sohaib-abbasi-informatica
Data Mining

Informatica CEO at Heart of a Data-Driven World

The swank hotel restaurant is replete with Knightsbridge stereotypes: braying luxury car salesmen celebrating deals; expensively shod, pencil thin women in the season’s fashion garb; coiffed, French maitre d’ upbraiding English staff for errors in service etiquette. And, after the staff members have stopped squabbling and I’m finally led to a central table, there is the man I’m there to meet. 

The table’s position is appropriately emblematic as you might call Sohaib Abbasi the man in the middle. The company he has led for almost 10 years is Informatica and it sits in a very interesting position. Despite being headquartered in Silicon Valley, neither the company nor its Lahore, Pakistan-born CEO acts like one of that area’s self-regarding, attention-craving technology elite. Abbasi will not even claim that his company is in business intelligence or Big Data, despite often being seen as the Switzerland of the modern analytics hotspot sector. But, as the firm that is the go-to company for data integration and management, preparing information for subsequent querying, visualising and consumption, Informatica is very much at the heart of the new order in IT.

He might not be fast talking but Abbasi isn’t shy of declaring how well placed his company is.

“Our industry is changing in a way I’ve never seen before and the common theme is data,” he says. “Enterprises need trustworthy, authoritative, timely data to pursue all these initiatives.”

And what are those initiatives? A sea of regulatory compliance mandates, the need to get closer to customers, seeing patterns and trends that change markets and drive opportunities, and the never-ending drive towards efficiency… these are all trends that are helping data eat the world.

“In the age of austerity there’s even more focus on agility and modernisation,” he argues, pointing to everybody from Merrill Lynch in wealth management, to government measures to counter fraud, tax avoidance and terrorism.

Ordering the data so it can be scrutinised might not be as trendy as talking about how Big Data helped Target identify pregnant buyers in their second trimester, but it’s critical nonetheless.

“Analytics is a very confusing market. You have data warehouse players like Terradata, EMC Pivotal, HP Vertica, in-memory efforts like SAP HANA, agile BI like Tableau and services like [Amazon] Redshift, and of course there’s Hadoop. In analytics, one size does not fit all. The CIO of a bank says ‘we’re an Oracle shop so we’ll choose Exadata’ and the customer of an SAP shop says it’s HANA… One CIO said to me that it’s a world of insanity and the only sanity is Informatica.”

Of course, the likes of Oracle and SAP often get a free pass in analytics because they are selling to customers on other fronts. But Abbasi thinks the ‘stack mentality’ is aging.

“Is building a stack good for the industry?” he asks, rhetorically. “We’re at a nexus of megatrends. The old world was about improving productivity by automating transactions one department at a time. Now companies want immersive interaction with their customers and a lot of processes no longer need human beings. That’s fragmented the stack completely. Data is persisted not just in SQL but in cloud, Hadoop, social media, embedded databases — and consumed not just in Oracle but in Workday, NetSuite, mobile apps and control systems. Once, transactional data was the only data that mattered but now we’re in a world of interactions. The only thing that matters is data and having it at the right place at the right time. Data used to be a means to an end; now it is the end.”

We kick about notions of how valuable data has become. Perhaps the true value of the internet giants, I suggest, will be as supersized versions of Bloomberg, D&B and Hoover’s. But I’m wary of worshipping at the feet of data scientists and automated risk alerts given that trillions of dollars’ worth of technology didn’t make economists and regulators see the incoming banking collapse.

“Technology is not the answer to greed or irresponsible risk taking but it will make people more aware so they can take action,” argues Abbasi.

Perhaps.

Informatica has been a solid growth company for several years now and revenues stand at almost $950m, although Abbasi moans that “Wall Street does not appreciate the sustainability of our growth”.

He says his company is propelled by “tailwinds” as data volumes increase. The Internet of Things will mean that there’s no end in sight for the data boom and if the consensus of wisdom stating the data is the new oil holds, then Informatica can become the refinery.

Map Once, Deploy Anywhere is the company’s calling card. That is, extrapolate business logic and then deploy on premise, in the cloud, on Hadoop or another platform of choice.

“Java transformed application infrastructure with Write Once, Run Anywhere,” Abbasi says. “Map Once, Deploy Anywhere will bring universal connectivity and become a lingua franca for data logic.”

We talk briefly about the prospects for Abbasi’s native Pakistan.

“Pakistan will benefit from ensuring it has the best education possible and if they have education they will see great prosperity. The amount they spend on military is outrageously high and on education it’s abysmally low. India has shown the way.”

And finally, there’s the question of what lies next for Informatica. Most software businesses (think of IBM, Oracle, CA or SAP) attempt to extend out from their bases, finding adjacent markets to tap new revenue streams. Here again though, Informatica is exceptional.

“We have a singular focus,” Abbasi says. “I’ve seen too many companies try to be good at two things and fail. Apple was successful [in multiple fields] but Steve Jobs is irreplaceable. Google may be another, but it’s rare. At Oracle, [where Abbasi spent 20 years] the value of focus doubled year by year. We tried to be an applications company and struggled. It takes relentless innovation and focus to become the safe choice.”

The company is so well entrenched in its space that newcomers are probably as much a threat as longstanding rivals. Within days of our meeting Oracle agreed to buy BlueKai, a data integration startup led by Omar Tawakol, who started his career at Informatica. (Abbasi declined to comment on the deal.) Enterprise heavyweights like IBM and Dell have also bought their way into the market. It’s a hotspot market but for now Abbasi has Informatica where he wants it to be — bang in the middle of the action.

 

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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