ITIQ Spotlight with Justin Saul
Justin Saul is Senior Director of Technology at A Place for Mom, Inc. (APFM). Justin’s career began in the start-up space, where he founded several successful businesses. He joined You’ve Got Leads—a division of APFM that delivers web-based relationship management solutions for the senior care industry—as a Director of Operations focused on strategic IT projects, and then moved into running all technology for the company’s start-up divisions. Justin has considerable breadth and depth of experience in building technical teams, architectures and processes.
It’s no secret that most successful businesses today depend on data—and that’s more true of technology companies and start-ups than any other segment. The ability to analyze information, derive insight quickly, and make confident, timely decisions can often help a software company break into a new market, or a start-up find the right niche to exploit.
But analytics isn’t a magic wand that you can simply wave to solve all of your problems; in the real world, there are all sorts of other factors that need to be taken into account. The human aspect of building a data-driven business can all too easily be overlooked, but it’s critical to success.
We spoke to Justin Saul, Senior Director of Technology at A Place for Mom, to gain insight into the real challenges, opportunities and priorities of a leading senior care company with the spirit of a highly agile tech startup.
Andrea Braida: What is your highest priority data project?
Justin Saul: The company’s IT leaders and I have a lot of top-priority data projects, many of which are related to our growth management. Our growth has accelerated, and some of our data processes need work to repair issues and support future expansion.
A lot of the old ways of looking at metrics, and the old systems in place, don’t support our ability to scale. Not just the technologies, but the business processes. Former measurements and processes are now outdated, or are too tightly coupled and don’t work anymore.
One of the highest priority projects is a data cleanup project to eliminate duplicate records from different CRM systems. My team is focused on isolating, separating and then loosely coupling B2B and B2C data, which will allow us to get to a single source of truth for both datasets. In turn, that will help us better support growth.
Andrea Braida: Growth management is a challenging area of IT. How are you approaching growth management as an organizational capability?
Justin Saul: Our business is adopting an IT prioritization process, and however painful, it is a step forward in our business maturity. I’m currently driving this effort internally, and what we’re learning how to do together is have an ROI discussion; each project we work on has to have ROI.
People in tech are some of the most expensive resources of the company on a per-hour basis. The market is so tight that they are really hard to hire. It isn’t sustainable to treat these resources as a cost center. It is very expensive to get anything done, so all projects have to have measurable benefits to the company.
Another approach that we’re focused on is developer productivity. This means things like migrating to better project management tools, and putting practices in place that lead to better communication between the development teams and product owners. Our goal is to move to a continuous deployment environment.
These are basic concepts in a way, but they’re a completely critical path to help us stabilize and accelerate our growth.
Andrea Braida: How are you using analytics to enhance your data applications?
Justin Saul: We use analytics in two primary ways. First, it helps us enhance the value we provide for our customers. For example, we provide our partners with data insights to help improve their business or relationship with us.
Second, we use it to analyze our application itself. That is, we examine how the application is being used, so that we can feed information back into our product development process and make the next iteration even better.
Andrea Braida: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Justin Saul: The talent shortage. Good talent is hard to come by. If you’re not a top 10 tech company, it is even harder—especially because we’re based in Seattle and we need to compete with Amazon, who offer high salaries, great benefits, and the kudos of working for one of the most prestigious companies in the industry.
We have a limited budget to hire, and unlimited demand for tech talent across the business. Again, that’s why it’s so important to prioritize our IT projects, because we don’t have the resources to work on everything at once. I also wish there was an easier way for both technical and business teams to balance short-term business demands with longer-term planning. This is a challenge across the industry!
Andrea Braida: What career experience to date best prepared you for your current role?
Justin Saul: That is not easy to nail down. I would say, starting my own business was the best experience because it required me to be involved in, and think about, every role. That allowed me to better understand the needs of my customers internally and externally. So, now, when stakeholders or business owners make a request, I have a better idea of what their actual needs are today and what they may want tomorrow. I believe this leads to constructing better solutions.
In my experience, the themes that Justin touched on during our conversation are universal across the tech industry. In particular, talent is hard to attract and expensive to retain, so you need to make sure that all your developers can work as productively as possible—otherwise, you are not making the best use of your highest-cost resources.
An important consequence of this, from an analytics perspective, is that data governance is extremely important. If your developers are spending their time—and your budget—on building a data-driven application, then you need to be sure that the data is sufficiently accurate and consistent to make that application worthwhile. The most sophisticated algorithms and application logic, written by the smartest data scientists and rock-star developers, will not deliver useful results if the underlying data is poor.
One of the best ways to maintain and improve data quality in your organization is to ensure that your data and analytics systems—and in particular, your data warehouse—are built with data governance in mind. Embedding powerful governance frameworks at the system level can help to reduce the risk of human error and streamline your development, testing and quality assurance processes—which again makes developers more productive.
If this is ringing any bells with your organization, a useful next step might be to read the recent study from Aberdeen Group, “The Data Warehouse Evolved: A Foundation for Analytical Excellence”. Among other interesting findings, the author Michael Lock points out that best-in-class companies are twice as likely to have strong data governance procedures in place.
The idea that a well-governed data warehouse could be a key factor in a company’s overall success is an intriguing one. Of course, correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, but Lock’s results are definitely worth pondering.
Either way, one thing is for sure: A Place for Mom regards data quality as such a key issue that it has moved it to the top of its IT team’s priority list. Together with improving developer productivity, Justin and his team see data governance as offering the greatest value to help the business grow.