Careers Q&A: Information Builders' Rob Mills

Rob Mills isn't your typical techie, but with IT staff increasingly challenged to diversify the range of skills, it is probably apt that Information Builders' Asia Pacific vice president came from a sales background. Of course, starting out in office equipment isn't as auspicious as some might hope, but Mills' experience at start-ups and in the big leagues through Novell have given him a broad view of how sales and IT mix.

Computerworld Australia caught up with Mills about the ever-evolving business intelligence area, and the role business analysts have to play.

How did you get into IT in the first place?

I come from a sales background, and my original entry point into the IT industry was as a sales person. I actually originally came out of the office equipment industry between 1982 and 1986.

I just moved into IT intuitively because I thought that was the real last frontier for making a difference to the way businesses operate. It was obvious to me back then that businesses were still largely very manual, very constrained in the way they could do business, the channels to market and the ability to offer services to market. That was at the birth of computing, almost.

Then I worked for an Australian company that turned into a bit of a success story, Tower Technology, who focussed on developing imaging and workplace solutions that were deployed broadly within banking, finance, insurance and government agencies to automate business processes and make them more efficient and less reliant on paper. I worked there for a number of years, started as a sales person, and ultimately the sales manager in that business. I stayed there for 13 - 14 years, which is very unusual.

The opportunity came up to leave Tower - I had been there long enough to become almost institutionalised - and become managing director of a middleware company (IONA Technologies). It exposed me to a whole range of different technologies.

I also had a brief stint at Novell, where i was the Manging Director for Australia/New Zealand. It was an interesting time and I got some value out of being there, but it wasn't a long term thing.

More recently I've gone into the business I'm in now; I run Asia Pacific for a company called Information Builders, a US company based in New York City.

What do you see as the future of business intelligence?

I think BI is transitioning away from a traditional view - people usually think of reports being used by a small number of analysts to do human analytics, A lot of people have some platforms in there today, a lot of customers use a lot of BI, but I don't know to what extent they'd represent that as being successful.

There's lots of different directions the industry is going to go, is going and is already on the way to be. I think the first thing is an increase in the distribution of business intelligence, so instead of being a back-office technology for analysts, I think we'll see that it is applied across the business at the point of need. Let's make the contents of the intelligence available to the point of need; that might be in a structural business process or ad-hoc.

Data analytics and predictive analytics have been an important part of BI - non-human analytics - that's traditionally been the domain of a small number of vendors. I think that's opening up really quickly, so predictive analytics particularly, we've done some important work in the last couple of years, but we're now embracing open source in that space to make it financially viable to organisations there. Data and predictive analytics has been quite narrow in its focus, this will enable it to be rolled out more effectively across all BI applications.

I also think business intelligence will move more into real-time operation. BI is a terrific tool for telling you what happened the last time you ran the report or the data update, but there's a very strong move to real-time applications.

I think the real underlying message there is that, as a business person, I don't want to know if we did something wrong last week, I want to know when it happens so we can do something about it.

I think many of the established players are gong to struggle with the concept of ubiquitous BI. The masses aren't just inside the firewall - it's about how I make BI available to my business partners or customers, so they can do some analysis on my data sets. It's that distribution of access to the information that's going to challenge a lot of people.

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Will business analysts become more or less important as business intelligence evolves?

Nobody gets up in the morning and says "I want to buy some software today". Nobody wants to buy software - they want to figure out what's wrong with their business and what they can do to improve that situation. From that perspective, being able to analyse the business, understand the business and change the direction of the business to take advantage of an opportunity is crucial so the role of the business analyst and it's fundamental to the journey of discovery.

Fundamentally, software in and of itself is not of value to the company, it is the way in which you deploy it and to achieve the purposes for why you deployed it in the first place. Understanding the business and the outcomes and delivering a solution that meets those needs is the fundamental thing. Business analysis underpins that process.

I don't think data analytics will change the human aspect of it, I just think it will change some of the dimensions.

Data analytics analyses data sets that are vastly larger than a human can analyse anyway. Business analysts are the bridge between the information that is being collected by the hundreds of systems being run and connecting it to the business strategy and operation. More information should mean that they have greater ability to guide and advise the business both at the strategy level and the operational level. It doesn't always mean that - usually the reason it doesn't happen is because you're dealing with so many disparate information sources in companies that have grown by acquisition and whose data infrastructure is diverse.

Throughout your IT career, where do you think you have gained the most experience?

For me the learning has been in the diversity in all of my roles. When you start in a small Australian start-up company, it's all hands to the pump, it's a fair bit of learning on the fly. But the good thing about that company was that it was all about the customer and it needed to be all about the customer, so I have a very strong value system based on that - that the customer is at the centre of our business and not at the edge.

Going away from application sales and into integration, the customer remains at the centre but the challenges we were solving were very different and very interesting. It was a relatively smaller company.

Moving from that business across to Novell, I guess that was really constructive learning for me around potentially some ways of conducting the business, the ways of measuring and driving the business and probably a fair bit more rigour in that environment.

Where I am today, it's some combination of all of the above. I've picked up something from everywhere I've been and it consolidates my belief that the customer needs to be at the centre of the business, and that it's important that we don't just do the day to day, that there's got to be a really strong balance in the way we conduct our business between the next quarter and the next two years, and you need to have an eye to the future. You can't just run around all day doing the stuff directly under your nose.

I don't think it relates to the size of the company particularly, and I think it's important that people entering the industry think "I've got my qualification, I've done my learning, now I'm going to do the execution". This industry can teach a lot to people, even young people entering the majors through cadetships, they can come out of those organisations really rounded business people.

What do you look for in potential IT hires?

Qualifications are the minimal starting point; that's your entry.

In terms of human attributes, I'm looking for energy and willingness to learn, and most importantly people who can come in and listen. It's one thing having a very deep and significant skills base around technology, it's another thing to connect that in our industry to solve a problem.

I'm looking for people who can come in and ask the right questions and see what can be done, to then use their deep domain knowledge to come up with a solution. What I'm not looking for is people to tell the world about everything they know. In the sorts of engagements we have, it's about consulting problem-led customers back to designing solutions based on those topics.

What advice would you give to those looking to enter the IT industry?

I'd say don't enter the industry thinking you've done your learning and now you're going to earn your money.

It's really important that once you've got your entry point, that you really dig in and do the best job you can, but at the same time start to think what you might like to do in the industry that you can be passionate about, and that conceivably, you'd be happy to take less money for.

There are some people who come in for the cash - and that's fine as long as they're doing their job - but it's really the people that come into the roles and feel like they're invested in what they're dong that are the most effective, achieve the most and get ahead fastest. If you're just here for the cash, then you'll have a good solid career, but the people that are really going to move forward are the people who are motivated, do it better and therefore succeeed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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