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Big Data: It’s Not a Technology Problem

Teradata Chief Analytics Officer Bill FranksBill Franks, who studied statistics in college, used to be “the guy in the corner who everyone ignored.” He’s now chief analytics officer of Teradata and an acknowledged data analytics expert and author.

“It’s amazing to me how analytics has actually become popular. It used to be I would talk to somebody who would talk to somebody who made the decisions. Now, analytics people are sitting very close to the decision makers and in some case are the decision-makers,” said Franks. “Who knew that doing analytics would come to be known as sexy?”

Franks dispelled some of the hype surrounding big data, such as that big data will replace the need for analysis. Rather, he said, “big data requires big judgment. More data can lead to the need for more judgment, not less.”

In addition, data by itself isn’t of much use. “The real power that I see in big data is not the data, it’s about the information,” said Franks. “It’s in the new information it provides to analytic processes.”

Franks also argued that the technology and tools to handle all aspects of big data are currently available today. He recalled a conversation he had at a conference last year with the networking manager from a major company. The networking manager was talking about challenges he was facing. “He threw out the comment, ‘How could it not be a technology issue when the network can’t handle the data?’”

Franks asked the manager if he could implement new network protocols to solve the problem, and the manager had to admit that he could. “In the absolute sense, it’s not a technology issue,” said Franks. “What he didn’t have was buy-in from top executives. That has nothing to do with the technology.”

Franks said part of the challenge of big data is in choosing which tools to use for what purposes. He advised people not to get into debates and to understand that experts can make almost anything work. “The real question is ‘How can you most efficiently solve the problem you’re faced with’?” he said.

Those working in big data also need to consider what’s legal, what’s ethical, and what customers expect. But Franks acknowledged that this remains a murky area. He recounted a customer worrying that the genetic information he was gathering could make him liable or get him into legal trouble.

“He was afraid to store genetic data because he felt there could be some obligation to report it.  In the long run, I think it’s something a lot of you have to think through—because it’s very dicey—more dicey than you would expect.”

Enabling discovery in an agile environment is another major challenge. “You have to enable discovery in a very agile environment with limited constraints. If we’re going to deploy something, it’s got to be rock solid. You’ve got to have an integrated system that can provide discovery and agility,” Franks said.

Franks compared to the growth in the big data industry to the Industrial Revolution. “A year ago, most of my conversations were about, ‘Should I be hiring people like this’? Now it’s about ‘How do I organize these people, what do I do with them?’”

Franks said starting small is a good idea. “You don’t need every sensor from every automobile for an entire year before you can identify trends,” he said. “Do a prototype and start small.”

He also said companies shouldn’t wait to see how the big data field shakes out. “Don’t think about waiting to get into big data,” he urged, “because it’s only going to get bigger. You’ve got to start getting in front of it now.” 

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