The five minute CIO: Brendan Crossey

11 Jul 2014

Brendan Crossey, director of Asystec

“In the big-data space, not all companies have the same answers,” said Brendan Crossey, director of Asystec. The company is building a big-data ecosystem to be used by academics, governments, defence forces, and pharma companies, to name a few.

Asystec is doing business in the US and China and is working in Ireland with the defence forces, energy companies and large pharmaceutical companies, aiming to make use of complex big-data computing power.

Coming from a cloud technology background, the founders of Asystec are focused on helping organisations make sense of the vast quantities of data emerging from mobile, the internet and the cloud within organisations and helping them make cohesive, real-time decisions.

Limerick-based Asystec has scaled in the last year, hiring a number of data analytics employees and a chief data scientist.

The company has expanded to offices in Cork, Dublin and Belfast.

Describe your role and the challenge your organisation faces.

We’re in many ways still a start-up company so people have numerous roles. I’m a director at Asystec and have a couple of roles, one that basically means I have come on board to set up the Northern Ireland office and I’ve also come on board to set up the big-data analytics engine.

As part of that I’m involved in the set up of internal IT services and the set up and roll out of big-data cloud services and how that’s going to evolve over a period of time.

We’re seeing a fundamental change in the marketplace and we’re having to react to that and that is having a big impact in how we build IT systems internally and externally for customers.

How have you embraced big data and cloud computing as an organisation?

For us it’s more about supporting the intelligence of customers. Even within our own internal IT systems, when we started up three years ago, we made the conscious decision not to build our own internal IT systems. We went to the cloud and invested in Office 365 and Salesforce-type products and services and so it meant when we opened the Belfast office and set up the big-data practice we just needed our laptops and a few IP addresses and we were up and running in minutes.

When we came to set up the big-data practice we wanted to have access to a very easy-to-consume data analytics platform using the cloud business model. We worked with a partner out of Scotland called Aridhia and so basically with them we built a cloud analytics platform.

How will organisations cope with all the data that will be unearthed through mobile, cloud, internet and legacy systems?

Collaboration is key to what we are building in terms of big data. Organisations will want to share information across their different departments, share that globally and share that data with outside collaborations.

We are starting to see that in the big-data space. Not all companies have the same answers. It’s quite fractionalised with a lot of specialist companies.

Basically, we have built an ecosystem that brings together the best-of-breed, whether it’s subject-matter expertise, logistics, social media, plus the infrastructure piece from ourselves.

We have also connected to academia because we’re using special algorithms and so we bring that network of people together very much in a collaborative way and share that data.

How is the ecosystem you are building evolving?

We have 31 projects in development already and we probably have 20 different partner companies we are working with on these programmes.

For us, we have seen a lot of people interested in big data but they don’t know what to do to take that first step and to understand ‘is big data something I can utilise and make meaningful for my business?’

We have developed a methodology to get people through that involving a workshop to get business leaders, along with IT people, in a room with subject-matter experts and technical people and work through what is big data and what is the value in it for them.

How would you describe big data in business terms?

Big data is a business transformation agent. In a lot of cases, it just depends on joining up silos of information. This involves getting the HR system to talk to the finance systems and the logistics systems and enable them to get meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs) out of that.

Basically, you need to understand what big data you have in terms of the various data points in your organisation and outside it. What are the potential benefits to your organisation that the data can deliver and then go through the what ifs, the things you do that can’t be done.

Whittle it down to four to five meaningful KPIs. The key thing is accessing the data that already exists that will drive KPIs you need to make critical decisions.

How does your organisation use the cloud?

Basically, by having the cloud-based services, even though we are very small but actually based across four different offices in Limerick, Cork, Dublin and Belfast, nationwide coverage and information sharing is crucial to make sure we act as a single entity.

We have to have a data point from customers into our CRM system (Salesforce) and putting them into a sales forecasting system and SharePoint for capturing unstructured information across all our sales teams and being able to to analyse data. It’s critical to us.

We’ve got have more flexibility and speed into the marketplace than our biggest competitors.

Tell me about your investment in data expertise?

We’ve employed a guy called Dave Clarke who I knew at EMC where he worked for 15 years.

His primary degree is in mathematics but he has also worked in project management and consultancy.

Dave was involved in building big data appliances, such as Green PlumDCA for EMC. He has practical experience and project management experience, as well as the customer-facing experience and the analytics experience, which is so vital today.

As your organisation grows, what are the main IT challenges you face?

The big things for us are mobility and security. We’re a small organisation that wants to grow fast and we need to ensure that we have secure data and that it is locked down and accessed only by the right people at the right time.

What are the big IT trends you are seeing?

We are in the maelstrom of the biggest change in IT I’ve come across in 25 years … my first three job interviews were with three companies in the mainframe industry who have now all disappeared.

So I went from the mainframe age to the client/server age to now where the mobile device is the primary access device.

We are also seeing a fundamental change in the kind of people who are driving the development of IT. It is now mainly the software developers who are really driving the change in the business, creating those mobile apps is creating a lot of new data and for staying on top of your business you need to be able to analyse that data, gain new insights into what they are doing and from there create the apps that are driving new data.

You’ve got that spinning wheel effect and I think as we go forward that spinning wheel is just going to get faster and faster.

And to stay ahead you’ve got to be able to move quicker, better, with more agility and flexibility than your competitors.

What regulatory and compliance issues are you seeing with big data?

As well as setting up big-data practice, the other part we are investing in is security. Working with large banks and looking at compliance, we have absolutely seen one of the drivers is security.

We are in the middle of designing and building a test and development environment that we can roll out for customers. They will test it in the cloud first and then bring it in-house. They don’t want data moving outside their environments.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years