Why Big Data Is a Big Deal

November 14, 2012

Here in Silicon Valley and in many technology hubs across the globe, it’s the buzzword du jour: “big data.” If you consult Wikipedia, you’ll see that it describes big data as “a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools.”

We know what you’re thinking: What exactly does that have to do with Adobe? And the answer might surprise you. In fact, at Adobe, big data is a really, really big deal. It’s integral to the company’s future, to the future of the entire web and e-commerce, and to the kinds of people Adobe is bringing onboard to shape that future.

To understand why, we went straight to Sid Shah, Adobe’s director of business analytics.

Life@Adobe: First, the important stuff: Who is Sid Shah?

Sid Shah: I’m an analytics expert in the Media and Advertising Solutions Division. In plain English, that means that I have a team that’s responsible for the performance management of more than $2.5 billion in advertising spending across search, display, and social media advertising.

L@A: Plainer?

SS: OK. We work with advertisers who use our AdLens platform to advertise to consumers on Google or Facebook or Bing. My team makes sure that our advertising platform is working in the best interest of the advertisers.

L@A: Wait, so Adobe isn’t just Acrobat and Photoshop and Illustrator? That was a joke, by the way.

SS: Yeah, I get that a lot. It’s funny because Adobe is nearly 30 years old now, and we’ve been in the creative space that whole time. But after some big acquisitions over the last several years, we now have something like 17 products in our marketing cloud, too. So it’s understandable that people would still associate Adobe with the creative stuff, especially people who aren’t in marketing or advertising, but this is a huge line of business for us. And it’s only going to get bigger.

L@A: So where does “big data” come into the picture?

SS: Let’s take a step back for a moment. As a society, we have reached a point in technology where we have the ability to collect information about some very, very granular aspects of our lives. And that’s true in every field: biomedical diagnostics, financial markets, weather, everything. In the case of advertising, we can collect incredibly detailed data on how consumers are behaving as they traverse across the web, how they work, things they have a propensity to buy, what their likes or interests are. Advertisers care because they can use that data to reach consumers at the right point in the purchasing cycle, and in the right context. But you can imagine how much data this entails. It’s at point where the human mind simply cannot absorb all this information, let alone analyze it and understand it. So we augment human intelligence with a set of algorithms to make sense of it. You know, the 1960s was the age of Don Draper, of Mad Men, when you did deals over martinis. Now you’re doing deals with data. So for a data nerd like me, this is a great time.

L@A: Don Draper would not even know what to do with this kind of data overload.

SS: Right. Well, most people don’t. So we have this suite of tools, the Adobe Marketing Cloud, which gives our customers a way to collect, measure, and analyze customers’ digital behaviors. It comprises social and mobile marketing tools, analytics, personalization, etc. But in my part of the world, it’s all about AdLens, which lets advertisers manage their campaigns across platforms and across search, display, and social media. We have a really sophisticated algorithm that drives the platform and crunches all of the big data so they get insight they would not otherwise have.

L@A: This is a relatively new field, right? What kinds of backgrounds make someone well-suited to work in this area?

SS: It’s hugely diverse, which is interesting. I come from a biomedical engineering background. We have people on our team from machine learning, data mining, operations research, economics, mathematics.

L@A: Is that diversity because this is such a new field and there’s no such thing as a “big data” major?

SS: Partly, but it’s also because all of these people have something in common: the ability to find signals in a huge amount of noise. So in biomedical imaging, a researcher is looking at huge files of high-resolution MRI images and maybe trying to find the tiny bit of tissue that might be a tumor. Someone who has experience, say, spotting a storm that’s just developing somewhere in the middle of the ocean, or identifying a tiny crop from satellite images of a huge swath of land—that’s the same skill set we use when sifting through the junk noise that exists in big data and trying to find those valuable, actionable signals that mean something.

L@A: This aspect of Adobe actually ties right into the creative aspect, right?

SS: Exactly, because it’s just the next thing that happens to content. First you create it, then you manage it, then you measure and monetize it. So this huge expansion that we’ve done into digital marketing is really a very natural evolution. It enables us to make all of these tools that integrate with each other along every point of the content life cycle. With this kind of integration, there’s no limit to the insight you can capture. And there’s no other company that has both the strong creative side and the strong analytics side all tied together.

L@A: This does sound like a pretty cool revolution.

SS: It is, and this industry is only growing. Things change fast, too, so we tend to attract people who like change. That means a lot of opportunity for innovation. You know, I came from the acquisition of Efficient Frontier, and you would think that when you go from a company of 450 people to a company of 10,000 people that you would see a big slowdown in innovation. But what you realize is that bigger companies have bigger data sets. Bigger customers with bigger data sets have bigger problems to be solved, and it makes things very exciting.

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