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Data changemakers: Kate Tickner, EMEA Alliances Lead, Reltio

by Guy Bradshaw on 8th March 2019

Kate TicknerIn this interview Kate Tickner, EMEA Alliances Lead at Reltio, talks about her experiences over 20 years in a variety of sales and marketing roles across all aspects of the data management industry, and discusses the importance of diversity in tech.

Can you start of telling me something about your background and how you came to be where you are now? 

I did an English degree and loved it but realised that I had no idea what to do next. So I signed up for a graduate sales training course as I thought that career would offer the variety I was after. I ended up in IT completely by accident really. My first job was working for ISL, which at the time was a small company doing consultancy around artificial intelligence. They had just built their own data mining tool called Clementine (now IBM SPSS Modeller), and they were building a sales team up to sell that.

I took a projector that was almost bigger than my car around with a laptop, doing data mining demos for insurance companies. Eventually ISL was bought by SPSS, so I did various jobs at SPSS until eventually I was looking after its franchises and distributors in EMEA. I then moved to Initiate to run its European alliances program, which was my first experience of master data management. I had no IT or technical qualifications, I’ve picked it all up as I have gone along.

Do you think that’s been an advantage or a disadvantage in your career? 

I actually think it’s an advantage because I’ve always been very willing to ask the “so what?” question. I want to know “OK, it’s got that widget but what will that do for me? I’m sure it’s fantastic technology but until you can explain to me what business problem it’s going to solve then I won’t understand it enough to be able to persuade someone else to buy it.”

When you’re talking to potential prospects are you sometimes in the situation when you’re talking to people who are more technical than you are? 

Yes, often. Many people I talk to are more technical than me but I also talk to business users who, like me, are not technical experts and have no desire to become one.

How do you handle that?

I am a very curious person. I tend to ask lots of questions because I want to make sure that I’ve understood the question that someone has asked me, If I can’t answer it then I’ll make a point of following up and getting them the best possible answer that I can. I will also try to relate that back to whatever the outcome is that they are interested in, or the business issue.

Most of the time when people are asking tricky questions they’re not being deliberately difficult, they are genuinely curious or they have another reason for wanting to ask about a particular thing. It might be because their data warehousing solution fell over when they were trying to get data into it and so they want to dig into that a bit more. If they have a concern about security, perhaps it’s because they have had some kind of hack or data security incident and they want to make sure that it isn’t going to happen again.

There is usually a reason why people ask the things they ask, and my job is to get to that reason and figure out what the motivation is behind it, then try to get it answered so I can deal with any concerns.

Can you talk a little bit about your current role please?

I am now working for Reltio, a SaaS master data management solution provider, and I am there to set up and run the EMEA alliances programme. That means building, developing and nurturing relationships with global and local systems integrators, ISVs and data providers. Ensuring we work with anyone who we need to have in our network that will help us introduce potential buyers to the advantages of the Reltio Cloud solution.

As someone who has ended up in data by accident but has stuck with it for a long time, what is it that you like about working in this industry?

Firstly, this industry is a very small world. You bump into the same people again and again and those people are really passionate about what they do and they really care about doing a good job. I like working with those kinds of people a lot.

Secondly, even as a non-techie, I still find the technology really interesting in terms of what it delivers to people. Ultimately, we’re taking data that’s everywhere, that everyone has, and we’re helping people to find the value in that data, to use it better in their business.

When I talk to customers or partners about the results that they are able to achieve by just making things a few percentage points better, it’s very motivating. The range of applications is vast. Some people are curing cancer and others are targeting customers more effectively, others are complying with GDPR. There’s so many outcomes that are being delivered.

The third thing is really the variety. Working in sales, alliances or marketing you get to travel, meet different people and work in different environments. I can be working at home or in the office, or I might be on a plane, in someone else’s premises, in a hotel, or at an event. I enjoy that aspect of my work a lot.

Are there any examples that stick in your mind of projects that you have been involved with over the years?   

