Data changemakers: Alex Boast – Creator of Experian Advocates and The Data Excellence Awards

Hi Alex, could you tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up working in Data?

Alex: Absolutely, it was actually a happy accident for me, ending up in data.

I’d been let go from an email automation role that had taught me all about the horrors of dirty data. We were looking at international data in Arabic and Russian and it was completely filthy so I got a good appreciation for it then…and then we all got let go!

I didn’t know what to do, so I interviewed all around London and I was very lucky in that Experian got in touch with me and invited me to interview with them which sort of really chose my fate for me.

They said, “Hey you’ve worked in pharma and education, why don’t you come join a fun, exciting, growing industry like Data?”

I said “yeah sign me up!”

VIQTOR DAVIS: What sort of role was it, your data one? Technical or business-facing?

Alex: So four or five years ago we used to talk about sales & marketing, right? I think most people just call that “Growth” these days.

Back then though we called it marketing so I became the ‘marketing specialist’ for a delightful little product called Pandora – that’s how it all began.

VIQTOR DAVIS: What sort of data challenges were you facing and how were you solving them?

Alex: So back then it was very much predicated on two big challenges: Data Quality, and Data Migration. Clearly these two initiatives really inform each other, but we would treat them as separately: you’d have on-going sort of operational Data Quality, and then these big tactical migrations.

Then we got to enjoy watching the rise of Data Governance – there’s a lot of people talking about that these days. We sort of shied away from it before but there’s no denying its importance now.

VIQTOR DAVIS: What other changes have you seen in the Data landscape?

Alex: I think everyone’s a bit sick of vendors, right? You go to any conference and it’s packed full of them and we’re all fed up of “get your free demo” as a call to action.

What I’ve seen is services become paramount. If you can borrow some people that can sort of come in – like an interim data office type thing – you can say “teach me” and then you start to embed the tech.

I think it has changed massively towards the people part of people, process and technology and that’s whether they’re contractors, consultants or in-house.

VIQTOR DAVIS: What sort of skills and expertise do you think people will need to both offer and consume those services?

Alex: Typically these data roles were for maths or computer science types, right, but we’re definitely moving more towards business-type roles that include skills like project management and good communication.

Definitely as data people become more consultative skills like listening and stakeholder management are becoming as important as their hard skills – I’d say it’s a 50:50 split between soft and hard skills at this point.

That’s super transferable across any industry but the prevailing theory is that data people might be a little shy, and less effective communicators.

VIQTOR DAVIS: What challenges in data have you seen solved?

Alex: So I’ve got a great anecdote for this!

I was working with this really great data guy from a debt collection company a while back – this was just before GDPR happened – and I asked him how he was feeling about the upcoming changes and whether they worried him.

He’s the only person that said they didn’t!

He told me that his strategy – his approach to data management and especially governance – was solid enough that they’d be absolutely fine if the ICO came sniffing about.

This was pretty unbelievable at a time when everyone was living in fear. I won’t forget that.

I loved that confidence, and that certainty, and we sort of imagined being able to give that feeling to other people, this ability to say

“Hey you know what, we haven’t solved the problem of regulatory compliance, but we’ve solved being afraid of it!”

We were confident that because we could do a better job of managing it, we could do a better job of taking care of people’s data.

It was a really nice moment.

The crisis of confidence, and thinking things are difficult – we solved that one.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Okay, excellent, so what does the next level beyond confidence look like? What are some of the positives of better Data Management?

Alex: Let me check I understand the question – you’re talking about the outcomes of good data management right?

So when we did The Data Excellence Awards it was about saying can we go beyond what the law requires you to do into doing a really fantastic job of taking care of all your data: not just your customer data but all of it; product; hr; staff etc.

When you get into that smarter data management space it has this great knock-on effect to every part of a business that really goes beyond the generic benefit statement of cost-savings and “improved efficiencies”, what does that even mean? I think what it really means is value creation.

