A decade in my journey (2010-2019)
As 2019 draws to a close I have seen a number of 'Best of the decade' lists floating around online. It got me into that reflection kind of mood and thinking about my last 10 years of working in data analytics. I've been lucky to have worked across a number of different industries and in a number of different roles. Where 2000 to 2009 was all about the beginnings of my first steps out of schooling and figuring out where my place in the working world was, the next decade has been where I found myself and formed the skills that would take my career to places I could not have imagined when I started.
These next few paragraphs give an insight into how I stumbled into the analytics space at the beginning up to now where I am about to lead the analytics revolution for a firm that is on the cusp of taking advantage of technology further. It's been a heck of a journey and an amazing decade. Blink and you'd miss it.
2010 - CommInsure / CBA
Maybe it's no coincidence that 2010 saw me being very early in my journey into the world of data analytics. In 2009 I joined CommInsure (the insurance arm of Commonwealth Bank/CBA) and moved into an analyst role after spending the previous year and a half as a junior auditor at Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Much respect to those who are in the audit game but I just wasn't cut out for that line of work so I had to make a move. At the time, CBA was focused on making processes more efficient across the organisation and I was able to work with folks in the Process Improvement team helping them run some pretty interesting projects such as making reporting more transparent across the various call centre teams as well as improving the various call centre metrics that the business was measured on.
Measurement of activities is often the first step towards improvement of anything and it was true back then as it is today. However, we did not necessarily have the best tools/technology to help us perform this, nor did we have any automated processes. As such, I spent many a late night manually preparing data and reports to present to managers and the rest of the team. But, through experiencing what improvement was like with a lack of good technology, it gave me a lot of respect for how it could benefit me and many others like me. Preparing lots of reports manually, wrangling tables and charts in Excel, re-learning VBA code, playing with Access Databases and trying to learn Cognos were all part and parcel of what I went through in these years.
Through the efforts of my managers and teammates there we were able to improve internal processes at CommInsure which led to better outcomes for customers. So, whilst these were not wasted efforts, they certainly could have been made more efficient.
So what are some of the things I learnt?
The pain in trying to do data analytics in a non-efficient manner (i.e. mostly manually)
The positive outcomes from organisational improvements that could be seen across many teams when performance information was made more transparent
2010 to 2013 – ABM Systems
Perhaps it was fortuitous that my next step was to a firm (ABM Systems) that could help with the very problems of unsophisticated technology that I experienced at CommInsure. It was at ABM that I learnt more about the world of data analytics and software like QlikView. They also sold and implemented other solutions for businesses such as Budgeting and Forecasting tools (e.g. Adaptive Planning) and Activity Based Costing models (using tools like Prodacapo).
Many others in the consulting or analytics space may have started off on other tools like Tableau or Power BI, but I count myself lucky to have gone down the green, white and grey path of QlikView. There was a time when QlikView and Tableau started to lock horns and I saw many jump into the Tableau path mainly because of its ease of use and better looking visuals than the stock standard QlikView dashboards. However, QlikView was like a big Swiss Army knife. It had so many features and could be used in so many different ways compared to other tools. Unlike Tableau (at the time) it had its own data preparation (or ETL – Extract Transform Load for some) capabilities within the tool so that you didn’t need to clean the data in separate prior to being able to visualise/analyse it. With Qlik, you could do a lot of that within the tool. Better yet, Qlik's scripting language was based on SQL so little did I know it but I was learning SQL (which is still important to this day) whilst also learning Qlik. Even on the design side of things, whilst Tableau was the better looking of the 2, there were ways to make QlikView look amazing (almost to the point of it not looking like a QlikView report at all) and many consulting firms (as well as ABM) were doing more than just building reports but they were making them visually stunning too.
At ABM, I was also able to learn more about the world of consulting and got to see some great examples of problem solving and solution delivery as the company grew its client base. As a Business Analyst at CommInsure, I focused mostly on internal issues whilst going around to different teams to learn about their problems and trying to find solutions for them. Working with ABM taught me the skills to be able to become not just a good analyst but also how to be a good project manager too after having to effectively run each of my consulting gigs as a project. It was during this time that I also moved to Melbourne, Victoria and had to learn how to run a business operation almost on my own. It was not full-on entrepreneurship necessarily, but as a satellite office there is a lot more to do in this type of role than simply just doing the work. The logistics, administration and extra effort that was involved here gave me a great respect for those who have to run their own businesses.
So what are some of the things I learnt?
