Episode two of Catalog and Cocktails’ season four is in the books!

Tim and Juan welcomed Roel Pot and Valentijn Valstar of data.world customer Vopak to data.world HQ in Austin, and the four explored the best ways to incorporate thought leadership concepts into practice for enterprise data teams.

The group kicked off their discussion by admitting that while a certain amount of “thought leadership” is “B.S.,” the occasional diamond can be found in the rough. The challenge, they agreed, was finding the meaningful, useful ideas and bringing those into your organization.

Roel spoke to the challenge of staying up to date on the news in an increasingly complicated industry, but said he’s able to stay focused by steering clear of flashy, new trends by considering what his organization actually needs.

“Nobody from the business side ever comes in saying, ‘We need a data lake! We need a data mesh!’, laughed Velantijn. “They want to solve their business questions, and then we have to decide what’s needed and how we go about doing that.”

Roel agreed, confirming that the role of a data team in any organization is to find opportunities to solve business problems. The focus, he said, should always be on adding business value.

The conversation then shifted toward how data teams can get to the root of business problems so they know what analysis can solve them. Roel’s answer struck a now familiar note.

“What helps me is to show a bit of empathy,” he explained, becoming another guest who believes true understanding between data and business teams is one of the most-valuable assets an enterprise can create. “You need to really try to understand people and what they need. With a bit of empathy, all your work will be better.”

Learning a Common Language

As a business, Vopak can trace its roots further back than the foundation of the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational which was founded in 1602.

“We’ve been around for more than 400 years,” Vopak CIO Leo Brand once told Juan. “It’s my mission to make sure this company exists for another 400 years.”

To ensure that kind of longevity and success, Vopak focuses on short-term performance and long-term value creation. And one of the ways they ensure that long-term value is by compiling vast amounts of data on their physical assets, which include pipelines and storage tanks scattered across the world. 

“Some of these tanks are 80-years old,” explained Valentijn. “Instead of buying expensive new equipment, we can install inexpensive sensors to see if the tanks are still performing up to spec. And if they are, you can extend their lifespan.”

It’s a simple way to answer a crucial business question using data. The tricky part, said Roel and Valentijn, was understanding what question they were trying to answer.

To reach that understanding, Vopak created a “data academy,” where — according to Roel — “We taught people to frame business questions as data questions.”

“We set up a cross-functional team of data experts and business experts, and we trained them together for two days. We explained what type of analysis we can perform and where the data comes from... And it took us from questions like, ‘How do we cut our carbon footprint?’ to a much tighter focus: ‘What can we change on this terminal that can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions?’”

To Tim and Juan, this sounded like an ideal strategy for upleveling the business and data literacy of everyone in the organization.

“It’s important for the business folks to understand the tech and the data folks to understand the business,” Tim elaborated. “But the business value is always going to be the driver.”

“The industry is still trying to figure this out,” lamented Juan. “The most important thing is clearly bringing together people from all over the business and having them talk to each other. That’s where we’ll share knowledge and people will start to understand each other.”

“Exactly,” agreed Roel. “Driving business value with data is essential. But how do you understand what problems your business has? You need to go out there and talk to people!”

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