The Interview: Sol Rashidi About the Evolution of Data Analytics

Sol Rashidi, a data scientist and a top innovator in data & analytics, talks to DataArt about digital tools, shared her ideas on how data analytics evolved, and what role can talent mean in the tech world.
6 min read
The Interview: Sol Rashidi About the Evolution of Data Analytics

What does a Chief Analytics Officer do? My role, in general, has evolved because it’s no longer around just the foundational elements and getting the ecosystem in place. It’s now evolved into sitting with the businesses, and I am asking them where do they want to go in the future. Is it just about increasing market share, finding new constituency in consumer groups? I then take these key pillars that are fundamental to their growth strategy, and then I go and chase where all this data sits. And so, my role now has evolved to integration, connection, collaboration, accessibility, but then also product development and analytics because it is a means to the end. In the end, it is how do we help businesses grow.

What triggered the revolution in data analytics?

Twenty years ago, I was the back-office geek in the cubicle that no one wanted to talk to, and we were just managing things in Excel spreadsheets; we didn’t have these magnificent tools. Pivot tables was as far as we could go. For me, the pivot was when we started doing global ERP deployments. It was the first-time technology, and business came hand in hand, and the business processes drove how something should be configured.

You then quickly realize how big of a role data really played in that, unless the data is exactly where it needs to be, even if that process translates into a configuration or a deployment. If the data isn’t where it needs to be, the process still fails. We were Excel spreadsheets and cubicles. So now we are front and center in ERP global deployments. To now, all of a sudden, they just realize that there’s so much untapped insight into the data that companies own, and we now need to designate an executive within our company who’s going to be responsible for this.

How has the evolution of digital tools affected the technology space?

To quote an old CEO of mine, «The pace of change is the slowest it’s ever going to be.» The evolutions of tools, systems, platforms, it’s just so rapid moving, even in describing going from Excel spreadsheets to data warehouses, how do we build models and cubes and semantic layers and what was our visualization layers on top of power BI. Everything being SaaS-based and providing environments with data breaks, Snowflake — the options are vast.

In terms of data and tech, have you found there’s synergy across the various industries in which you’ve worked?

Towards the end of my IBM days, when I was in the Watson team, I had phenomenal exposure to many companies who were trying to be a bit more progressive about the AI strategy. So, how do we democratize AI, how do we leverage it before anyone else does? And the fundamental component of it was data. Do you have enough? Is it of high fidelity? And what we quickly realize is: if your data is not in good shape, the AI capability is not going to be in good shape.

How important is talent?

It’s everything, and I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. I went from management consulting to industry, and that’s a big switch because, in management consulting, you can walk in and suggest and plan, but you’re still not accountable for it; it’s still not your baby. But when you make the switch into industry — it’s now yours, and you can legitimately feel and see something come to life, and there’s a level of addiction to that.

Half the stuff you built is probably not going to gain any critical attraction whatsoever, and the other half could possibly, but that comes from codifying and uniting your talent. Because at the end of the day, to pull something like that off, you need folks who are as dedicated to perfection as you are to take pride in what they do. You need the creative-minded individuals, the extremely analytically-minded individuals — you need them all to kind of play nice together in the sandbox if you will able to develop something that’s just glorious or one of a kind. My business is a lot of human science and social science, very little data science. You can’t teach someone to be a good team player, they either want to be, or they don’t. Our job is to unite all the different fractions of a company because data is owned by everyone and no one at the same time. You’re connecting it all together, you’ve got to be able to pivot fifty different subjects in one single day. But the one thing that’s in common — is our group; we’re a service group that touches every single corner of the organization.

Is failure okay?

It is for me now. My most epic teaching moments have come from my greatest failures. You know, I came from a school where perfection was everything, and you weren’t allowed to fail. I had partners yell at me; they had games of who can make us cry. We just grew up with that level of resiliency. My first experience was that same mentality, nothing but perfection, drive towards delivery. Some of the most respected individuals I had in my team at some point in time doubted working for me because I didn’t understand them, and I didn’t want to understand them. I was leading the way I was led, and then I learned that was wrong. I have every generation in my group, from baby boomers to Gen Z’s, and I’ve gained aperture of not everyone can be led the same way, whereas when I was growing up, we were all led the same way: demand and deliver. And depending on the generation you’re talking to, you’ve got to gear your voice and gear your conversation towards their intrinsic values. So as if pivoting different subjects in different teams wasn’t enough, now I’ve got to be able to pivot differently within my own team. I’m extremely conscientious of that.

What are your thoughts on female leadership and mentoring in tech?

I’ve never had the luxury of having women in tech; it’s just it’s always been me. You know, there’s ... there’s a few of us now with all the STEM programs and «Women in Code,» and there’s just a lot more emphasis on diversity and inclusion. I think the only female mentor I’ve really had was a woman with IBM; now she’s with Ernst & Young. Phenomenal! She’s strong, she’s competent, she knows her industry inside and out, and she’s not bashful or apologetic for probably being the smartest person in the room. She doesn’t shove it in your face, she’s very elegant and graceful, the way she goes about it. We have to constantly balance being assertive versus being approachable and friendly, it’s a little bit of tightrope. You want to always be collaborative, but, at the end of the day, the judgment calls yours. You should be able to make that judgment call without any judgment on you.

We build what matters, and we have to put a focus on building what matters. And it doesn’t matter what role you play in that whether you’re a software QA person, a data engineer, whether you’re a data scientist, whether you’re writing ETL scripts, infrastructure lead, tech lead, business lead, UI/UX designer — everything you do is a part of the story, when your piece comes together. We’ve got all these pieces that come together we’ve built what matters.

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