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IT Life: The Human Face of Big Data

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Senior vice president of EMEA Field Operations at Informatica and MENSA member Charles Race talks about big data, Clive Sinclair and cricket

Charles Race is Senior Vice President, EMEA Field Operations at Informatica, the world’s number one independent provider of data integration software. Organisations around the world rely on Informatica to realise their information potential and drive top business imperatives.

Charles has worked in the industry for 24 years, having started out as a software development engineer. He made the move into data integration due to his fascination with unlocking the hidden value of information. Interestingly, Charles is one of only around 22,700 people in the UK, Ireland and Channel Islands who is a member of Mensa, the high IQ society.

Post Office - Shutterstock - © Ruth Black

What has been your favourite project so far?
Back in 1997, I was working with the Post Office Counters Ltd and we encountered an early data warehousing quality problem. They issued letters to the UK’s 20,000 or so post offices informing them of new IT processes. Of those 20,000 letters, they received 2,000 ‘not known at this address’ responses. Clearly there was a serious data quality issue there, but it provided a fun challenge to find ways to resolve it!

It became one of the defining projects of my career and set me on the path I’ve followed ever since. It made me realise my determination to move away from programming and into the world of data and information I still find fascinating today.

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
I was working as Head of IT at uSwitch, which was, at the time, an innovative online start-up for utilities comparison. uSwitch works in a variety of areas now, but at the time it was really pioneering in the price comparison arena and can be seen as a precursor to the many sites we all know and love (or hate based on their adverts!) today.

What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
It’s impossible to choose just one device. Rather, I think the concept of the internet of things – underpinned by the proliferation of data in our daily lives – will completely change the way we live.

From health and general self-improvement, all the way through to how we shop, we will better utilise data to make more informed decisions, which will provide a very different dimension to how we perceive our world. The changes will be so great that people living just 50 years ago would find them impossible to comprehend, especially when you consider that our 15th century counterparts encountered less data in their lifetime than we do in a single day.

There’s a great book on the subject by Rick Smolan called ‘The Human Face of Big Data’ that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the subject. In it, he likens the impact of Big Data to the planet suddenly developing a nervous system. He shares a thought-provoking analogy around his attempt to explain Big Data to his 10-year old son. In summary he refers to it as a brand new way to see things but he asks his son to imagine if the whole human race had only ever been looking through one eye for all of its existence and all of a sudden, scientists provided the ability to open up a second eye; allowing more information, more data and a whole new dimension. You’re getting depth and perspective, 3D vision.

sinclair-zx-spectrum-540x334Who’s your tech hero?
He’s probably not everyone’s first choice, but I would have to say Sir Clive Sinclair - he was ahead of his time in many ways and I think if he had been born 20 years later many more of his ideas would have come to fruition. Like a modern day da Vinci! I admire his imagination and ambition to try new things even though they might fail; his most well-known commercial failure being the Sinclair C5 of course.

People forget that he invented the first slim line electronic pocket calculator and the Sinclair ZX80, the UK’s first mass-market home computer for under £100. Later he created the ZX81 and the Spectrum which was hugely significant in the early days of the British home computer industry.

Sir Clive’s machines opened computing up to kids like me in the 1970s and allowed us to get into computing and programming when we would have never had the opportunity before. Although with the amount of hours I spent playing Chuckie Egg I think my mum would disagree.

Who’s your tech villain?
Alan Sugar. I hated his email phone at the end of last century and I’m not the biggest fan of what he’s done on The Apprentice.

What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
For my 21st birthday I received a, sometimes derided, Corby trouser press that I’ve used nearly every day ever since. It has never let me down. But my real love is for watches, both as jewellery and gadgets. I have loads of watches from ones that display binary to the classic LED Pulsar, but my favourite is my Casio calculator watch which I have had to replace from eBay recently. It’s a design classic!

What is your budget outlook going forward? Flat? Growing?
I think the entire technology industry is undergoing a step-change in the digital era. C-level decision makers are far more knowledgeable and informed today, so they have become more astute buyers and are cannier with their cash. This is forcing sales professionals to adapt their technique as there is less demand for them to educate their customers, and much more for a need to add significant value to their customer’s thought process. At Informatica, we’re keen to face this challenge head on and feel that by helping our customers to limit the risks they face in the era of the internet of things, we will be well positioned for the future.

Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
I really admire the way that Tesco has always made use of data analytics to initially create an empire and then to stay ahead of the competition. From store locations to the location of products in-store, even decisions about which products to make loss leaders – all of this analysis has allowed Tesco to ensure it can offer something special to everyone.

GE is another really smart company. I admire the way it has managed to maintain success across such diverse sectors and markets. Its continued focus on R&D in such a challenging economy is also something to be admired. Keeping GE as profitable as it is has been is a work of genius.

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
Keeping pace with the speed of change of technology consumption continues to be a tremendous challenge, especially when resources are tight. Every single monetary investment has to stand up to scrutiny and IT professionals are being asked to fulfil increasingly diverse and complicated roles, while still finding the time to innovate and provide optimum levels of service. I greatly admire those CIOs who are able to juggle the challenges they face.

Take BYOD for example – it could be said that it caters for employees more than employers and stakeholders, which can ultimately result in greater costs to the business. The need to attract great people into your business is a factor and tech-savvy workers will want to use specific kinds of devices in their work, but a smart CIO will balance the needs of employees and evaluate the right technology tools for their business rather than simply adopting the most popular technology trends.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
To cloud, of course! I think the debate on this one is already over. We’ve already seen our personal storage moved to the cloud and businesses are outsourcing many more functions to the cloud – it’s only a matter of time before the security question has been answered too.

Ian BothamWhat did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a cricketer. Ian Botham was my hero growing up and remains an inspiration. He was a genuine all-rounder with 14 centuries and 383 wickets in Test cricket. While he had something of a reputation as a controversial player both on and off the field at times (probably what drew me as an 8 year old), he held a number of Test cricket records, and still holds the record for the highest number of wickets taken by an England bowler.

Sadly Clive Sinclair had a hand in preventing me from following in his footsteps!

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