CTO Sessions: Simon Field, Snowflake Inc.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? "A lot of the customers I speak and work with still struggle to centralise and analyse their data at scale."

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What was your first job? My first job was at BT as part of their graduate intake programme working as a Systems Analyst within their Group Logistics Division. The role was focussed on supply-chain forecasting, logistics efficiency and parts return, repair and replenishment of field-equipment.

Did you always want to work in IT? I was at school when the Home Computer revolution hit the UK, and immediately got hooked on the early home computers like the ZX81 and BBC Model B. I was fortunate to attend a school that had early and significant government investment in computer and technology labs. I studied computing, electronics and engineering subjects. I quickly got bitten by the bug of writing computer programs. Literally! I knew then it was something I wanted to do for a living. 

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I went to Brighton University and completed a Computer Studies Degree, specialising in databases and analytics in my final year. I was really interested by data and how we interact with it on a daily basis. I did my Degree thesis on Executive Information Systems, the forerunner to Dashboards and BI. 

You can't afford to stand still in IT, with the rapid pace and introduction of new technologies.  I've invested time throughout my career to learn new technologies and gain relevant certifications. At IBM I achieved Open Group certification as an IT Architect. Most recently at Microsoft I gained certifications in Azure, Big Data and Data Science technologies like Spark and R.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I've always worked in IT, and focussed quite early on in Analytics and large-scale database technologies.  After leaving the BT graduate programme, I found a job in data warehousing at WHSmith, leading the Data Warehouse and BI team. This was followed by a position as Data Warehouse Architect at Teradata, where I took the lead architect role on data warehouse implementations at Debenhams and Tesco's. The first project delivered Tesco Club Card data for customer analytics and branch specific ranging. This was particularly exciting as this was the first scheme of its nature in the UK and seeing the data and insights emerge from this rich data set was fascinating. We used the data to inform decisions on how to modify standard store stocking plans to the specific customer demographic profile of a store resulting in demonstrable uplift in sales.

I left Teradata for IBM where I held a number of roles from Retail Consultant, Data & BI Architect and moved into software pre-sales and ultimately product development. I left IBM and worked for Hewlett Packard, helping them introduce a new Data Warehouse Database product to market, before moving to Netezza as EMEA Technical Director. Database Appliance technologies were becoming a game-changer for large scale Data Warehousing, so it was a really interesting time. 

After twenty years working in large scale database technologies, I decided I needed to learn something new and started to take an interest in the Machine Learning and Data Science space. I moved to Revolution Analytics, a firm that enabled organisations to adopt and use R in the enterprise. The company was ultimately purchased by Microsoft, where I stayed and helped with its integration into Microsoft's database and cloud technologies.

I came across Snowflake on a number of occasions whilst at Microsoft and was impressed by the transformative capabilities it was delivering for customers. Snowflake's value proposition and its emergence in the data warehousing space instantly struck a chord with me, and my prior experience was a great match. It was too tempting an opportunity to turn down. Snowflake solves many of the technical challenges and issues that I've seen with earlier technologies which led to technical architecture compromises. In particular, instant and elastic scalability and performance to resolve the issues of slow access to data insights at a time when it's become critical for organisations to tap into immediate insights.

What type of CTO are you? I've always focussed on trying to help the customers I work with to bridge the gap between the two words that represent our industry; Information & Technology. I like to really get into the details and understand the challenges that organisations have in getting the information and insight they need to improve their business. 

Which emerging technology are you most excited about the prospect of? The notion of data sharing really excites me and I believe it will be one of the key emerging tech trends that will transform and affect how all companies view and utilise data.Organisations are starting to breakdown the internal data silos within their organisations, but still struggle to collaborate and exploit data at scale with other organisations e.g. partners, suppliers etc. By embracing secure data sharing, organisations have the potential to broaden their customer insight and understanding, which can transform products and customer offerings.