I think I would say that a number of the public sector uses of MDM that I have been part of in the past have been very satisfying in terms of their objectives. So things like the ContactPoint project that James Wilkinson mentioned in his data changemaker interview even though it was cancelled for political reasons. Equally the projects at the London Boroughs of Brent and Camden where they shared outcomes such as finding a missing child or being able to provide better, more efficient citizen services.

What kind of changes have you seen in the industry over the time that you have been in it? 

The volume of the data is an obvious one. Scaling the results of the types of analytics we used to build in Clementine is now a much, much bigger task.

I think that it’s also interesting that things have gone full circle. More than 20 years ago I was working with AI and machine learning – then called data mining – and now I am being presented with it again as something that’s new! I find that amusing because it’s not new, it’s actually exactly the same, it’s just that we’re working on a larger scale and using it in more interesting ways.

The way that the data is stored has also changed so that instead of being always in a very structured format now there are lots of different ways of working with unstructured formats.

Are people trying to solve the same problems they were always trying to solve, or is it the case that as the tools get more sophisticated, so people’s aspirations in terms of what they can do with their data gets more sophisticated? 

I think this is really driven by consumers as they become more demanding. Normal people (outside of the IT industry) have now got very advanced technology in their smartphones; computers and iPads and they expect a level of service that industry is struggling to keep up with.

Most consumers believe that industry has a much higher capability and is much better at storing and processing their data than is the reality. There are lots of stories in the news about companies with “big brother” capabilities. Of course there are selected agencies and companies globally who do that, but by and large most normal companies are still really struggling with just having a single view of me or you – they just don’t have the capability that consumers assume they have. Consumers don’t realise just how difficult it is for many companies to govern and manage their data.

Another thing that has changed over the last decade or so is the increasing recognition that data governance is important. Whereas before you might have been able to get away without too much attention on it, you now can’t survive without it, and that’s not about the technology, that’s about processes and people.

Yes, the tools we are selling have become more sophisticated to deal with the data but the problems are essentially the same. What’s changed is consumer expectations have become more demanding and the datasets have got bigger, which means that it’s much more complex to deal with it all.

When you’re talking to potential clients in the MDM space, is it primarily a distress purchase – a compliance issue has arisen, there’s an issue to do with GDPR – or are you seeing people being more aware of the possibilities beyond just compliance? 

Ten years ago when I joined Initiate you could go out and talk about master data management in terms of a single customer view and companies were interested in that. Today you wouldn’t necessarily go out and talk about master data management until you have established what the business outcome is that they want to get from it. That could be regulatory compliance but most of the time it is still driven much more from a profit centre rather than a compliance centre.

People are still trying to achieve a single view of customer. It’s just that not only are they trying to achieve a single view of customer but they also they want it in the cloud and they want to be able to personalise their messaging and link into their CRM and whatever else. MDM technologies have the same core functionality – they do matching and merging, but the purpose and the outcome and the platform that they might be on will probably be very different. The current buyers of it will almost certainly not describe their initiative as an MDM project, it will be digital transformation or customer experience or journey to cloud or something else.

How realistic is a single view of customer for most organisations? You were saying earlier that most organisations were still struggling with that core problem. Is it something that everyone can solve or is it something that for some people will just remain an impossible dream? 

I think it’s possible to so way towards a solution with technology – I mean solve it to a level whereby the bits that you can’t quite fix cease to become business limiting – for most companies. But ultimately it’s about more than technology. It’s much more about people and process and then the technology. If you can find organisations that have the discipline to get on top of their data from the beginning, then anything is possible.

There are entirely new business models which have grown up in the age of data. There are companies that are five years old or younger and they have the ability to do something ‘correct’ from the beginning – if they put in place flexible processes that will enable them to value their customer data.

Partly it’s about an attitude to data. The companies that won’t succeed in getting a single view will be the ones who are doing it reluctantly because it’s something they must do. The successful ones are embracing it as something that could offer huge advantages to them and will certainly drive value for their customers and ultimately that matters far more.

If they can adapt their processes in a proactive fashion and take on board the fact that it’s not their data anymore, it’s the customers’ data, and they are just the custodians of it, then they should be entirely capable of having a single view. Their attitude should be that they want the best possible experience for their customer, and the benefit of that to them is that they’ll be able to sell their customers more, keep them for longer and that sort of thing.

