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Data is not just data: Q&A with Ali Riaz, CEO of Attivio

Posted by Chad O'Connor  October 19, 2012 11:01 AM

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1. Attivio develops a technology that helps companies unify data and business content in new ways. What are some of the challenges you see companies facing from a data perspective?
There are three main challenges.

The first challenge with data is that it's not just data. It is data plus content, and that content comes in many forms and from many places. It's easy for people to lump everything into the popular "Big Data" bucket, but that's a bit of a misnomer. It's more like Big Information.

The second challenge is that global companies are made of silos. There are multiple geographical business units, information repositories, applications, interfaces, protocols, ontologies, schemas and untold external sources that don't always match and get along. Just dumping information into these organized but separate systems doesn't help you access it, analyze it or derive business intelligence from it.

The third challenge is that many businesses don't know exactly what they are looking for. Imagine searching for a needle in a giant haystack, except you don't know what a needle looks like or how it feels.

Companies need a better way to access and leverage all of their information at a moment's notice, regardless of where it lives, who put it there, why, when and how it is stored, or what form it takes. They need unified information access. That is the problem Attivio was built to solve.

Big Data Challenges: The What and Why from HB on Vimeo.

2. Do you think Boston businesses have strong global best practices?
I am fascinated by different cultures and how the essence of each culture reveals itself in business. For example, I love that the Scandinavians take such a long-term view and have infinite patience and confidence; I love the aggressiveness and confidence of Americans. We think we can do anything, even when the decks are stacked against us. We are truly mind over matter and I love that. Asian culture has an unparalleled sense of loyalty.

I think Boston businesses have a little of all of the things that nurture great global best practices: vision, perseverance, patience, competitiveness and loyalty. That's the kind of culture we are trying to build at Attivio.

3. How can Boston's life sciences and financial services companies think about data differently?
This is an incredibly exciting time for Boston life sciences and financial services companies to re-think the possibilities of bringing together data and content to solve previously unsolvable challenges. A fantastic example is Relay Technology Management in Cambridge, MA. By working with Attivio and our partner, TIBCO Spotfire, another locally founded company in Somerville, MA, Relay is poised to drive a huge shift in the way biopharma companies put analytics to work. By using unified information access, life sciences professionals can validate opportunities, discover new assets, bridge knowledge gaps and significantly reduce the cost of drug development, which often means "failing fast" so you don’t waste time and can move onto the next great opportunity. That's exciting!

In turn, financial services companies can use unified information access to return to stability with data and content that reduces risk and helps them better understand market conditions. A more stable financial services industry is something this country desperately needs.

4. What needs to happen to make Boston the epicenter of data?
We aren't now?

Seriously, if we aren't currently the epicenter of data, then we are well on our way to making Boston the "hub" for all things data and unified information access. Boston's mix of world-renowned academic institutions, pharmaceutical giants, life sciences innovators, financial services companies, and data-focused game changers like Attivio, EMC, Netezza and TIBCO Spotfire make me believe Boston is the place where data starts to change the world. And even those that aren't headquartered here know they need to invest in a major presence.

Now, we just need to make sure the world knows it.

5. Do you think Boston is a fertile landscape for B2B technology companies to prosper?
Absolutely. One of the main ways Attivio has grown so successfully over the past five years is through the strength of our partnerships with other technology companies and system integrators. Massachusetts is a fantastic place to form long-term relationships that open doors and illuminate new markets for a technology. If Attivio only envisioned its unified information access platform as a technology for financial services companies, then we would have never realized how powerful our Active Intelligence Engine is for life sciences, online publishing, telecommunications and government intelligence. Partnerships have revealed and enabled many of these "aha" opportunities.

With such a wealth of B2B technology companies in Massachusetts, I think we're just getting started on how we can be even more prosperous, together.

The Importance of Partners from HB on Vimeo.