Are there any technologies which you think are overhyped? Why? I think AI is probably in that space right now. I've found that discussions and developments on AI are a lot more immature than the press suggests, and that is more hype than something tangible. Picture it in the same vein as driverless cars. We've been talking about it for the last ten years but we're still yet to see fully autonomous vehicles on the roads. We will get there, but I think it will take longer than originally expected. However, I do believe that AI and ML, once developed, will transform our lives in removing the burden from human analysis, and helping us focus on the most important aspects of our jobs and lives.

What is one unique initiative that you've employed over the last 12 months that you're really proud of?  We've recently announced the Snowflake Data Exchange, which is a data marketplace where Snowflake customers can connect with data providers to discover, access, and generate insights from the provider's data. This is a huge step for the company as it enables customers to utilise their data as a business asset and they can even generate new revenue streams with that data.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes we are! More and more companies are moving their data storage solution the cloud and Snowflake is the cloud-built data warehouse to help them do so seamlessly. Snowflake is driving this digital transformation and a core value is that customers are always first. We listen to their feedback on the product and use their needs to fuel our product innovation. By putting the customer needs first, we're also enabling them to experience quicker time-to-insights from their data, which ultimately impacts revenue growth and operational efficiency for Snowflake customers.

What is the biggest issue that you're helping customers with at the moment? A lot of the customers I speak and work with still struggle to centralise and analyse their data at scale. They have data spread across multiple analytical database technologies for a number of reasons; historical, functional and non-functional.  As organisations are migrating to the Cloud they are taking the opportunity to address these challenges, bringing their data together in one place which can be analysed and shared both within and outside the organisation.  Snowflake is ideally suited to these needs.

How do you align your technology use to meet business goals? Companies in different industries have different requirements from their data warehouse. By listening to what customers want, and using that feedback as a basis of our product innovation, we keep customers happy and also reach new customers with the additional features.  

Do you have any trouble matching product/service strategy with tech strategy? Our product strategy is based around listening to our customers and catering to their demands. In the current landscape, customers have a clearer vision of what they're looking for, so we're constantly working to ensure our product strategy is in line with this. Our tech strategy is all part of the same process, listening to customers and catering to what they're looking for, so we know that we're doing as much as we can to improve each individual customer experience.

What makes an effective tech strategy? Our strategy is and always has been to put customers first. Customers are at the core of everything we do, and we're constantly using their feedback to evolve our tech strategy. If organisations want to continue to grow and evolve, they need to put customers first and take their needs as the foundation of the technology strategy and build from there.

What predictions do you have for the role of the CTO in the future? With the Digital and Cloud journey now well underway, organisations will find it easier to more rapidly pilot new products & services with less friction.   CTO's increasingly need to increase the pace of innovation and change, to keep their organisations competitive and look for new products and sources of income.  Organisations are starting to realise that they can monetise their data and create new products and services from the data they collect. Adding telemetry to all processes and interactions is a big part of this.    

What has been your greatest career achievement? It's difficult to single out one career achievement. There have been so many highlights and great moments along the way. I most fondly look back on the teams and technical communities I have worked in and helped to build at my prior companies. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I tend not to dwell on the past and take each experience for its own merits. I take every new opportunity and role as a new learning experience. Some of the most challenging and difficult situations I have encountered during my career have been the ones that I have learned and gained the most from.

What are you reading now? I use various Blogging and Aggregation sited to keep up to date on business and technology developments. I focus a lot on articles about Data Science and Data Engineering at the moment as it is an area of interest, and very pertinent to my current role.

Most people don't know that I… run an Explorer Scout Unit for 14-18 year olds. It's great to do something completely different in my spare time, and it sits very well with my other interests. It's particularly interesting to see how young people team and work together to solve some of the physical and mental challenges that we set them.

In my spare time, I like to…get outdoors, and exercise. It's too easy in our roles to get welded to the keyboard. Thinking time is essential, and I find walking the dog a great way to get some quiet time to think and solve problems.

Ask me to do anything but… Write an article about myself!!!

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