The Payoff and Pitfalls of a Big Company Talking Big Data

By Derek Schoettle

Last week at Gigaom’s Roadmap Conference on the intersection of technology, design and experience, General Electric CMO Beth Comstock (@bethcomstock) had a conversation with Om Malik (@om) about GE's self-termed “Industrial Internet” and harnessing the explosion of data. You can either watch the video or read the transcript here.

Comstock’s conversation was one that many, if not all, industrial and tech giants are having as companies ride the Big Data wave, dissect the Internet of Things, and figure out how to combine and harness data in new ways. It’s all very buzzword-y, and often tough for major players to speak about such a trend in substantial depth and detail. Comstock stayed high-level in her assertions and insights (some of which are oversimplified for such a complex environment), but there are a couple points I found intriguing and want to address.

She made the case that data scientists and UX designers are now a focus for GE in terms of recruiting, rather than just traditional developers and coders. This approach aligns to our focus at Cloudant, where our heritage is built on data science, dating back to our founders’ days at MIT and at particle accelerators around the world.

In aggregate, the databases we manage on our customers’ behalf are massive and dynamic, and thus the services we provide have to be flexible, scalable and operationally sound. Technical proficiency aside, part of being a services company means we’re also charged with helping customers solve the problems that underlie the data. To that end, we’ve taken a non-traditional approach of hiring more data scientists than customary coders. In my estimation, if you asked 20 engineers at our company what their background is in, 18 would say physics. Why? Physicists have an inherent level of intellect and curiosity, tend to maintain a thick skin and a “fail fast” mentality, and are a perfect fit for the problem-solving challenges we’re on the hook for with customers. Analytical, inventive thinking is the key to overcoming existing obstacles in the way of finding true value in Big Data. Collecting data, connecting it, visualizing it and delivering it are all important, but to paraphrase Mike Olson (@mikeolson), founder and CSO of Cloudera: “If you want to make money in data, look at the data.

On the UX side of things, I agree with Comstock that the interface needs to be simple, even as technology becomes more advanced and intricate. We hire hybrid specialists who blend development, design, usability, simplicity and elegance – all in the name of following through on our commitment to the best possible customer experience. In another Roadmap keynote, John Maeda (@johnmaeda), president of the Rhode Island School of Design, touches on how Moore’s Law applies to technology but not necessarily to design, demonstrating the evolving balance between more and less. The simple presentation that our UX experts bring is integral to our dashboards, documentation and every other step of the customer interface that could easily be convoluted by data. As more and more innovative, open technology comes to market, Cloudant will work to select, integrate and most importantly simplify it all under a beautiful, intuitive UX.

At one point, you’ll hear Comstock reference GE Predix, “GE’s software platform for the Industrial Internet.” With Predix, GE is moving in the right direction for their customers -- giving them access to their data emanating from any device or machine, with the hope of providing predictive models and insights to increase on-the-job performance. Sure, cool. What I would encourage GE and other major companies stepping into the “Big Data” ocean to do is to do so in an open way that allows for further innovation. Cloudant understands the architectural and community gains and tradeoffs from integrating and contributing to various open source projects and research (Apache Lucene, CouchDB, Dynamo, OGC, CollectD and more). Our service allows you to harness the pace and innovation of the open source model under one API, enterprise-class SLA and support system, designed under the understanding that open platforms, not closed, are the future and that openness is the key to the operational, technical and financial efficiency of our services.

In all, it’s good to have GE and Comstock out there legitimizing these trends for big companies and making them something more than mere buzzwords. Her points are well taken. At Cloudant, as a fully managed service, we deal with the issues of talent, UX design and openness each and every day to help provide value to our customers. Because if we’re not looking at the data and helping customers solve real-world problems for their applications, then what are we really doing?

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