We caught up recently with Jeff Wilts, MBA, Associate Vice President – Enterprise Information Management at Canadian Tire ahead of the upcoming Chief Data and Analytics Officer, Canada conference happening on May 16-17, 2017 in Toronto. We had a delightful conversation about his journey to becoming a data leader, the concept of a “citizen data scientist” and his ultimate goal of becoming a true partner with the business. Read on.
Corinium: Please tell us about your journey to becoming a data and analytics leader.
Jeff Wilts: My journey began over 20 years ago when I discovered how desktop database tools (Clipper, Dbase, DataEase) could be used to solve some really tough and thorny problems that businesses were facing. The problems were varied (tracking PCB contaminated transformers, tool crib tracking, city budget planning) but the tools and solutions were always the same. From there, I progressed to shop floor data collection and food recall management systems where data really started to matter, and data at volume started to become a concern for reporting and insights.
From those beginnings, it was a straight line progression to data warehousing and analytics on a larger scale across a few new industries. (Postal & Courier services, banking, retail) The last 4 years have been about leveraging Hadoop and Big Data to deal with data and problems that were too complex to consider before.
With each progression of technology and capability, there has been an increase in understanding that data is truly the lifeblood of organisations. Those that handle data poorly WILL fall behind those who are using data to drive their decision making process.
Corinium: Do you see your role changing/evolving in the next 5 years? If so, how?
Jeff Wilts: With the rapid introduction of Hadoop and Big Data tools and technologies (especially in the cloud) over the past few years it means that a lot of analysis and raw processing can be done by potentially a much larger number of people, much faster. This has the potential to drive a lot of poor decision-making and create a higher risk profile for corporations if we don’t keep our eye on governance, security and privacy requirements. I see that those 3 dimensions will be taking a larger share of time, energy and effort to manage and control.
Corinium: What are the main objectives for data/analytics within your organisation?
Jeff Wilts: That is simple, to understand the Canadian customer better than anyone else can. 80% of Canadians live within a 30 minute drive to one of our stores and 85% of Canadian households bought something at one of our stores last year. How can we serve them better, by understanding them better?
Corinium: What is the biggest challenge you face within your role today and how are you looking to tackle it?
Jeff Wilts: Biggest challenge is that we are in a split world. On one hand, we have an antiquated data warehouse technology that runs our business today which is not keeping up to business demand. On the other hand, we have stood up a brand new Big Data technology stack that needs a completely different skillset to use and most of our users don’t have the skills or experience to leverage.
Corinium: What do you feel is the biggest challenge faced by the analytics/big data industry currently and in what ways does this affect your business?
Jeff Wilts: The biggest challenge is the rise of the concept of a “citizen-data scientist” People who do not understand data, analytics or basic statistics are providing interpretations of data which are accepted at face value. People need to invest time and energy to learn the basic fundamentals. No piece of technology or software or great data visualisation will overcome the need for proper understanding.
Corinium: Where do you see being the biggest area of investment in analytics within your industry over the next 12 months?
Jeff Wilts: Biggest Areas of investment will be around AI and Machine Learning. These two areas are the next logical areas for investment.
Corinium: If you could have one piece of technology which would revolutionise you and/or your department’s activities, what would it be? It could be something that already exists, or not.
Jeff Wilts: Simple containerisation and data masking / obfuscation for use in non-production environments. If we could make this work efficiently, we would speed up our development efforts and reduce a significant amount of time spent in manual effort to keep non-production environments refreshed with usable data for testing.
Corinium: What is your ultimate goal as a data and analytics leader?
Jeff Wilts: To become a true partner with the business so that we are the first group they think of working with when there is a data or analytics problem. To have the capabilities and capacity internally to be able to meet business needs for advanced analytics, data, environments and relevant training.