Data changemakers: Shamma Raghib

Welcome to #datachangemakers, would you like to tell me about your current role and the role that data plays within that?

Shamma: I'm currently working for Collibra as a SAAS transformation manager.

My background includes 10 plus years working in complex data management projects, including data strategy, data governance, data migrations of customer data, data validations, data matching and deduplication, single customer 360° view. This has corresponded with the different types of regulations that have popped up in different areas, including GDPR in the EU and other regulations in the US and Australia. I started out in the software development world but I switched to data management because I realised that the value of information is highly significant and ever changing and that old saying that 'data is the new oil, or even the new gold'.

An interesting thing about the transition that I made is - I did not have to study a specific 'data management' related topic, if I could answer, 'Do I understand the data?' or 'Can I analyse the data?' or 'What can I do with the data?' Ultimately, this becomes ‘How is that data managed?’

That's were my interest lies, and it always has been really!

As a part of this journey, because I was involved in Collibra’s Data Governance phases in the past, I knew their product inside out, and the cloud transformation journey was a logical step for me, as well- more and more companies are looking at digital transformation, going to full software-as-a-service environments for all of their software solutions, enabling people to find the right data with the right value at the right time.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Could you describe some of the complex data challenges you've faced, and how you went about solving them?

Shamma: I'll give you an example from a financial institution. Financial organisations are, of course, heavily regulated and these regulations require institutions to have different types of reports that are published at different times throughout the year.

In order for these reports to be correct- and to avoid significant fines - the data needs to be correct. One of my projects related to a European bank where the Chief Data Officer wanted to make sure that the data being delivered to the regulatory reports was coming from where it was supposed to, included accurate values, had the correct ownership and followed the right process in order to populate each report. It involved at least forty different banking systems; offline and online, paper related information as well as digitally stored information and it involved many stakeholders handling the data as it flowed through the financial institution. We tackled this complex problem by starting with a simple question... ‘what is the end result that we want?’

We agreed that we wanted a report featuring a defined set of critical data elements. So, the next questions become... ‘How do we actually manage these data elements?’, ‘what do we need to establish that they have exactly the right definition, as understood by the business?’

For example, for VAT we need to know that is "Value Added Tax" and that it is 20% in the UK but is 19% in Germany and so on. That project took 18 months and it was fascinating to experience a data-centric approach which featured data governance as the top layer of the landscape and then methodically adding the rest of the data management layers such as ETL tools, reporting tools and so on.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Was this role more business focused or technical focused?

Shamma: It was a mix; I've always played a hybrid role. I am quite technical but also business focused. I have to convince the business people of the value of the software that I am trying to implement and the technical stakeholders need to know how it will fit in their current architecture. The technical stakeholders are often very development focused and they don't necessarily know what the business value will end up being. I am often acting as the bridge between the technical and the business communities.

You mentioned that you've taken on a new position recently, what are the attractions of your new organisation?

Shamma: It's a funny story, I actually started with Collibra in 2015 when I was fresh from my Master’s programme and they hired me. The most important thing about Collibra to me then was that it has what I thought was a very interesting 'DNA' coming from semantics of information and later on moved towards consolidated data from many different types of information in a very governed way. This is what they called 'data governance'. At that time, I had no idea what the term 'data governance' meant. Now I know that it means having the right data, with the right processes, people and policies to drive business outcomes. My attraction to the organisation initially was its start-up mentality- of course today, it's no longer a start-up it's a fully blown corporate helping organisations on the path to 'data intelligence'.

VIQTOR DAVIS: ‘Data intelligence’? Could you tell me a little more about what that means?’

Shamma: To explain data intelligence, think of a data scientist who has to work with different types of data sets. He or she will often have no idea of the validity of the data sets, so it is uncertain if that data is going to have any value in the analysis? Data intelligence enables you to gather all these different data sets and present this to you to make an informed decision – kind of like how Amazon recommends different books to you when you search for something. That was the journey that attracted me back to the data intelligence platform. As a part of this journey, we are transforming into a full SaaS company and are encouraging customers to become full cloud customers too- this is what brought me back onboard at Collibra.

VIQTOR DAVIS: The conclusions that data scientists draw from their analysis is only as good as the information they are provided, which sometimes raises the question of 'data ethics'. Do ethics feature in your new role?

Shamma: Data Ethics is a very good topic. Here’s an example of where data ethics has a grey line... Imagine you are a virtual reality (VR) company, as part of the VR you are detecting visual facial expressions of people who are looking at a screen in order to position items that are most interesting to that person. In this respect, you are probably capturing some sort of personal data that might not be consented by the person, but you are still capturing it. However, it is remaining in that virtual reality environment in which the customer has already consented to. So, in this case, we need to ask, 'Is this the right way of using the data in order to help the customer further or not?'

In my conversations with customers migrating to cloud, the most critical topics that come up are 'where will my data actually reside?', 'is it secure?' and 'is this something I want at risk of being exposed to the outside world?' These are the questions we ask ourselves, and it remains a journey, not a completed answer. There is not a single answer to 'this is how we should handle different customer data with respect to different data ethics and philosophies?’ It's really an on-going conversation.

VIQTOR DAVIS: This interview takes place against the difficult backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic. What role does the data response play in the fight against the virus?

Shamma: I have recently written an article about how we should use data to fight COVID-19 and the way I approached it is through the use of cell phone data.

