Big Day for Big Data

McIntire Professor Jingjing Li and Capital One CIO Rob Alexander host information-packed big data event.
May 2015

Everyone’s talking about big data—but what exactly is big data, and why is it such a big deal? Moreover, what kind of job opportunities are out there for students who are keen on the subject?

It was these questions, among a host of related others, that were expertly addressed by Information Technology Professor Jingjing Li and Capital One CIO Rob Alexander during two big data information sessions held earlier this semester in McIntire’s Rouss & Robertson Halls. Offered to fourth-year McIntire data analytics students and M.S. in MIT students, the sessions marked the first such comprehensive student-oriented big data event the School has hosted.

“Big data isn’t just a buzzword or a passing trend,” says Li, who worked as a Scientist for Microsoft Corp. before joining McIntire’s faculty in fall 2014. “It’s a revolutionary new resource that has the capacity to transform virtually every industry, from finance, to farming, to fashion.” Indeed, she says, “big data is something that everyone needs to understand, because—whether we like it or not—it is rapidly beginning to shape the way we conduct business and live our lives.”

Big Picture

Li kicked off the event with a big-picture view of the big data landscape, elaborating on such subjects as just how whopping the datasets in question are; where all that data are coming from; the particular attributes of datasets that make their accurate analysis so elusive; the tremendous value that can be unleashed through clever analytics; and the enormous projected demand for skilled data analytics workers in all fields. “People often think that data analytics is all about number crunching and developing algorithms,” Li says. “One of the things I really want students to understand is that, while you can’t be afraid of numbers, data analytics is really about having outstanding analytical and sense-making skills so as to solve business problems.”

After offering insight into the technical infrastructure behind the big data phenomenon—including its evolution, key players in today’s infrastructure-provision industry, and where the industry appears to be headed—Li went on to discuss the critical element in the big data story: effective data analytics. “Without analytics, big data is just a bunch of data,” she told listeners, explaining how analytics can be used to produce razor-sharp insights for purposes that may be characterized as descriptive (what attitudes, habits, and tastes characterize a given consumer?), predictive (in what book or item of clothing is the consumer likely to be interested?), and prescriptive (how can a truck driver’s route be changed, based on the analysis of real-time data, for maximum efficiency?).

Still, she said, the richest dataset in the world is useless—or worse—unless an organization has in place the clear business goals, outstanding leadership, and discerning analysts it needs to unearth the value-producing insights that lie buried within it—and then to appropriately act upon those insights. For all its high-tech connotations, Li said, the real power of big data lies within the creative capacities of the people who work with it.

Capital Example

Li’s presentation was illuminated by Capital One CIO Rob Alexander, who offered not only the remarkable story of big data’s role in Capital One’s meteoric rise to big bankhood, but also insight into the breathtaking pace at which that role—and the bank itself—continues to grow and evolve.

Alexander began by offering some impressive statistics. Boasting some 65 million customer accounts, Capital One is the only top 10 U.S. bank founded within the last 100 years. And in keeping with its status as a Millennial (Capital One has only just turned 20), the bank’s outlook is fundamentally digital: It’s by far the largest online bank, and leads its peers on such high-impact social media platforms as Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.

Indeed, Alexander said, the key to the company’s remarkable strength is that a digital strategy doesn’t exist alongside, or in support of, the bank’s primary organizational goals; rather, digital is—and from the time of the bank’s founding, has been—a key driver of organizational strategy. “We are big data,” Alexander told listeners. “Over the years, Capital One has built a solid foundation in analytics, which has been absolutely fundamental to our success.”

It’s the strength of that foundation, he said, coupled with the relentless pursuit of innovation-led improvement—that has enabled the bank to stay ahead of the big data curve: The company’s analysts continue to dramatically reduce their learning cycles, beat their own benchmark models, and learn how to make effective use of more and more types of data, faster.

Still, Alexander said, big data isn’t just a moving target—it’s one that is growing exponentially bigger, more dynamic, and more complex by the day, and within an increasingly competitive space. Capital One’s continued success under such conditions, he said, requires the ongoing development of outstanding compatible production infrastructure, as well as dynamic, innovative governance processes and the ability to attract top talent to the company.

“Big data is a game changer,” he told the audience. “And it’s a lot bigger and more profound than we originally expected.”