Data analytics and using tools like Qlik was one of the main things I learnt here and I have kept with me to this day - it's served me well as I have used it to tackle data challenges throughout my career.
This was also where I first formalised my consulting skillset. Learning how to understand customer needs and marry these with potential solutions was a key learning here.
Working at ABM also gave me my first taste at entrepreneurialism as I was effectively working on my own when I was running the ABM Victoria office.
2013 – Space-Time Research (STR) now WingArc Australia
After a few years of working as a management consultant for ABM, I felt it was time to try something new. I decided that instead of being a generalist with a mix of technical and sales skills, that I would focus on the latter instead. I moved to STR which was a homegrown Australian business intelligence/data analytics software company that was started in the 80's. They were prominent across the Australian government community forming strong relationships with the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) and others.
STR was my first jump into a purely sales role and it was interesting but much less hands on than I had hoped. There was definitely a lot of travel and going out to see customers either locally or interstate. Sitting with them and understanding their problems was front of mind for me in every day of my work at STR.
It was also the first time I worked within a software company instead of just reselling/using the software provided by other companies as I did at ABM. It was part of the attraction to STR as well. Where a software reseller might run into a bottleneck, they would often have to wait until a solution could be provided by the software company but working for the software company, we could provide solutions to potential bottlenecks directly if we decided to focus on and build for those solutions.
A lot of the innovation that customers were looking for at the time were around geospatial capabilities and wanting to better visualise their data. In fact, STR was working on a tool that had some resemblance to the drag and drop nature of Qlik Sense (an upgraded version of QlikView) even before that product came out from Qlik.
Whilst it would have been interesting to see my work with STR grow, my time there did not last as long as I had planned due to an opportunity that came up that was too good to refuse.
So what are some of the things I learnt?
Sales skills were definitely more in focus here. Learning to not just find solutions to problems that customers had but to also find the ones that customers would actually pay for.
It was also here that I go to see the internal workings of a software company and had my first encounters with project methodologies like Agile - funnily enough it was later on at the ASX (another sales focused role) where I would encounter Agile again and have the various standups and scrum meetings that go along with it.
2014 – QMG (QuantMetriks Global)
QMG started out in 2014 and was led by the former Head of Equities for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Australia. It was a small fintech organisation that focused on using macroeconomic data (economic statistics) to determine market trends and to align this with what individual companies were doing so as to make a more informed investment decision. They called this product INSIGHT for the never before seen insights it would produce.
I always had a fascination with the investments industry so a move to a company like this was an easy decision to make. Despite their size, they had a lot of clout and could open up a lot of doors thanks to the power of their network.
When I first started at QMG, they had a fairly unsophisticated approach to the analysis work and it was my job as the analytics and technology leader to make use of my skills and improve how the work was performed. I did this through the use of analytics tools to improve how quickly some of the analysis could be done as well as how much analysis could be done. Each time we improved the efficiency of a process we also found more questions that we could answer. Analytics tools like QlikView (and later on, Power BI) also helped me visually showcase the results of the analysis to internal and external users. Through continuous delivery of application improvements and getting this in front of users, I was able to learn how to gather their feedback and incorporate this into the products.
It was also at QMG where I learnt about the financial markets. The rest of the staff were all investment industry professionals and through working with them and hearing their stories I was able to get a unique glimpse into an industry that I did not study at school or university but had admired from afar. There's certainly a lot of glamour to the investments industry thanks to the many books and movies that it features in but being able to see things behind the scenes was something different. I got to meet some stalwarts of the industry and even got to visit the New York Stock Exchange a few times. I was pretty lucky.
Working primarily from Melbourne on analytics products that benefited global clients was difficult and meant odd-hours for the most part. Because of this and being a start-up, the firm made the call in 2016 to move overseas to get closer to clients and really see if this thing would take off as we had wanted it to. In early 2016, we travelled to New York to begin our look for potential buyers or partners. At the end of all those meetings and negotiations it turned out the best option for us was a move overseas, but not to New York, instead we were off to London.
So what are some of the things I learnt?
QMG taught me about the financial markets. I learnt all about the difference between buy side and sell side, the equity research process, what buy side clients found valuable and all manner of things in between.
Importance of economics in understanding the markets. Whilst it seems so disconnected at the national statistics level, there is more relation with company performance than meets the eye with economics and statistics.
The importance that analytics can play in the investments industry. We saw it back in 2014 and it's still true today. The potential improvements that better data analytics and better tools could provide to making investment decisions is immense and, in a way, still untapped for many.