When you get this right you’re creating value not just for the business and the people in it but also the people affected by it; the customers, partners and overall society surrounding the business.

We’re dragging everyone up a maturity curve that results in happier, more loyal customers, but also happier, more loyal staff. You’re bringing everyone up so everyone wins.

People don’t tend to communicate it that way though, do they?

VIQTOR DAVIS: Well measuring ROI from data initiatives is hard isn’t it, any advice on how to do that?

Alex: Yes, absolutely.

The way to do that, and also to get buy-in from your senior leaders, it’s the same thing, is to assign business, risk and monetary value to the data you have and then show it to someone that cares.

Then, once you’ve done that you show them what those figures will look like AFTER you’ve done whatever it is that you’re proposing.

Whatever that thing is – like buying tech, for instance – is so much less important than what happens after you’ve done it.

You’ve gotta say it like “if we do this thing, we’ll increase revenue by 300%, and the staff will all get a bonus,”, so at that point the guys who hold the purse strings that you need are going well why wouldn’t we do this?

VIQTOR DAVIS: You mentioned The Data Excellence Awards, I was lucky enough to judge that last year, it’s a fabulous event, can you tell us more about that?

Alex: Yeah I’d love to.

So I’m really pleased to see that the award, as well as the Advocates’ Club, continue to run. That’s a great feeling for me.

The Data Excellence Award was a way of recognising those businesses – rather than individuals – that are doing a great job with data and putting them in the spotlight, it was our way of saying we’re going to take a listen-first approach.

We wanted to understand other people who were working with data, whatever size their business and whether they were a customer or not and say you know what we think you’re doing a great job.

In a time of challenge and uncertainty (the current status quo) it was a nice way to get people together and have some fun and really enjoy our work.

We had such brilliant use cases, even those that didn’t win were doing such cool stuff with data, it was so exciting to be part of.

I wanted to create something that gave a positive spin to something that could be a little bit dry at times, and a little bit challenging.

VIQTOR DAVIS: What advice would you give to an organisation thinking about entering the awards and how they might make a winning entry?

Alex: Yeah so that’s one I get a lot!

I would say any award show or programme like this; you get out of it what you put into it.

Don’t just send your generic entry, don’t just turn up. Really have a good time with it. Meet the people, meet the finalists and the judges.

It isn’t about whether you win or not: we’re all at the table. Being part of something bigger than yourself and what you’re doing is really cool and really exciting.

If you understand that getting out of the office and speaking to the people in your industry is an important thing to do, you should absolutely be doing stuff like this.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Looking to the future, what trends do you see right now that might result in a change from the status quo?

Alex: So I had a call yesterday with someone working in a big European data company and they were saying they’re looking to change the language they use around what we’re doing with data.

For instance, Data Governance is sort of a theory or a concept. It’s not something you can really buy, so I think we’re going to see people trying to coin new terms and keywords.

What we’ll see is a difference in the market between people publishing buzz wordy stuff that doesn’t really mean anything and people that are more descriptive, saying things like “we want to get our data quality right”.

I think we’ll hear new terms that go away quite quickly. The future will be more retro, we’ll think “why did we stop talking about data migrations? They’re more important than ever!”

We actually need to look back to move forwards, and I think we’ll see people focus on getting the fundamentals right, and really hone in on two or three key propositions rather than offer the full 20 services they wanted to rank in the keywords in Google for.

VIQTOR DAVIS: How do you go about bringing things like Data Governance to life for organisations? As you say, it can be quite dry…

Alex: That’s a great question and a very difficult one. I’d be really interested to know other people’s answer to that.

For me, even in businesses helping other businesses try to do this, they sometimes just pay lip service to it.

I think the way to really bring that to life is to do part Data Governance in the first place: show your working, make it visible.

Data Governance is a big, credible term, but how visible is the work the people are doing. Can you say what someone’s doing as part of the project or do you just think “oh, they’re over there doing some governance.”

There needs to be an educational piece around what it really means to do it, and we’ve gotta show that to people that care and understand and give them an opportunity to get involved.

