How can companies get the most value out of personal data?

22 Jan 2019

Image: Dr John Ghent

This week on Leaders’ Insights, Dr John Ghent tells us how Sytorus helps firms to manage their personal data in a post-GDPR world.

Dr John Ghent is co-founder and CEO of data protection firm Sytorus.

Sytorus offers a personal data management platform called PrivacyEngine, which aims to give companies everything they need to demonstrate compliance.

Educated at Harvard Business School and Maynooth University, Ghent has a wealth of experience in business operations, focusing on governance, infosec and data protection. Before Sytorus, he was director at Accadian and a college lecturer.

‘Implementing a data protection business-as-usual programme is the best way to reduce the risk of large fines’

Describe your role and what you do.

My primary role as CEO is to grow the company. Much of my job is about setting the strategy for Sytorus with the executive team. From there, I work with the senior management team (SMT) to enable them to get on with their jobs. Sometimes this is simply getting out of their way, and other times it is removing an obstacle for them or ensuring they have the resources they need to do their job.

I spend a lot of time with key stakeholders and customers to ensure that we are moving in the right direction. While we believe we are ahead of the competition at the moment, we are working very hard to stay ahead. I have recently set up an R&D function with Sytorus to help with this.

Part of my job is to help project our brand and make sure that companies who may be struggling with data protection know that there are solutions like ours out there. For this reason, I spend some time speaking at conferences and events.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Sytorus is a very young company and has grown quickly over the past few years. We were founded in 2013 by myself, Mike Morrissey and Hugh Jones, and have grown the company to over 50 staff in four locations: Dublin, London, Stockholm and Frankfurt. This has inevitably led to a heavy workload, but I do think it is very important to make time for family. Weekends generally are sacred.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

We are in the data protection space, and more and more companies are using more and more personal data. I don’t see this trend stopping. The challenge for companies is how to get the most value out of personal data while still respecting individuals’ fundamental human rights. I believe that these two factors are not mutually exclusive. Implementing a data protection business-as-usual programme is the best way to reduce the risk of large fines and the best way to ensure that you get the most value out of the personal data that you hold. PrivacyEngine, our personal data management platform, is the best tool you can deploy to help with this.

Of course, it is hard to have a conversation about this without mentioning the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect on 25 May. This is causing companies untold challenges. Not least because of the potential fines for non-compliance (up to €20m) but because of the pressure individuals and other companies are putting on each other to be compliant.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

While data protection has been around for some time, the first EU directive was in 1981. This sector is still really struggling to get to grips with how to address compliance. There is an estimated deficit of around 75,000 data protection officers (DPOs) currently, a significant skills shortage. Many new DPOs are themselves struggling with what they should be doing.

In Sytorus, we have teams of data protection (DP) specialists around Europe and a platform that can help companies and DPOs deal with this in a structured and methodological way. We provide all the tools they need to start demonstrating compliance and we back it up with direct support from our in-house DP specialists.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I completed a PhD in computer science from Maynooth University in 2005. While I learned a lot about machine learning as part of this, the biggest learning was how to address a problem. When the objective is to further a field of study, you have to know the state of the art and then advance it. It is not something you can necessarily read in a book or paper, you have to come up with a solution yourself. This forces you to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills that I still use. For someone like myself who has a natural leaning towards entrepreneurship, this gave me the confidence that I could go out, set up companies and solve bigger problems.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

That is a hard question to answer. When you are trying to grow as quickly as we are, mistakes are an occupational hazard and something that I just accept will happen. The question is how to react to mistakes once they are identified. Mistakes, once they are identified early enough, are great learning experiences. The biggest mistakes are the ones you don’t learn from.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Firstly, I try and hire the best people I can find. This applies throughout the entire company but if I look at my SMT, for example, they are all highly capable people with a shared goal.

In general, I look for character traits such as motivation, capability, leadership and, perhaps most importantly, humility. If you put a team of people together who share these traits, you will make rapid progress, and that is what we have done.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

As a father of two daughters, I am acutely aware that there is a diversity problem with STEM sectors. My wife, on the other hand, who has a STEM background, is very successful in her career. It is well understood and accepted that diverse teams work better in the long run, and this is something that every CEO should be considering in their hiring process.

As a technology-driven data protection company, we have visibility of many sectors. Thankfully, there doesn’t seem to be a diversity problem in data protection itself; however, within the tech space, there is a noticeable and well-documented diversity problem.

Who is your role model and why?

I wouldn’t say I have a role model but two that would come to mind would be Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, for completely different reasons. Bill for the fact that he created one of the biggest tech companies in the world and for how he executed a clear vision so effectively. Warren because of the manner that we went about creating his company; he always seems like a down-to-earth, average guy. The thing they have in common is that they both thoroughly loved what they did – I think that is really important. If you are not happy with what you are currently doing, change it.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I tend to read a lot of non-fiction books, and there are a lot that I would recommend. If I had to shorten the list, I would highly recommend Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker and The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Well, my coffee machine, my phone, my Surface, my desktop and my iPad. These keep me connected with my teams and stakeholders, and provide me with the tools I need to do my job.

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