How do you think that the industry is likely to develop in the future? 

Technology will continue to develop but what will change most are external things like the economic situation, the trade situation and the regulatory situation. Things like GDPR mean that we have seen people waking up to the fact that they have an asset which is their data and that they need to be more in control of it, and indeed as time goes on they’re starting to realise how much GDPR can benefit them.

We’re now seeing people fiddling with social media to influence the outcomes of elections. We’re seeing big companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook being ‘outed’ for collecting lots of data on people that has “under the radar” become their main revenue stream.

As the world wakes up to data as a commodity then the technology will have to change based on how attitudes are changing, and what consumers decide what they want.

Are there any particular skills or qualifications that have been valuable in your career?  

It was a great idea to do an English degree. I did it because I really fancied the idea of spending most of my time in a room reading books rather than having to go out to lectures. When I consider why that was, it’s because I love to read, I love new information, I love studying new information. I am very curious and I like to know quite a bit about many things. I am very interested in people. I love asking questions and chatting to people about themselves and trying to establish relationships and so I hope when I meet people they know that I do really care about how they are.

I very much relish being on my own, but when I am out-and-about I will try to give people my full attention and ask lots of questions. I don’t think I could do my job properly otherwise. I don’t see my job as something I just do 9-5, I dedicate a lot of time to it and I want to be the best that I can be. There’s a competitive thing in all sales people but for me it’s more about not doing anything in a half-hearted way.

I want to talk a little bit about diversity as the tech industry has some well known issues in this regard. Do you think gender has been relevant during your career, either as a positive or a negative? Has it been an issue at all?

I’m going to say yes and no. I’m one of three girls, I have parents who were very keen to ensure that we knew we could do anything we wanted to. So I was never held back as far as my upbringing was concerned. For me, I think the success I’ve had is because of my own personality traits, not because I’m a woman.

That said, when I was younger I lacked confidence at times when I think now that I should have been braver. Someone asked me recently what I would say to someone starting in their career. I think I came back with something I got from a movie: have courage and be kind.

If I look back at my career and indeed my life in general, I would probably encourage myself to be a bit braver but to carry on being kind because it doesn’t cost anything and you get a lot further.

I don’t think that being a woman has had any significant disadvantages and in fact if anything I think particularly in this line of work it has significant advantages. Women are often seen to be caring and interested in networking and in this profession it’s all about your network and the people you know rather than anything else. If you have a good network, you’ll never be short of a job or a contact or help.

Why is it then that the industry is so male-dominated, and also older men in particular? 

It’s partly because when we were all at school maths and science were very much seen to be ‘boy things’ but that’s changing now, which is why when I see initiatives like Girls in Tech I am very happy to support them. I think that girls need to put themselves forward a bit more and be a bit braver.

If you think about a school playground and a boy is organising a team and deciding who is going to play on each side he’s regarded as having great leadership skills. If a girl is doing that, she’s called bossy and I think that we need to change our attitudes to that. If girls are continually told that by demonstrating various leadership type skills that they’re bossy (with the inference that that is a bad thing), then that could hold them back from wanting to be the “boss”.

Perhaps that’s what’s changing. It’s more recognised that to get ahead you don’t have to behave stereotypically ‘like a man’ and perhaps that’s what put my generation off, they didn’t want to be seen as aggressive or head-locking or loud. I think it’s now being acknowledged that you don’t have to be any of those things, or indeed that you can show leadership as a woman and that’s not seen as negative.

When you look in IT now there’s much more diversity than there was when I started. I hope this continues.

What do you like doing outside of your working life? 

I like walking our dogs. I like doing up houses. I love having friends round for dinner and I love spending time with my husband, family and friends including my multiple real and honorary nieces, nephews and god-children. I also enjoy drawing and painting – my father and I have been taking art lessons over the last year or so which has been a wonderful way to spend time together and be creative. I don’t sit still much – I probably should!

Kate’s dogs relaxing at home

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