It shouldn’t be ‘get everyone involved’, it should be ‘get the right people involved’. You do that by being visible.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Interesting, so what’s the next phase of your career then Alex, are you looking at the data landscape with interest?

Alex: I would say me and the data landscape are regarding each other the way two wild foxes might, meeting in a forest.

Listen, I was always really clear that I loved my specific role in data, I love what I do, and I was trying to help people.

I don’t think that story is over, it might just change form. What’s clear to me though is whatever I do next it won’t be a role, it won’t be a job, there’ll be a clear mission and purpose.

It’s exciting, and I welcome the opportunity to help again, because it’s our responsibility to say hey data is important and we’re going to do a good job of keeping it safe, protecting it, but also it’s fun and exciting.

I think I can really help with creating that positive narrative, therefore I’d like to do that. I’d like to help.

VIQTOR DAVIS: What advice would you give to yourself or other young people when starting out in data?

Alex: Yeah I mean I would have got started earlier coming into it, but I can’t change that, so let’s talk about what someone new coming into it could do.

I’d say for someone approaching like an academy, apprenticeship type thing – like some of the VIQTOR DAVIS team – should be so excited and straight away go and find mentors, because their ability to do that is there… and it’s easy!

It’s about like in copywriting, there’s a lot of good ones out there, you can go and find them and ask them to teach you, show you the ropes and advise you.

It’s gonna speed up your career, prevent you from making mistakes and then also, you know that after day 1, you’re not going to be the freshest recruit anymore – you can go and help someone else!

We can create this knowledge chain that feels really good and nice, I’ve certainly benefited from that before and you can learn through teaching and vice versa.

Finding a mentor is my absolute number 1 piece of advice.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Ok, maybe our readers can reach out to you for some of that if they want?

Alex: Of course, I’ll help if I can, I’ll leave my details at the bottom.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Great, so on a personal note, you want to be an author right? Is that spare time or career?

Alex: Well the answer is both really. Experian did a really good job of saying “hey you want to be a better writer; we’ll support that and teach you how to be a better communicator and that’ll help”.

My goal’s always been to be a writer, and everything I do is geared towards helping me do that.

One day I’ll be writing ghost stories in a little hut somewhere. This is part of the journey. This is how I get there.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Are your writing and data knowledge connected?

Alex: Yeah of course I did a huge amount of writing, it just didn’t always have my name on it.

Me and a chap called Dylan Jones –a lot of people will be familiar with Dylan’s viewpoints on data, he’s a big publisher– wrote this really great thing for the people in the advocacy programme. That was great. I think Dylan is a fantastic writer.

Now I’m between roles, writing is pretty much all I’m doing.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Could you tell us a little bit about the Advocates’ Club?

Alex: Yeah absolutely, I was looking at individual contractors and consultants as the sort of data civil service, and I was surprised that none of the vendors were trying to help them.

So we created the programme to reward the people who had been living and breathing data for a long time in a way that benefits them, benefits us, and benefits their client. We wanted to help everyone through meaningful, trusting relationships with this group of people I thought were under-represented.

This thing was an evening event, it was our lives as well as our work. It was great, we enjoyed it. I got to launch it in Sydney last September.

It felt nice, like the right thing to do. People couldn’t believe we were giving them so much and expecting so little.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Why should a young person choose a career in data over something sexier like being an astronaut or footballer?

Alex: I think understand that in this current threatening, quite hostile environment, we should know that there’s some great opportunities out there if we remain positive and don’t give in to despair.

We should really have a think about how we help the world around us, and since we’re on the topic of football, let’s talk about Gareth Southgate…

Remember everyone singing “Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on”, well how many goals did Southgate score,none, right? He helped his team score all the goals.

When you choose to become a data person you’re choosing to really help and empower the people around you through knowledge, and transforming that knowledge into value.

You can be a rockstar without detracting from anyone else, and becoming part of something greater than yourself. I think that’s really cool.

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