Alistair Croll is an entrepreneur with a background in web performance, analytics, cloud computing, and business strategy. In 2001, he co-founded Coradiant (acquired by BMC in 2011) and has since helped launch Rednod, CloudOps, Bitcurrent, Year One Labs, and several other early-stage companies. He works with startups on business acceleration, and advises a number of larger companies on innovation and technology.
A sought-after public speaker on data-driven innovation and the impact of technology on society, Alistair has founded and run a variety of conferences, including Interop’s cloud content, Cloud Connect and the Enterprise Cloud Summit. He’s the chair O’Reilly’s Strata + Hadoop World conference; the International Startup Festival; and Next:Money. He has also written several books on technology and business, including the best-selling Lean Analytics,and is currently working on Different Better, a book about positioning in the digital age, with April Dunford.
We are proud to have Alistair presenting at Data Natives 2015!
You’re involved in a number of different organisations, from O’Reilly Media to CloudOps and Founder Fuel. What motivates you?
I’m after whatever’s interesting. The economist Herbert Simon observed that we live in an attention economy, because we’re surrounded—overwhelmed—by information, and what information consumes is our attention. And when we don’t know what to pay attention to, we focus on what’s interesting.
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Some people solve for safety, or money, or fame. Most of the good things that have happened to me come from solving for interesting. That means I’m motivated by finding the next interesting thing, which can be hard to sustain. But we live in fascinating times, as we’re moving our culture and even our species from atoms to bits, so I don’t get much sleep.We’re moving our culture and even our species from atoms to bits, so I don’t get much sleep. Click To Tweet
What attracted you to analytics as a subject, and when did you career first move in that direction?
And I think we are at a critical time in human history where we need science, attention, and data to solve some really hard problems: conflict, climate change. There’s no good reason, for example, for any human on the planet to starve. But for millennia, we’ve made decisions based on anecdote, opinion, and the loudest voice in the room.
I think data can change that, replacing opinions with facts. I’ve always been analytical. I studied hard at stats in college—it’s a long story I’ll explain over beers sometime—but my real interest came when I was at Coradiant. We built a product that could tell you where your website was broken, but we had to talk to people in charge of analytics in order to sell it.
And so often, those people didn’t have a good understanding of the business model. They were collecting data for the sake of collecting it, or at best, collecting vanity metrics that didn’t really drive the business.
What problems do you tackle at CloudOps?
CloudOps was founded by many of the managed services people at Coradiant, when Coradiant pivoted to focus instead on building application performance management hardware.
The company is helping enterprises to move to, and operate in, the cloud.People misunderstand the cloud. Just as the real reason for big data is to make better decisions, so the reason for cloud computing is to improve organizational agility. I help CloudOps think about strategy, and publish research on things like migration strategies, what kinds of applications belong where in the organization, and how to tie organizational processes—like lean startup, for example—to the underlying tools.
How did you get involved with O’Reilly Media, and what does your role of Co-Chair of Strata entail?
I wrote a book called Complete Web Monitoring in 2009 with Sean Power for O’Reilly, based largely on what I’d learned at Coradiant. When O’Reilly wanted to launch a big data conference they had an in-house data scientists, Ed Dumbill, who was already working on the idea; they needed an outsider with a background in marketing and analytics.
Before Strata I’d run MCd, and launched a number of events—Bitnorth, Startupfest, the Enterprise Cloud Summit, Cloud Connect, and GigaOm Structure—so I was fairly familiar with how conferences are run. The trick is to find interesting, unexpected stories. We call this “edutainment.” So much content is available for free online these days that there needs to be a unique experience associated with the event.
As co-chair, I help built the tracks and content, and work with keynote speakers to ensure their talks fit the tone of the event. Along with my other chairs—Roger Magoulas and Doug Cutting, as well as Ben Lorica, who handles the program—we write about where we think the industry is headed and what topics will be important next year. Because of the scale of the event we’re always planning well over six months ahead.
Are there any key sources for personal development and learning in your career?
I had an amazing professor in college, Tony Schellinck, who was a market researcher. He encouraged me to do an honours’ thesis in marketing, which I wrote on evolutionary theory and product lifecycle. He wasn’t tenured, because he was busy running an actual business. That’s not really a source, but he was a turning point for me.
I spend a lot of time talking to people about unexpected things. For example, as I write this I’m flying back from a presentation to a number of big insurance firms, where I discussed the impact of the sharing or “gig” economy on insurance. In researching the talk, I probably learned from twenty Uber drivers—one was an ex-convict, one a Shriner, and one a deaf-mute.
The really interesting insights come when you marry two unexpected things together. That’s what humans are great at: having ideas if you give them a chance. So while there aren’t any specific sources I learn from, the best source is the one I haven’t heard of yet, but am just about to discover.The really interesting insights come when you marry two unexpected things together. Click To Tweet
What advice would you give to young professionals looking to find their feet in software engineering and data related disciplines?
One in five jobs today will be done by a machine in the next ten years. I think that’s conservative: Consider that predictions for how fast we’d sequence the human genome were wrong, because we found better algorithms. Then consider that Tesla just bypassed the regulation of self-driving cars by effectively pushing software to vehicles already on the street. So it may be even more than one in five.
Now look at how we teach. It’s modular, standardized, bottom-up. That’s exactly the kind of thing a machine will be able to do. I’d focus as much as possible on top-down problems. Don’t ask, “these are the pieces I have; what can I build with them?”; rather, ask, “this is a thing that needs to be built; where can I get the pieces?”
This is more of a liberal arts take on the world. Amazon/Pinterest data scientist John Rauser said that the role of data scientist is a quarter math, a quarter engineering, a quarter skeptic, and a quarter narrative. I think that’s a good blend.
Finally—jump in. Careers don’t last a lifetime any more. In 1950, the lifespan of the average company on the S&P 500 was over 50 years; now, it’s barely 15. You’ll work for many companies. So while you can, take risks, and work in a variety of roles at a variety of companies, so you can triangulate what you’re good at.
Which companies individuals inspire you, and keep you motivated to achieve great things?
I see initiatives like Code for America and the GSA in England, and the government of Estonia, and think that we can do government so much better, speeding up processes and encouraging civic engagement. As a Canadian I have high hopes for Justin Trudeau’s newly-elected Liberal government, which puts a new generation at the helm of what I think can be an amazing country. And of course, there’s my daughter; I want to leave her a world better than the one I found.
(image credit: techmsg, CC2.0)