#ModernDataMasters: Martin Treder, Data Executive, Speaker and Author

Martin Treder is a master data management expert, speaker and author with more than 15 years of executive level experience working with data and analytics. He has headed up international teams in the world’s largest logistics companies including FedEx, TNT and DHL and is an expert at solving their business problems. His new book on the topic of data and its commercial explains how to prepare and launch the introduction of a data office in your company. Today, Martin helps companies of all sizes get organised to become data-driven, and he supports Chief Data Officers in all aspects of modern data management.

What was your route into master data management and what attracted you to your career in logistics?

I fell in love with numbers when I was young. I think it was partly due to an influential Maths teacher in fifth-grade that I studied Maths and eventually became a software developer. 

“I soon realised that playing with data and algorithms was more fun than programming computer games or fine-tuning user interfaces.”

I got my very first job through a head-hunter. He perceived me as a practical, hands-on guy – for example if I have to choose between changing the winter tyres on my car myself or doing it at the garage I would do it myself. He found me a job in the transport industry – my professional home for the next 25 years. 

How could modern data management technologies help logistics companies use their data to achieve digital transformation and enhance customer experience?

Logistics is about optimising the flow of goods – sourcing, storing, shipping, distributing and much more. This situation calls for intelligent usage of data and algorithms – which exist in abundance. Yet even bigger transportation companies are still burdened with the legacy of old-school forwarders who used to dispatch their trucks, trains and vessels based on experience and gut feeling. 

“Everyone talks about customer experience and customer focus but it is very often more of a side-effect of wanting to be operationally faster or cheaper.”

Each of the current large logistics companies tries to differentiate themselves by focusing on what they are good at. One company – let’s call them company A - competes on Customer Proximity because they can’t compete on technology. When you call Company A you don’t get a digital voice on the phone – you always get a human being that speaks your language. This is the area where they compete and have a unique selling proposition. Company B is tremendously tech driven – they do that to save costs. For example courier routes avoid left turns because right turns in the US are simpler and more effective. 

 “We need to see a mindset change because they often don’t see the commercial opportunities behind their data. These traditional businesses are behind the curve but this means that there is a lot of untapped opportunity.”

What are your top 3 tips or resources to share for aspiring data management professionals? 

Data professionals nearly always know how to work with data in a perfect world. But to be successful – especially as a CDO - it is not sufficient to merely know the target or the end-game of a perfect scenario. 

“You can sit in your ivory tower and design the perfect set-up for data but then take it out to the rest of the world and realise that they won’t accept it for a huge number of different reasons.” 

You have to understand for each stakeholder what their daily pain is about. You can’t guess that because it differs from person to person and you have to listen very carefully to understand.

“I have found a CDO’s most important skills to be non-technical: You need to be a salesperson, an organiser and a diplomat.” 

What do I mean with this? You need the ability to

  1. a) sell your ideas to people who find data boring or scary
  2. b) organise people across the organisation, both within your team and outside
  3. c) create win-win situations so that people follow you voluntarily, despite having their own priorities.

The CDO is one of the few persons who is entitled/endorsed/asked to think cross-functionally. The CEO does this but everyone else has a certain functional perspective. So if you come in as a CDO and you want to implement the best solution for the company then you have to take into account the agenda of every leader in the company.

Understanding how people are measured is essential. For example the project manager who is managed on budget and time might not want to put foundations in place for future projects that will impact his/her own bottom line. In the agile world you talk about technical debt and you need to find a way to help them help you by trading something now for a future technical debt. 

How does the CDO role differ when you are a consultant versus a permanent employee?

First of all data management is permanent not transitory. The usual task of a consultant is to come in and help set up a data office. They should provide information on the do’s and don’ts and have broad experience. I attend many conferences to present and to listen to others so I have a very good idea across many industries of what works and what doesn’t work. This means I can leave companies with a well-designed data office and potentially a carefully selected CDO that will both work for the needs of that organisation.

Can you give an example of when things have not gone so well on a project and what you learned?

“I had to learn the hard way that when designing a Data Office, don’t follow your own ideas only – no matter how good they are.” 

I did this once – I called it the 10 Commandments of Data and it sounds very arrogant now – and unsurprisingly people saw it as just another set of rules that would make their lives more difficult. I quietly retired those and waited six months whilst doing some research. 

I discovered that IT already had 10 guidelines so I suggested we complemented those with 10 data principles. I took a cross-functional approach, invited all the different departments and we re-did it together. 

“After this everyone was talking about it as “our guidelines” not “the CDO’s guidelines”. I learned a lot about people’s priorities which was very useful.” 

It's also useful to understand the company culture: Consensus-based versus authority-based, IT-driven versus business-driven, hierarchical versus collaborative. Data Governance needs to match the corporate culture.

How much do you think logistics companies can make use of AI now and in the future and how much is just hype?

20 years back, people tried to apply rules-based algorithms to typical optimisation problems in logistics. For example the shortest path to a given place. 

“In Operational Research I optimised algorithms as part of my thesis and it all worked based on the assumption that the constraints you put in are comprehensive and complete. Which they NEVER are!” 

If you try and optimise a courier’s daily route using official traffic rules and maps you fail to take into account things like the courier’s local knowledge of short cuts and particular gate-keepers. You can’t put all these rules into an algorithm - so most of them fail - usually due to the huge number of rules to be considered. 

This is what the non-deterministic approach does differently - neural networks and reinforcement learning allow for optimisation based on “try and learn”. Technically speaking, you start with a valid yet arbitrary solution, and you improve it, by adjusting along the gradient, or by rewarding positive moves. You don’t run the risk of missing rules you have not been able to grasp. All of this can happen today, independently of any hype – when the CEO listens to the CDO.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I am still playing football at the age of 51 and I am a DIY person around my house and garden. There is a portion of fun to this otherwise I wouldn’t do it and of course the satisfaction of looking at the results afterwards. A professional doesn’t take as long as me but I do it more accurately and that’s important to me. 

“I am a secret engineer as well – determining how to make things work and really enjoying the challenge.”

I conduct services in my local church which means I moderate the event, welcome everyone in and share a Bible quotation with my thoughts. I make sure everything runs smoothly so that the flow stays under control.

Which three guests, living or dead, would you invite to dinner and what would you all be eating?

I would probably invite Johnny Cash (dead, unfortunately), my father (still alive) and Jesus Christ (not dead anymore). Following a 2000-year-old tradition, we would probably have bread and wine…

“My personal addition to this one would be a good, rare steak. I am a bit infamous for this, I have my gas BBQ and I will light it any opportunity.”

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