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IT Life: Teradata CTO Heralds ‘Analytics For Good’

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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Teradata CTO Stephen Brobst tells TechWeekEurope about spending 20 years in analytics and advising Barack Obama

Teradata, formerly part of NCR, is an enterprise analytics company, specialising in giant data warehouses for Big Data and business applications. Ithas customers including Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, AT&T, Intel, Cisco and three of UK’s largest High Street banks.

Teradata was doing analytics and warehousing before the current buzz around Big Data, but it is making full advantage of the current hype.

Alongside this, the company was named as one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by the Ethisphere Institute. It has establishes volunteer efforts in 45 communities with Teradata offices, and encourages employees to participate in these programs by giving them four days a year to volunteer during working hours.

Stephen Brobst is CTO at Teradata. We asked him about his career at the company, the legacy of Seymour Cray, and the work with the US government.

Databases can be nice

What has been your favourite project in your work so far?
During his first term as the president, I was appointed to Barack Obama’s Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology in the area of Networking and Information Technology Research and Development. This working group consisted of fourteen amazing people representing both academic and commercial research communities.

us government president white house © S. R. Green ShutterstockThe president gave us a number of areas in which he wanted to improve US citizens’ quality of life, such as healthcare, energy, transportation, homeland security and so on. Our task was to make recommendations as to where advanced R&D investments should be made in order to realise these goals.

We published a paper entitled ‘Designing a Digital Future: Federally Funded Research and Development in Networking and Information Technology’ which outlined our recommendations in areas such as big data, high-performance computing and software engineering.

What tech were you involved with ten years ago?
Most of my professional career has been focused on high-end database deployment. I spent over 20 years working in the area of XLDB (extremely large database) implementations for data warehousing. Ten years ago, business intelligence solutions evolved from serving a purely strategic function to include operational business intelligence in what my colleague and I coined as ‘active’ data warehousing.

What tech do you expect to be using in ten years’ time?
Sensor technology will revolutionise how we measure and track all things. It will change every aspect of our lives – especially healthcare and transportation. The big data phenomenon is still in its infancy. There are not enough monkeys with keyboards on social media sites to produce even a fraction of the data that will be created as a result of sensor device proliferation.

Seymour CrayWho’s your tech hero?
Seymour Cray. He was the ultimate engineer. A man of persistence and focus who was not afraid to challenge what others thought to be impossible. The supercomputers he designed were the essence of high-performance, delivered via the virtues of elegant simplicity.

As a young programmer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, I had the privilege of listening to him speak about supercomputing and his approach to design. I have taken this message of simplicity to heart, and used it as a guide in everything that I have worked on ever since. I credit Seymour Cray as the most influential individual in the history of the supercomputer industry.

Who’s your tech villain?
The misguided people who use the Internet to prey upon those that are less technically educated than themselves. Email spam scams, placement of malware and theft of information create barriers to the adoption of technologies that would otherwise increase the quality of life for the society as a whole.

What’s your favourite technology ever made? Which do you use most?
My favourite technology ever has got to be the NeXTSTEP operating system – a software work of art that was far ahead of its time [created by Steve Jobs’ NeXT Inc in his years away from Apple] . I still have my NeXT Machine pizza-box workstation from more than 20 years ago!

The Internet is my most frequently used technology. It has allowed me to maintain relationships with a global community of friends and colleagues in a way that is both productive and fun. The Internet allows me to stay in touch with the global Teradata R&D team without worrying about distance or geopolitical boundaries.

What is Teradata’s budget outlook going forward?
We are growing aggressively, especially in R&D and field deployment.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737Apart from your own, which company do you admire most and why?
I absolutely love Southwest Airlines. The airline business is a very tough industry. Failures and bankruptcies are everywhere, yet Southwest Airlines has consistently remained profitable. The company is a Teradata customer and uses information very effectively.

In contrast to many European low cost carriers, Southwest delivers a superior service experience (even when compared to full service airlines) at a very good value. I wish that the European low cost airlines, such as Ryanair, would take a lesson from Southwest!

What’s the greatest challenge for an IT company/department today?
The greatest challenge for an IT company today is keeping up with the increasingly rapid rate of innovation in the industry. Investments in new technology need to be managed as a portfolio with varying degrees of investment and risk, in order to maximise returns. A successful IT company must re-invent itself on a continuous basis.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?
To cloud is definitely a ‘yes’. However, it is important to make the right choice between private versus public cloud deployment. Private cloud infrastructure makes the most sense for large enterprises that have sufficient economies of scale within themselves, whereas public cloud infrastructure makes more sense for small to medium-sized enterprises.

What did you want to be when you were a child?
My ambition as a child was to grow up to be a university professor, teaching history. That was before I understood the politics of university tenure – and before I realised how much fun technology could be.

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