This in itself is not a new idea; it was used before in response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa a few years back. This cell phone data was used to contain different clusters of the outbreaks and to make that the right lock downs are in use in the right areas. If you look purely at tackling COVID-19, then data plays a very, very important part. If you can use data that is widely available such as cell phone data, location data and use it to implement the right policies, for the right lock-down laws in different areas for example.

The second thing around COVID-19 specifically to businesses that are not directly investing in fighting the pandemic, this becomes more of a question around 'where do I shift my priorities, where do I focus?’

Because of this pandemic situation, businesses are economically impacted and one of the ways they can manage this impact is making sure that their stakeholders are getting the right data with the right value at the right time. In order to get there, most people are working remotely and they need access to these kinds of environments and having different software solutions on the cloud has become ever so important... having security around the cloud has become ever so important, having the right data sets for the stakeholders has become important, and this is the journey we are taking now in our digital transformations, roadmaps and strategies. How do we make sure that, in these economic considerations during this pandemic time, how do we make sure that we are investing in the right resources, that we are investing in the right tools, in order to keep our business in good shape?

VIQTOR DAVIS: You mentioned total cost of ownership (TCO), any advice on how organisations can measure the return on their investment, which is often seen to be a challenge in data projects?

Shamma: Obviously, this varies across different organisations but the baseline is essentially the same... look at your resources. For people resources, ‘where are these resources investing their time?’, ‘who are you hiring?’, ‘who are you keeping?’ and ‘are they in the right role?’

For technology resources, ‘is data flowing through your systems efficiently?’, ‘how much time is invested in actually looking for the right data?’.

In terms of hardware and installation and maintenance costs, ‘are you investing too much in those components per year or should you move to an online, subscription-based tool?’. This all culminates in the questions 'what is the end result?', ‘which business drivers are critical?’, ‘is the data being reported business critical?’ If it's not business critical, then don't invest time in building it.

Continuous evaluation is required in order to establish the TCO and it depends on whether you are looking purely from an infrastructure management perspective or people management perspective or reducing the cost of getting to the right information.

VIQTOR DAVIS: You talk about 'the transformation journey', how do you ensure that organisations start on the right path?

Shamma: The first thing is to identify your landscape, understanding what you have in place currently, and where the inefficiencies lie. You can then assess how a SaaS transformation can assist you in the long-term. If we look at the short-term benefits alone, it often won't add up to a return-on-investment, so you need to look to the long term, which includes the buy-in from the stakeholders and the willingness to invest.

VIQTOR DAVIS: What advice would you give to a young person starting out in the data industry today?

Shamma: To be honest, working in data doesn't often sound exciting from an outsider's perspective but actually it is such an interesting domain. You need to speak to the right people, people who are themselves leading data programmes, in order to truly understand the impact that these data programmes have.

Roles like CDO, data engineers... Personally for me I chose the data management space because there are transformations taking every day, it's such an evolving landscape. I started off looking at individual data sets and data quality. Today, I look at the over-arching question of ‘how do we actually manage the data?’, ‘who are the people responsible for the data?’, ‘why do we even have to apply data governance to a data programme?’. And this has evolved into the concept I raised earlier, that of 'data intelligence'. No matter which background you actually start from, it is easy to get into the data management space.

VIQTOR DAVIS: You've working in many locations around the world, do you see any difference in the way that data is treated in different geographies and cultures?

Shamma: Absolutely! Given that the landscape is constantly changing, and it will change more because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I worked in the US, I noticed that they are relatively advanced when it comes to the topics of data management. This is partly driven by strong privacy laws. When it comes to Europe, I have seen that it is more disparate. Even though there are centralised regulations around data privacy and Europe-wide guidance on how to manage customer data, different countries each have their own privacy laws, and they each have their own way of interpreting EU laws. If you are a global organisation, it can be quite a challenge to establish a uniform position on data management across your organisation.

This disparity is also across industries, no two industries manage data in the same way- however, when it comes to topics of data privacy, data intelligence and data governance, then there should be a standard that every organisation should follow, irrespective of their industries. When it comes to developing nations such as Bangladesh and India, data privacy needs way more work- companies that are dealing with data may not know the full extent of the privacy laws that exist in the US and the EU.

Interestingly, I found Australia to be a very consumer driven market, and anything and everything that they do around the data space is very closely connected to how it will impact customers. That mindset has led to many different customer centric innovations and data management. For example, when you look at the CRM solution Salesforce, they have taken that market by storm because everyone needed a way to handle customer information.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Data obviously plays an important role in your professional life, what interests do you have outside of data?

Shamma: I love spending time with my friends and family, I'm a very social person and I love discussing various topics with them. I'm also passionate about start-up communities and I like to meet up with them in different countries. I have some deep roots in the Belgian and Australian start-up scenes. I find it really interesting to help organisations start on their journeys of building an online presence.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Start-ups? What's the next big thing in data that we should be looking out for?

Shamma: [laughs] Look out for Collibra. Beyond that, I'm seeing the impact of artificial intelligence on the data management space. And of course, data ethics is a hot topic where I don't believe enough companies are investing as much as they should. If you are looking to invest, then I would look out for data privacy and data security companies.

VIQTOR DAVIS: Many thanks for the tip! Thank you for your time, and stay safe.

Follow Shamma on LinkedIn

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