Steve Whiting is the COO of Agile Solutions (GB) Ltd, a specialist data management and analytics consultancy that focuses on tangible business benefits. He believes in an agile approach to data-driven solutions and co-founded Agile Solutions in 2014 to deliver that vision.
How did you get into data management and what drove you to set up a data management company?
I started on a graduate trainee scheme that Abbey National (Santander) were running in computer programming. I was trained in Oracle relational databases and GUI tools to deliver group-wide Banking Systems. I stayed for a few years and then became tempted by the opportunity to broaden my horizons by becoming a freelancer. I worked in several Telcos and latterly in the City for an international insurance company. I enhanced my skills by becoming involved in new technologies like Informatica in the Data Integration space. I eventually came to join Agile in its former guise moving from Consulting into Sales where I met my future business partner and Agile’s current CEO, Owen Lewis.
Our combined experience of working with other large companies and systems integrators included seeing many examples of failed projects that were not delivering value. We set up Agile specifically to deliver on our promises to customers in the data space, with intelligent digital disruption and proven customer success at our core.
“I think the real way to deliver success involves always acting in the customer’s best interest – keep that at heart and you’ll also have set the right foundations for your business to succeed.”
It’s all about stakeholder management and engagement; delivering on your promises and strengthening the foundations between IT and the business – that’s where we come in.
As COO, I lead the senior management team and am able to steer all the business functions within Agile. I am responsible for making sure:
- We anticipate and proactively prevent any delivery challenges.
- We always deliver for the customer, irrespective of the effort required.
- That the functions in the business pull together to achieve the shared vision for the company.
How would you define “modern” data management and what does it /should it mean for organisations that adopt it?
When we set Agile up in 2014 we had a small selection of spreadsheet-based systems and processes. Over the last 5 years I have set about making sure we are born in the cloud. I confess that a few spreadsheets remain but almost the whole of our business is supported by around 25 cloud-based SaaS systems, including those based on graph database technology. I did not want the overhead of infrastructure and we believe in best of breed technology underpinned by an intelligent integration platform. Our internal DataOps project is bringing this all together to help us achieve greater success and support data-driven decision-making and analytics. The concepts and implementations are what I would define as modern data management.
“For me modern data management is all about agility, scalability and ethics.”
For example, if you show you can act in an ethical way, both in respect to data and by giving something back to the client, then you are well-positioned to be given a broader remit to innovate and scale at speed.
“Ethical data management means you need data governance and data security by design – these initiatives are hard to retrofit. In the past organisations often mobilized for large MDM programmes and had to retrospectively drive the governance throughout – now we are seeing that data governance is often leading – it has become a non-negotiable.”
Especially in the Big Data age, you have to know where your data comes from, what it is used for, what security measures are applied to it but also what its value is to the business.
“You have to be able to tangibly link initiatives to operational cost savings or benefits such as additional revenue opportunities.”
What aspects of modern data management solutions does Agile Solutions focus on and how do you help your clients deliver them?
By design, we are a continuously evolving company so some of the direction we are taking is influenced by our customers and what we’re seeing in the market. Although, we deliver across the full spectrum of what is broadly known as Information Management & Analytics, we see ourselves as different for four reasons:
- Architecture: We advise on selecting the best-of-breed technology, architecture and tooling to support the business. We are not big believers in monolithic ERP implementations which we often see constrain businesses because they never deliver fully in each area and can become so engrained that businesses become shackled by them.
- The right people: technically-certified, experienced, business-facing consultants who can be co-located with the business, can speak their language and can add value quickly. We focus on recruiting those people and building them over time using our Agile Academy career paths and development tracks.
- Delivery methodology: you can guess by our name! Agile, iterative, continuous improvement, deployment etc, etc, all adding value. That’s not always pure agile – it usually needs to fit into existing customer frameworks.
“Our customers typically have roadmaps and programme management frameworks but need to embed Agile methodologies and principles within projects to prove value quickly. We advocate a hybrid approach to this – to support planning and forecasting – while also ensuring strong governance and business agility.”
- Accelerators: once the foundations above are in-place, we then work with our clients to build and drive use of accelerators, for example to speed up data integration or data quality. We most effectively drive customer success when we engage collaboratively between IT and the business and when we focus on aspects of modern data management within our AIM (Agile Information Management) Framework.
What are your top 3 tips or resources to share for aspiring modern data masters?
