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Interview With Marie Wallace of IBM: All Things Analytic

I recently caught up with Marie Wallace, Analytics Strategist at IBM, at Seth Grimes'  Sentiment Analysis Forum in New York City. A lover of technology with a fascination for “all things analytic,” Marie has spent the last decade building analytics technology at IBM. In this interview, she shares her thoughts on analysis, enterprise solutions and working at the intersection of people and technology.


Your career at IBM has driven innovation across business and society, from your work on content analysis (technology that I understand is now part of Watson) and subsequently people analysis. What were you doing prior to joining IBM and what ultimately landed you there?


Looking back on the academic phase of my career I feel that I was always destined to end up where I am today; using bigdata analytics to better understand people. Why? Because of my fascination with two very different areas of study; firstly the application of mathematics in solving real world problems which led me to a Masters degree in Applied Physics, and secondly my fascination with the humanities (history, sociology, anthropology, ... ) which has influenced much of my extra-curricular activity; from my love of history books to my active participation in several European humanities research projects.

After academia and before joining IBM I wandered around the globe in a number of different technology jobs, never staying longer than 18 months in any company. It was only when I joined IBM that I really found my passion, and to be honest it was totally by accident. When I initially joined IBM to lead the LanguageWare team I knew bupkis about linguistics and was only interested in IBM because they were very active in the open source community and I was looking to get more involved. There were a couple of lucky coincidences that got me the rest of the way. Firstly, I ended up being housed in the Lotus division which was the IBM brand focused on people software. Secondly, I ended up reporting into the Emerging Technologies division, an organization led by the amazing Rod Smith who is an IBM Fellow, Vice President, and one of the most inspirational guys I've ever worked for. Emerging Technologies had an obsessive focus on innovation, new technologies, pushing boundaries, and never accepting the status quo, and provided me a warm nest within which to innovate around my two passions; technology and people.

What drove you to Watson a decade ago? Where do you see its application in the future in business and society? 

I started my analytics work in IBM long before Watson was born so I’ve been part of the journey which saw her grow up from the gem of an idea into an impressive solution that has the potential to transform cognitive computing. As I indicated earlier, it was my passion for people analytics that drove me to the cognitive computing space, where everything I’ve done has inherently been driven by the desire to make computers smarter “for people”.

In 2006 I was working on a European Research project called Nepomuk and out of this project built my first recommender system called SmartAss, short for “Smart Assistant” and also so named to intentionally raise a few eyebrows :-) The project had the tagline “Why should your executive be the only person with an assistant?” and used a combination of content analytics and social semantic network analysis to provide personalized private recommendations that would help you get your job done. The idea being that under the covers, when you are at home in bed for example, it was reading and analyzing your e-mail inbox, calendar, or file system, figuring out your priorities for the day ahead, looking out on the Internet for content than might help you, or even sending e-mail requests to your colleagues in Asia so that the answer is in your Inbox when you arrive into the office in the morning. It would then provide you a synopsis of what it had done for you, with recommendations for your priorities that day.

Why the passion for people analytics? What’s the philosophy behind it? Where do you see it going? Are you interested in building only enterprise solutions, or benefiting greater societal issues?

I personally don’t believe that computers have gotten particularly smart in recent years, at least as it relates to the knowledge worker. They don’t respond to our e-mails, prepare our reports, perform research, read and summarize articles, prioritize work items, etc. They just shove more and more stuff at us and expect us to handle the deluge. This is why I believe that cognitive computing and people analytics will become increasingly important as it aims to “make computers smarter for people”.

Over the last few decades all the analytics focus and investment has been on making enterprises smarter by analyzing transactional data. This tells you WHAT the business does, but if you want to truly affect business outcome you need to understand HOW the business works. With today's explosion in social or collaboration data and with big data technologies, we now have the opportunity to capture and understand a myriad of people interactions. So I feel it’s now time to prioritize analytics for the individual, and I also fundamentally believe that if we make people more effective that will ultimately make the business more effective so everyone wins.

And to your question about enterprise vs. society, I believe that we need to do both. Talking in IBM Smarter Planet terms, when I think about people analytics, I see it in the context of a Smarter City (citizen), Smarter Workforce (employee), Smarter Commerce (consumer), and Cognitive Computing (everyone). I don’t believe we can separate the citizen from the consumer from the employee, and therefore we need to build analytics solutions that span the various dimensions of our lives.

This creates a definite conflict of interest at times. For example; you have a retailer looking to drive a consumer to buy and a consumer looking to save. You’ve a corporation looking to incentivize an employee to share knowledge, and an employee looking to protect their intellectual capital. This makes people analytics not only the most technically involved and multi-dimensional type of analysis, but also the most complex from an organizational or societal perspective.

And to answer your question about my philosophy, personally it’s about putting people first. I want to live in a world where technology enriches our lives and I feel that analytics badly implemented has the potential to exploit. So for me it’s all about ensuring that individual interests are protected, that trust is developed and maintained, and that analytics never exploits the individual. That is how my own personal conscience speaks to me.

What does the future look like to you? 

I tend not to over prescribe my life and therefore can’t predict too accurately what the future will hold. However I can probably guarantee that it will continue to involve working at the intersection of people and technology. It will also definitely combine the business and societal implication of technology and analytics, as I want to be part of creating a world we want to live in and not some Orwellian nightmare. 


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