Building an analytics app does not necessarily require a large investment. We were able to create apps that impressed clients and do so with smaller spend than most would expect upon viewing the finished products. To get this right involved a lot of experimentation and pushing tools to their limits. Without realising it we were creating new products, failing fast and improving those products all in an agile manner.
It was also at QMG that I had my first go at steering the technology direction for an organisation. Learning to balance impact with cost whilst continuing to steer the analytics ship was a tricky juggling act but a fun one to learn.
2016 to 2018 - Canaccord Genuity / QMG
In August of 2016, QMG and Canaccord Genuity (a global investment bank headquartered in Canada) came to an agreement to join forces. Canaccord had a data tool called Quest that was being used to provide advice to various institutional clients. One of the jobs here was to join it with QMG's macroeconomic INSIGHT product whilst also promoting the Quest product.
Initially, my work on this began in the Canaccord Melbourne offices whilst I awaited my UK visa. Whilst this took a bit longer than expected I was able to move back to Sydney temporarily to see family and friends and also work out of the Canaccord Sydney offices. In January 2017 I then moved to London which I had thought would be my home, at least for the next 5 years.
London was amazing and so was working for an investment bank. I sat on the same floor as the traders, equity researchers and other data focused staff and we were setting ourselves up on the pathway towards helping clients with better data-driven investment decisions. These were days of long hours, weekend work and you could definitely feel the pressure but it was also a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, the deal between the 2 companies was cut short and since my visa was tied up within that deal, it also meant it was time to go home. It's a shame too because whilst my main focus was on the QMG product and getting that out to a wider audience, it was only late in the game that I got to start looking more at the Quest product and how its data could be better enhanced and delivered to customers via better analytics tools. External regulatory pressures like Mifid II and an overall shrinkage of commissions in the industry also did not help our cause but I feel that we gave it a good shot. More focus on the use of analytics in this space could certainly have helped from the outset.
Even though it ended, it was a blessing in disguise as there was some positive to come from this. The finalisation of this deal did mean I got to spend 3 months in a surprisingly warm European summer and I was getting paid to do so. It also opened up the door for me to come back to Sydney, Australia after being away for 7 years.
So what are some of the things I learnt?
At Canaccord I got to learn first hand what it was like to work for an investment bank in the UK and Global markets. At QMG I heard the stories (good and bad), at Canaccord I got to see all this front and center.
Learnt what it's like to work on foreign soil as an ex-pat. It certainly made me miss home but gave me the drive to want to succeed.
I got to see a lot of the potential improvements that could be made with access to better analytics and tools. If it's true in this place it would be true in many others too.
Something I can't ignore here was how working in London definitely taught me more about a good drinking culture than any other place I've been to. Not good for the waist line but fun nonetheless.
2018 – ABM Systems (round 2)
If there is ever a textbook example of not burning bridges then it should have ABM Systems in there and my face next to it. Even though I left that firm in 2013, I still stayed in touch with them throughout that time (and still do to this day).
In my 2nd time at the firm I came back to help them in their continued expansion around new capabilities, products and customers. The analytics industry has changed quite a bit since I'd left and whilst I was more of a customer from 2013 to 2018, I was still heavily involved in understanding the evolution over that time. It was interesting to see that, just like in 2010 – 2013, customers were still stuck in many manual processes and needed the help that analytics and automation tools could provide.
Whilst round 2 was short and sweet at ABM, it did make me proud to see how that firm had been able to grow from a 10 person shop when I was last there to a global firm (with its Decision Inc parent company) and many more staff than when I left.
So what are some of the things I learnt?
The importance of keeping up your contacts/not burning any bridges (being able to come back to a company I used to work for makes this pretty obvious right?).Automation software / RPA (robotic process automation) is going to be a big thing for the next decade as many different industries start to see the benefits of automating what was previously manual processes. Workers should see the benefits of this too as they get to focus on higher level tasks.
2019 – Australian Securities Exchange (ASX)
The itch to get back and focus on financial markets was too strong of a calling and after initially hearing about the new data hub that the ASX was talking about launching in 2015, I had to explore it further.
The essence of this data hub, now called DataSphere was that the ASX sat on a lot of data across its various markets and platforms. Some of this valuable data is already sold in the marketplace to various vendors to either make available in their platforms or to create new products from and then sell to their customers. Additionally, many customers were also getting this data from the ASX (directly and indirectly) and coming up with their own unique internal solutions.
