Bill Schmarzo: “Start with the business, not the data”
In the third of a series of interviews with chief technology officers of the world’s leading companies, Robert Scammell hears from Hitachi Vantara CTO and chief innovation officer Bill Schmarzo about big data, avoiding rattlesnakes and the political weaponising of technology
As CTO and CIO Bill Schmarzo is responsible for driving much of the innovation at Hitachi Vantara, a subsidiary of Japanese multinational Hitachi, which specialises in hardware, software and services around digital data.
Known as the ‘Dean of Big Data’ for his influential role in the field, Schmarzo has published several books on the topic and regularly gives talks at technology conferences. In a career spanning more than 30 years in data warehousing, business intelligence and advanced analytics, he has previously been CTO of Dell EMC and vice president of analytics at Yahoo. He also spends his time teaching at the University of San Francisco.
In this Q&A he explains why AI is an economic game-changer, how hiking helps him to unwind, and how Strat-O-Matic baseball instilled an early interest in tech.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you end up in your current role?
Well, it’s kind of a long and strange story but the short of it was that the president of Hitachi Vantara’s Digital Solutions Business Unit, Brad Surak, came to the class that I teach at the University of San Francisco as a guest to get grilled by my students on GE’s Digital Transformation, a unit that we were studying at the time.
After a spirited discussion with the group, Brad saw something he felt would benefit the evolving organisation and offered me a job. He and I had also worked together at Business Objects, so I guess it wasn’t that farfetched after all.
What's the most important thing happening in your field at the moment?
In my current role, I help organisations realise the true potential of their data. There have never been more tools and capabilities to do this, but therein lies the problem – decision makers are simply drowning in the possibilities.
“Decision makers are simply drowning in the possibilities.”
So, if I were to name one critical shift happening right now, it’s the realisation that if one really wants to monetise the vast amounts of data that organisations have spent tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire, the conversation starts with the business and not with the data.
Which emerging technology do you think holds the most promise once it matures?
That’s an easy one for me – artificial intelligence (AI). The ability to leverage AI to create policies, products and services that appreciate, not depreciate, in value the more that they are used, is an economic game-changer.
How do you separate hype from disruptor?
I tend to follow the mindset that the proof is in the pudding, as they say. The separation between hype and disruption is in the ability to apply the new capabilities at scale.
Doing it once? Snore. But to do it consistently, time and again, now that’s disruption!
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given?
You would think it’s hard to forget but I was once reminded that we have two ears and one mouth, and I’ve tried to embrace that credo throughout my career.
“Customers are the only ones with ink in their pens.”
If you really want to understand how to create new sources of value, you’d better master the art of listening to and co-creating with your customers. As someone once told me, customers are the only ones with ink in their pens.
Where did your interest in tech come from?
I think it started when I was young and playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, the precursor to what is Fantasy Baseball today. Mastery of basics stats and analytics gave one a huge advantage in playing that game and dominating the neighbourhood!
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m sure you’ve heard this before but there’s truly no such thing as a typical day. I would say that my best days are those days where I’m out of the puzzle palace (my office), meeting with either customers and/or students.
That’s where I learn…when I’m collaborating with customers and students who are working to solve unique challenges.
What do you do to relax?
Hiking by myself gives me the peace-of-mind time not only to re-charge, but equally important to start to internalise all the different bits of things that I’ve learned that prior week.
“I do my best thinking making sure I don’t step on a rattlesnake.”
Some folks do their best thinking in the shower. I do my best thinking making sure I don’t step on a rattlesnake.
Who is your tech hero?
I’m not sure I have a hero, but I have been blessed with countless mentors. The world is full of good people who are willing to help, if you just ask them.
What’s the biggest technological challenge facing humanity?
One thing that concerns me is the political weaponising of technologies like social media, mobile communications and advanced analytics.
“I guess I’m not cut out to run for office.”
We need to spend more time teaching, and then reteaching, our citizens the importance of critical thinking and the power of thinking for oneself. I guess I’m not cut out to run for office.
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