Owen Lewis is the CEO of Agile Solutions UK a specialist data management consultancy that focuses on tangible business benefits. He co-founded Agile Solutions in 2014 to help clients obtain value from data by better combining business, data and technology strategy.
How did you get into data management and what drove you to set up a data management company?
My starting point was actually in print – believe it or not I was one of the last print finishing apprentices in the UK. After that I took a degree in Computer Science. In the early days I worked in data transformation for data into banks through digital printing – amazing that I trained to do all these elaborate hand-crafted books and ended up doing cheque books! But it did give me the advantage of seeing how the data was being fed into the machines for personalisation and the use of algorithms for security even back then.
“At the centre of everything I’ve done has always been data rather than pure technology because that is where the real value is.”
Eventually, as an entrepreneur you hit on something that becomes stronger and stronger and that is what has happened with Agile. It helps that the market has also come towards us and data is at the heart of everything now.
Proper business entrepreneurialism will always create jobs but it’s the quality of the careers that those jobs create which is important. Only certain businesses offer great careers and data is certainly one of those at the current time. These careers are real and they have value and that is a really good feeling – to know that you are doing that for people.
How would you define “modern” data management and what does it /should it mean for organisations that adopt it?
There is a maturity level to data management. If you ask people about data management and all they talk about is governance then you know they are only being driven by regulation or a concern. On the other side of things in the start up world and data driven companies, they can be purely about data and development and that is innovative as companies like FaceBook have found, often the data governance is lacking.
“A truly mature company embraces governance and innovation and they are designed in together, not bolted on and only way you can do that is via data strategy. That has to sit directly beneath the business strategy and before technical strategy.”
The only way that innovation and governance will be aligned properly is if you strategise in that order – business, data, technical. Modern data management is about having those things in alignment so that your business will be data-driven and governance will not be an after-thought.
What aspects of modern data management solutions does Agile Solutions focus on?
The cloud technologies AWS, Azure and GCP are a group representing a massive percentage of the IT market at the moment. In the same way, in the ‘90s or 2000s, most of IT would be touching SQL or one of the other databases. The current language of IT and development is really underpinned by cloud offerings. The technologies that are aligned to those offerings and make them more efficient are the ones that people are going to adopt.
At Agile, all of our own business systems are cloud-based:
“The cloud platform approach that we are taking as a business is critical to our own strategy but it means that we are acquiring the tools and skills that will make the journey easier for us and our clients.”
What are your top 3 tips or resources to share for aspiring modern data masters?
If you really want to create an opportunity for yourself you have to understand the business value of data because it underpins everything.
You’ll also need to know why things are designed the way they are and why they have to operate the way they do which means you’ll have to understand the underlying capabilities of technology too.
“New technologies can do a lot more than the old ones could. Previously everything in the IT world was designed around whether SQL could deliver it, whereas there are now many more options for us. Graph databases and their adoption have proved that and there is lots more to come. That’s got to be a good thing.”
You need to know whether you want to be on the business or IT side primarily but be able to talk to both because business and IT don’t necessarily get on well together. If you want to be an inventor you probably need to focus more on the business side but if you want to make your way successfully through a large organisation or work in consulting then you need to be more on the technical side because those are the skills that are in demand.
Finally, my personal tip, never be in awe of current methodologies and processes.
“There’s always a better way, if you look at it and have the understanding to prove it. If you know what you are doing and why you are doing it then you then have the tools in front of you to do it better.”
There is a large portion of the community, especially in IT, who keep on doing things the way they have always done and never believe that anything can be done in a different way – a better way. You just have to keep your eyes open for that.
How important is experience versus willingness-to-innovate for a modern data master?
Experience is always going to be required. You can’t trade that out and replace it with anything else. The trouble is that often with experience comes the inclination to do things the same way you have always done.
“For super-success you have to keep learning or you will get left behind – never kid yourself that you learn one thing and stay with it – it’s a continuous learning process and you never stop.”
What trends or changes do you predict to the data management arena in the next few years?
The big data era is maturing and the technologies that first appeared with big data will be enveloped into the cloud technologies. I predicted about three years ago that the age of big data would be quite short and that it would be very quickly overtaken by the age of big data governance.
What I mean by this is that politically and economically people are seeing the effects that big data technologies are going to have – especially when it is linked visually or actively to them every day by some kind of AI interaction. This will drive the establishment to recognise that some kind of protection needs to be put in place.
“The key thing there is that if you are going to protect anything then you need to govern your data properly – AI is only as only as smart or restricted or governed as the data it is given to work with. The data has to be trustworthy and the minute regulation is involved, of good quality, otherwise there will be consequences and fines.”
How well placed is Agile Solutions to continue to grow based on these trends/changes?
We have the people and we are developing them. We will continue to hire people that have experience in the data-space but we are also building an academy for our graduate hires. That mixture of the experience and the new people and new technologies will really help us.
We are very well positioned in terms of industry experience and we are able to apply governance principals as well as talking about innovation. In the future the innovation discussions will turn much more to governance and the new people who are innovating won’t have the experience or knowledge of governance. In the same way if you just show up talking about governance you can stifle innovation. I think we are able to talk about and advise on both.
“I think we are in a golden age of data which is going to last at least another ten years. Data envelops everything in this world and we are always going to be busy in our line of business. That’s great for us and great for software entrepreneurialism as well.”
What do you like to do outside of work?
I try and see family and keep fit where I can but I don’t get a lot of time. I am hoping over the next few years to develop a few proper hobbies but business takes up a lot of time – probably more than it should. I haven’t got a lot to complain about though because things have been going relatively well.
I did buy a hill-climb racing car a while ago but I’ve not had time to race it and unfortunately I’m not sure my eyesight or reactions are as good as when I bought it. By the time I get time to drive it I might have to find another hobby!
Which is your favourite (science) fiction book, programme or film and why?
I’ve always read a lot on a wide range of topics – I think that’s the hungry-mind thing. I’ve always got a pile of books by my bedside that I wade through, but I keep buying more.
I like to learn from what’s gone before so I read a variety of different history books and enjoy that. I love sci-fi as a genre because you can pretty much invent anything.
So what brings out your inner kidult?
“Well the only thing I’m going to say is really funny is Rick and Morty – it’s a cartoon and it is hilarious. I’m not going into the detail because it is way too nerdy but it’s really funny and a bit edgy – just imagine a drunken Dr Who!”