) he took most of my comments and integrated them without argument.
I’d say I was pretty lucky and it went very well. I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book. I suppose I won’t know until the idea hits me. I’m sure it will be more difficult doing it on my own.
Ajay- What are the various stages that you have seen the BI industry go through. What are the next few years going to bring to us-
What is your wishlist for changes the industry makes for better customer ROI.
Neil- The history of BI pretty much follows the history of computing platforms. First we had time-sharing, then mainframes, then mini’s, then client-server vs. PC, then a number passes at distributed computing, such as CORBA, then SOA and now the cloud. But while the locus of BI storage, computing and presentation has changed, it’s focus changes very slowly.
Historically, there have been two major subject areas in BI: f inance and sales/marketing, All of the other subject areas still rest on periphery.
Complex Event Processing ( CEP ) for example, is making a lot of noise lately , but not much implementation. Visualization is here to stay . When the BI app and the Web a pp are the same, BI will be everywhere, but it will be a sort of pyrrhic victory because it won’t be recognized as such. Now you can take all of this with a grain of salt because I don’t really follow the industry per se, I’m more interested in how my clients can apply the technology to get the results they need.
Ajay- There is a lot of buzz about predictive analytics lately. Do you think it will have a noticeable impact or is it just the latest thing?
Neil- There are only so many people who understand quant itative meth ods and it isn’t going to grow very much. This puts a damper on PA (Predictive Analytics) because no manager is going to act on the recommendations of a black box without an articulate quant who can explain the methodology and the limits of its precision.
That isn’t a bad thing, and those who practice in predictive analytics will prosper.
On the other hand, I believe there will be an expansion of the use of generic PA models that have been vetted in practice. The FICO score is a good example, and the ability to develop and implement these applications (it’s much easier now thanks to PA software and computing environments in general) should allow for a nice market to develop around them. This is especially true with decision automation systems, like logistics, material handling, credit authorization, etc.
Ajay- What were your most interesting projects as an implementer? Most rewarding?
Neil- Most Interesting: I was the Chairman of an Advisory Board at Sandia National Laboratories for a few years.Our goal was to encourage the lab to adopt more modern and effective information management tools for their dual purpose of
1) designing and manufacturing nuclear weapons (frightening isn’t it?) and
2) certification of nuclear waste repositories.
I was able to work with scientists, physicists, engineers, geologists and computer sciences, all from backgrounds very different from those I normally engaged. The problems were monumental.
Most rewarding: We developed a data warehouse to capture the daily sales of products at the most detailed level for a cosmetics company. They never had this information before because the retailers were counters in hundreds of department stores. Thus they were able for the first time to truly understand the “sell through” of their products. Beyond just allowing a better understanding of the flow, they could tailor their promotions and, not much later, implement a continuous replenishment system.
The president of the company came to the launch and explained how we had allowed the company to do things it had never done before which would change it for the better. You don’t get those accolades from the CEO very often.
Ajay- You’ve written forty white papers. That’s a lot. What impact do you think they’ve had?
Neil- I couldn’t tell you. I don’t track downloads, my website doesn’t even require registration. I don’t see them quoted or cited very often, but then, people don’t quote or cite other’s work in this field very often anyway. I can say that I have many repeat customers among the vendors, so they must be deriving some value from them.
Ajay- What are your views on creating a community for the top 100 BI analysts in the world – a bit like a Reuters or a partnership firm. How pleased do you think will BI vendors be by this.
Neil- I was actually involved in an effort like this about a dozen years ago, called BI Alliance . Doug Hackney and I started it, and we had about a dozen BI luminaries in the organization. I’ll try to remember some: Sid Adelman, David Marco, Richard Winter, David Foote, Herb Edelstein.
You could only join if you were an independent or the head of your own firm.
It was a useful marketing tool as we were able to 1) share references and 2) staff projects. But it sort of lost its inertia after a few years.
But a few hundred BI analysts? Are there that many?? LOL I don’t know how the vendors would react, but I sort of doubt this sort of organization would have any kind of clout – too many divergent opinions.
Ajay- Do you think the work you do matters?
Neil- It certainly has an economic impact on my family! LOL I don’t know, I hope it does and proportionate to my income versus the size of the industry, yes, I guess it does. Not necessarily directly though .
A company in Dayton or Macon doesn’t make a decision because I said so, but I think I do influence some analysts and vendor s a nd to the extent I influence them, then I guess I do . I limit my analysis to my clients. If they think this work matters, then it does.
Neil Raden, consultant, analyst and author is followed by technology providers, consultants and even other analysts. His knowledge of the analytical applications is the result of thirty years of intensive work. He is the founder of Hired Brains, a research and advisory firm in Santa Barbara, CA, offering research and analysis services to technology providers as well as providing consulting and implementation services. Mr. Raden began his career as a casualty actuary with AIG before moving into software engineering and consulting in the application of analytics in fields as diverse as health care to nuclear waste management to cosmetics marketing. His blog can be found at intelligententerprise.com/experts/raden/. He is the author of dozens articles and white papers and he has has contributed to numerous books and is the co-author of “Smart (Enough) Systems” (Prentice Hall, 2007) with James Taylor. firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively you can just follow Neil Raden at his twitter id neilraden