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#ModernDataMasters: Mike Evans, Chief Technology Officer

Kate Tickner, Reltio

Mike Evans is CTO and Founder at Comma Group and has spent more than a decade in the business analysis, MDM and data management space.

What is your background and what was your route into data management?

I never consciously chose to work in data. My journey into the world of data and MDM was rooted in my time at Mitchells and Butlers. As an aspiring Project Manager, I was asked to work on an analysis project to understand why some recent initiatives weren’t achieving expected results. It became apparent very quickly that a lack of focus on data was the root cause. This led to my first encounter with the concept of ‘Master Data Management’ which transformed my career.

Of course, our initial MDM project proposal was rejected outright! And I returned to being a Junior Project Manager. But two years later the project was resurrected, and I embarked on what was then the biggest learning experience of my career.

“If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt, it’s that you can’t cut corners in MDM. Success relies on the right balance of people, process and technology. It is as much to do with changing the culture of a company and embracing the value of data, as it is about technology or process.”

How would you define “modern” data management and what does it /should it mean for organisations that adopt it?

There are some aspects of data management that will live on regardless of advances to technology or changes in the way businesses operate. I think that some of the key innovations in the technology space are increasing the amount of focus that businesses can put on managing their data. Hopefully this means they will get a lot more benefit from it.

The real outcome of the integration of machine learning into modern data management is that it gives business the opportunity to move away from activities that don’t add value. They are released from some of the manual effort to focus more on what they do with the data they manage.”

In the past when a business went on a journey to implementing an MDM initiative, a huge amount of focus was typically spent on plugging in IT solutions and configuring them. Even where organisations wanted to do things the right way, sometimes the technology solutions that were available required an immense amount of time and resource. The projects quite simply ran out of budget and time to do the more important things.  Modern data management, using advances in technology, can reduce this proportion of a data mastering project.

“It will be possible to put more emphasis on the people, process and data governance which really make MDM live and breathe.”

What aspects of modern data management do you focus on in your role and how do you help deliver it?

A passion of mine is imparting the knowledge and experience that the data leaders of today possess to the next generation of data professionals. This is also the main goal of Comma Group’s academy programme.

“We teach that problem solving is at the core of MDM, and how important data governance principles are regardless of the configuration of the underpinning technology.”

However, there is a need to keep on the pulse of the latest technological innovations. I make sure we stay up to date so we can constantly evolve our approaches and methodologies. This ensures that we offer relevant and value-added services to the businesses we work with.

What are your top 3 tips or resources to share for aspiring modern data masters?

  1. Always remain focused on business outcomes.

“If you are not tying what you are doing, in any kind of data initiative, to a business vision and some tangible outcomes that a business is trying to achieve, then MDM can become just a complex academic exercise.”

  1. Prioritise people, process and governance. We have all heard about the type of technically-based MDM project that doesn’t really deliver anything, takes years and is ultimately deemed to be a failure. This is because MDM is more about shifting the culture in an organisation than about technology. Modern data management technology enables this focus.
  2. Understand the data and build the suitable, flexible data models. This one is a bit more hands-on practical, but it is absolutely core. It has stung many a project that I’ve been involved in and still seems to trip enterprises up.

“You must access the right data and build the right data models for your enterprise before you start leaping down the path of building solutions.”

Business is changing more rapidly than it ever has done, so when you do start building solutions use technologies that will flex and grow with you. We cannot know what the future holds but we can plan to be able to adapt to it.

How important is experience versus willingness-to-innovate for a modern data master?

This is a really good question, I liked the process I had to go through to think about answering it! It ties in with a core value of Comma which is that we really value reciprocal learning – learning from each other.

Experience does of course count for a lot.  For example, you can’t directly transfer to a new person the value of what you learn when a project hasn’t gone well.

It is difficult to take someone who is new to the data world and give them that experience you get from working in many different businesses and industries. However, the benefit of a fresh pair of eyes and a willingness to innovate can open the eyes of experienced people to new ways of thinking.”

Balance is very important. This is what we are trying to achieve via our academy – to combine young minds with best in the industry.

What skills or characteristics do modern data masters need to be successful?

We are seeing rates of change in what’s out there both in terms of tech but also how businesses operate and the types of business coming to market for example the gig economy. It’s a really different world to even 5 or 10 years ago– lots of household names are disappearing and being replaced with more modern, innovative businesses.

The definition of success, from my perspective as a manager of a consulting organisation, is our clients achieving the business benefit they want and being delighted with our services. From a client’s perspective I think it is that data management becomes part of their culture and they are leveraging good data management principles that they put in place and that they almost stop thinking about data being a separate thing. It becomes just another contributory factor to achieving their business goals.

“In terms of skills and characteristics for a modern data master, the willingness to adapt and innovate is key. These need to be combined with the principles of sound master data management.”

Sound MDM principles will hold true despite all the changes around us. The “Why” and the “What” remain fairly consistent but how we achieve success is changing really rapidly and will continue to do so.

What trends or changes do you predict to the data management arena in the next few years?

A current trend is for technology products not to be huge monoliths anymore but to be smaller and very outcome focused. The monolithic systems are unable to adapt to the changing needs of the industry because when they were implemented the amount of data they needed to store and process was far simpler and smaller.  For example, twenty or even ten years ago in food retail, focus on item cost was important, a description of the item and not much beyond that!

The new and upcoming products often have very open architectures and the ability to plug in small blocks of functionality to get to business outcomes more quickly. In the food retail example, there are considerations around nutrition, allergies, availability, web feeds, different channels and much more.

“These trends force those of us in data management services to rethink what we offer and how we get to those business outcomes. We have already touched on AI and ML in MDM – they do not change what MDM is, but they change how we do it.”

From a business point of view, trends include an increased focus on the data itself. There has been a rise of businesses that have grown up understanding the importance of data basing their entire business model on the acquisition or the use of data. They are not as focused on the technology that underpins it – they have data as part of their DNA. It is what drives them.

What question would you like to have been asked and what is the answer?

I would have liked to have been asked about my favourite pet project. Recently I have been restoring an old record player that belonged to my grandparents. There is something nice about taking a piece of old technology that is relatively simple. It only has one real outcome which is to play records that sound beautiful. I’d tie that back to data management in that we often lose that focus on the outcome.

“A huge pitfall of MDM projects is that we can lose focus on that vital outcome which is the equivalent of “I need to hear that record sounding great”.”

What was the first record you played on it?

The first one I really properly sat down and listened to was an old record of my Dad’s was a Beatles LP – Rubber Soul.

Which is your favourite science fiction book, programme or film and why?

I am a massive fan of the sit-com Red Dwarf and grew up with it. It is rooted in comedy and science fiction and quite scarily it has lots of stuff in it that has come true in a strange, albeit exaggerated way. I enjoyed concepts like the genetically engineered life forms – they could grow creatures that could become animate objects eg a living sofa that could grow to make you comfortable. I don’t think we’ve managed to do that yet but give it time!