- Understand the DataOps movement which is about democratizing data and enabling everyone to use data to support their instincts and drive their decisions rather than just data in and of itself.
- Surround yourself with other aspiring data masters who understand the value of what data can bring to an organisation so you are not having to continually “sell it” all the time. If you’ve got people who already have an understanding of data and relevant skills, then you’ll accelerate your success.
- Always be learning about new technology and trends like Big Data, Cloud, Open Source, AI, ML, Graph, DevOps, DataOps, etc. Technology is evolving so fast that if you don’t keep up you will be left behind.
How important is experience versus willingness-to-innovate for a modern data master?
Experience comes over time but the willingness to innovate needs to be inherent in people. Proactivity, innovation, creativity – you can’t develop those things in people but you can bolster the latter two with experience. You can also help to create experience for individuals; provide a mixture of client engagements and develop their maturity, skills and gravitas to further drive their innovative side.
The other thing to say is that modern data masters need to be leaders who should have a voracious appetite for learning and innovation. For example, as a leader in Agile, I continually read books and apply my learnings to improving the Company. In fact, many of the strategic initiatives which I have driven in Agile have roots in some of the most influential business and technology books that I’ve read.
What trends or changes do you predict to the data management arena in the next few years?
I can see the market heading in potentially four different directions, whereby organisations would typically buy either:
- A plug-and-play platform of integrated GUI tools and technologies.
- A number of best of breed GUI-driven technologies that are woven together.
- The capability to reinvent and redesign using high levels of custom-coded open-source technologies.
- Service-based business & technology enablers such as IaaS / IPaaS (Integration as a Service), DQaaS (Data Quality as a Service), DMaaS (Data Migration as a Service) etc.
The first three are already established to varying degrees but the latter is supported by the ongoing trend of cloud and smart infrastructure supporting these “service-based” initiatives. For example, look at Lyft’s IPO – they see a future where you no longer need to own a product to enjoy its benefits and where users simply leverage a comparative service instead. This service mentality is starting to welcome a new incarnation of SOA-type architecture which is fueled by Cloud platforms such as Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.
There are other things specific to master data management. Executive sponsors no longer want multi-year, large, heavy MDM deliveries. They want speed and the ability to evolve. They are looking beyond “single view” to see how they will use it to get better analytics and intelligence around a customer or employee or which products will sell or not sell. It’s much more about multi-domain and relationships now as well. With this focus on relationships, NoSQL and graph databases are well- placed to become more dominant in standard enterprises because they can vastly extend the number of potential use-cases
How well placed is Agile Solutions to continue to grow based on these trends/changes?
“It’s more about a state of mind. We recognise that there is never an endpoint in evolving a company – you’ve always got to be innovative and grow and scale to keep ahead of trends and developments in the market.”
It’s a journey which we’ve embraced through the implementation of communities within our organisation. Each community is aligned to trends that we see in the market such as Data Engineering, MDM, Cloud etc and they allow us to evolve and grow (or shrink) in-line with the wider technology market.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I love spending time with the family as long as the kids aren’t arguing! I’ve got a wife, two children, no pets and a place in Spain where we all love to go. I also have a passion for cars but recently with my emergence into mid-life, I’m reminded how lucky I am to have my health and a wide family.
“My health particularly has been boosted recently. For every one of the last five years I had the same goal to lose weight but over the last 9 months, I knuckled down and made a conscious effort to keep fit instead of keeping fat! And in April, I managed to run the equivalent of 5 marathons in aid of charity. What’s helped to drive me on is access to all the data and the gadgets that enabled me to monitor my progress, keep on track and ultimately get back into a pair of 32-inch waist Levis!”
Which is your favourite (science)fiction book, programme or film and why?I’ve got an interest in film spanning back to the advent of DVDs and
I’ve got a favourite book but it may be a bit boring to share! It’s called “Managing a Professional Services Firm” by David Maister. There are several other business book favourites of mine including “The Lean Startup”, “Shoe Dog”, “The Upstarts”, and “The Pumpkin Plan”. I take inspiration from them all as they have helped me to develop Agile Solutions into the company it is today.
Do you read any fiction or watch any films or TV?
“I have a confession – I’m generally either working on the business, thinking about the business or reading books about business. The only way I switch off completely, apart from family time and box-sets, is to watch total rubbish on the TV! Don’t tell anyone but several of the shows I’m interested in are the ones that run over the summer period which remind me of being much younger than I am now!” (laughs).