One of the key attractions for customers of the DataSphere product was how it would make available new datasets that had not been previously shown by the ASX previously, as well as how the ASX would be taking its first steps in adding value to the raw data it had previously sold to make life easier for clients. The investments industry can be full of product bias due to the inherent nature of some of the data providers however, being an exchange that sits in the middle, the ASX is one of the best places to provide those data analytics capabilities.
It's still early stages for this project so time will tell, but at a glance, I would expect more benefits to come to the market from something like this being widely available. For example, I wrote a story about how my previous company QMG would have benefited (as well as QMG's customers) had a project like DataSphere been around at the time.
Perhaps it was because of the early nature of this project (and not having as much to sell yet) or it was my itch to get back and be more hands on with data but I decided very recently to make another career move and this brings me to the end of this decade.
So what are some of the things I learnt?
Being the heart of the Australian financial markets, I got to further my understanding of the industry from a domestic perspective and meet and greet the various participants involved here.
I also learnt that there are so many ways that analytics can improve processes not just for external clients (my main focus in the role) but also for those internal to the organisation too. On the latter note, I'd love to see this kind of work becoming more formalised within the ASX so hope they do something there.
I also got to see first hand what it was like to work on a large (and prominent) project. Whilst projects like this can have a large and positive market impact, there is a lot more work behind the scenes than customers and market commentators might realise. Good things take time so I'll be watching enthusiastically, albeit from the sidelines.
2020 and beyond - Prosperity
This is the part where I talk about what I get to look forward to. 2020 is upon us and I'm lucky to be starting a new role with Prosperity. I was first introduced to them and what they're doing through a friend whose own company utilises their accounting and advisory services. Meeting one of the company directors led to a meeting with the group CEO and over a few weeks I met with other directors and owners. I discovered that this firm had a good understanding of the potential benefits that data analytics and automation could provide and best of all, a desire to change that stemmed from the top down.
I don't believe in fate but if you look at where I started this decade, you could call it serendipity. It's kind of ironic too that I'm ending this decade going back into an industry (accounting & advisory) that I left at the beginning of this past decade. Perhaps things do happen for a reason.
Prosperity are certainly in the right place for a big change like this and having spoken to a few people there I can tell there's excitement for what we'll be able to do internally and for their customers. As mid-tier firm they're large enough for me to do some good things but not too big that I can't make an outsized difference.
Anyway, it's nearly the dawn of my next 10 years of work and things are certainly set up to get off to a flying start!
10 years ago I only just got started in the analytics industry and here I am about to lead the analytics initiatives for a well-respected, 30-year old organisation. From Analyst to Head of Data Analytics & Technology (and everything in between), it's been an amazing ride and I'm looking forward to what the next 10 years has in store.
In the meantime, here are a few other lessons I have learnt along the way. This could be useful if you're building products or running services. Either way, these should be useful for you.
To really understand problems, work with your customers – if you're solving problems, you need to understand them from the clients perspective and you need to be almost maniacal about learning how customers see their challenges. Often times businesses define and even solve for problems that are problems of the business, not the customer. Don't do this.
Customers are important, but don't look to them for the solutions – whilst you can learn about the unique problems from customers, you don't go to your customers for the solutions. For the most part, they don't know what's possible and knowing the best solution will often come from the service providers who best understand the clients problem. There's a saying that goes 'understanding your problem well means you're halfway to the solution' and it's so approrpriate. Your expertise combined with understanding their problems will help formulate the right solutions.
Fail fast – it's best to build small prototypes and get them out there in front of users/customers otherwise you end up having an overengineered system that has a higher chance of ending up being wrong (as well as wasting resources). Create a small group of internal/external clients you can test with, build quickly, gather feedback and improve. Rinse & Repeat and also Reflect.
Learn by doing – this relates to the 'fail fast' lesson but is more about the difference between creating hundreds of presentations on a topic or just trying things out and running actual real-life experiments. Whilst you certainly need a framework and guide, you learn more by doing the latter.
Recognise the greater opportunity – in 2014, I was prepared to go it alone and become a standalone consultant. I weighed this up versus joining the interesting startup QMG. I chose the latter because I recognised the higher trajectory/better pathway they were on. It led to amazing things for me I would not be where I am had I chosen otherwise.
There are so many people I'd like to thank who were all a part of my journey over these last 10 years and it wouldn't be fair to list them all. Some had large and some had smaller contributions but summing it up, I would not be here without their help and guidance. We may have had a long time together or it might have been short, but they've all had a positive impact so thank you.
Whether you're starting off or you're in the middle of your careers like I am, I wish you much success and may it be amazing for you all. Here's to the next decade!