6. You started your career in sales. How can companies better capitalize on business development opportunities to ensure money isn’t being left on the table?
I am so glad I started out in sales because I truly believe it makes me a better CEO. I know what it's like to be on the front lines selling a technology. I know the pressures you feel and I know how, sometimes, a sales team can feel bifurcated from the organization.

Businesses are leaving money on the table by not connecting more closely with their sales force. There is such an enormous amount of business value being left untapped – a human silo if you will.

Whenever a new employee starts at Attivio, we make sure they know that we are going to do everything possible to make them successful. We don't ask, "what can you do for us?" rather, we try to focus on "what can we do for you?" We work hard to afford our team with the support, resources and tools they need to do the best job possible so we can capitalize on the right business opportunities for our company.

Aha! Moments that Matter from HB on Vimeo.

7. You were born in Pakistan, raised in Norway and have worked at technology companies in Switzerland, London and Boston. What secrets to business have you gained from this international experience and how does it manifest itself in the work you do today at Attivio?
I've conducted business in 142 different cities and hired people in more than 60 countries. Despite the vast cultural and geographical differences, one thing always remains constant: people buy on trust. It comes down to delivering everything you say you are going to deliver. When a customer trusts you and you fulfill that trust, they will buy from you again and again. The same is true anywhere in the world.

At Attivio, we don't try to be all things to all businesses. We don't make promises we can't keep. We deliver what we say we are going to deliver, faster than any company in our space. Our customers and partners trust us for that.

The Key to Customer Trust from HB on Vimeo.

8. Attivio just celebrated its five-year anniversary. You've experienced rapid growth in that relatively short time and have hired a lot of people. What are your thoughts on the Boston engineering talent pool and how does it compare with other areas of the country?
In the battle between Silicon Valley and Boston talent, I'll take Boston every time. There is something unique and genuine about Boston engineers that make them so amazing at what they do. They care so much about the work they produce and they are in it for the long haul. As we expand our business to new areas of the world, we look for that perfect "Boston blend" of intellect, commitment, drive and dedication.

9. Attivio has a very high employee retention rate. How do you motivate employees and what makes them loyal?
It baffles me that 80% percent of Americans want to change jobs. That's a really high number. I try to remember that every day as I drive to the office. How can we make Attivio a place where people want to come to work? How can we lower that statistic? So far, I think we're doing a pretty great job. Many of the people who were here with us on Day 1 are still here today.

We all need a sense of purpose and fulfillment in our work. And for most people, that doesn't just come with a salary. A paycheck is important, no doubt, but it's not why people stay at a job. The funny thing is, money is usually the way employers try to retain employees. That might work for a while, but it's not the long-term solution.

At Attivio, we make sure we compensate our employees very well. We hire the best of the best. And, we expect to get the very best from them. But, in addition to that, we are all working for the same reasons. We have a core list of "whys" that describes why we get out of bed in the morning, hug our families, and come here. It gives us purpose, and vision and satisfaction.

Earning Employee Loyalty from HB on Vimeo.

10. What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
This might sound a little unusual, so let me first explain that one of our Board members is also my mentor, trusted advisor and close personal friend. I once asked him to give me a business BHAG -- a big hairy audacious goal. I kept the request pretty broad and had no idea how he would respond. As a trusted friend, he had license to say anything. His response was not at all what I expected. He asked me to take an objective look at my life to make sure that I was doing all I could to take care of myself and my family. I said, "That's not a business goal!" but because he was very earnest in his request, I did it anyway. The biggest change I made was to get serious about getting back in shape, the result of which was losing more than 30 pounds, which I've maintained for more than two years. I was shocked at how much losing that weight energized me and did help our business as well as my health. It just goes to show that business is full of unanticipated surprises and opportunities. You just need to have an open mind and a willingness to trust and to learn.

Mark O'Toole, managing director of public relations & content marketing at HB Agency, helps clients in high tech, clean tech and medical tech tell their stories and engage with their audiences using words, images, video and search.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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