Powering innovation through Big Data analysis: In conversation with Mike Olson of Cloudera


Last week saw the Said Business School host its flagship entrepreneurial event, Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford (SVCO). The event features a number of high profile entrepreneurs and thought-leaders from Silicon Valley and beyond who share their experiences over keynote speeches, mentoring sessions, workshops, masterclasses and informal social events over the course of the weekend.

As part of our coverage of SVCO, Srin Madipalli, editor of The Renegade Times spoke to Mike Olson, co-founder, Chief Strategy Officer and Chairman of Cloudera, a leading technology company that is making major strides to help companies and organisations collect and analyse the vast quantities of data that they receive in the course of their commercial activities. In the parlance of the technology sector, this phenomenon is often referred to as “Big Data”.

What is Big Data?

I met up with Mike on the Sunday afternoon of SVCO following his fascinating talk on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Our first talking point was to explore and explain what exactly the “Big Data” is and how Cloudera aims to help.

To explain this, Mike outlined how the technology landscape has been transformed in the past decade with both the proliferation of digital devices and the proliferation of people communicating and interacting via those devices. As a result, the amount of information being generated by people, companies, organisations and governments has equally proliferated. Just ask yourself how hard it is to keep up with the all information you get on your social media feeds, emails, instant messaging etc!

Founded in 2008, Cloudera now has over 400 employees across 17 different countries.

Founded in 2008, Cloudera now has over 400 employees across 17 different countries.

With respect to commerce and industry, the same deluge of information holds true. Think of a shopkeeper running a chain of convenience stores. 50 years ago, there would have been minimal technology involved. Logistics and inventory were organised over pen and paper, payments were done with coins and cash and bookkeeping ledgers piled up in the basement.

Fast forward to the modern era, payments are transacted over electronic devices or the web, data is captured via digital sales terminals and operations, logistics and inventory are managed with sophisticated real-time software. You can probably now see how the chain of convenience stores has a ton of data being thrown at it every day about every aspect of its business ranging from information on its customers and purchasing habits to highly granular data on what is being sold and how the item is physically moving through the supply chain.

Mike points out that such difficulties with handling and utilising vast quantities of data are being faced across a spectrum of industries and organisations ranging from commercial organisations to academic research groups and everything in between.

So this is where Cloudera comes in and takes the complexity out of managing information. The company that Mike co-founded creates software that helps organisations collect, capture and store data from wherever it is being generated and organises it into a format that is conducive to analysis.

Creating Cloudera, the use of Hadoop and open source software

Apache Hadoop is an open source software framework published in 2005 that was designed to assist with the storage and large scale processing of data distributed across a number of systems.

Spotting the potential of Hadoop and the opportunities that were available in the world of Big Data, in 2008, Mike teamed up with Christophe Bisciglia, Amr Awadallah and Jeff Hammerbacher who were employees of Google, Yahoo and Facebook respectively at the time to start Cloudera.

Mike Olson, one of this year's speakers at Silicon Valley comes to Oxford

Mike Olson, one of this year’s speakers at Silicon Valley comes to Oxford

In a relatively short period, Mike and the team grew Cloudera into a market leader that has an enviable client list of blue-chip and high profile companies. The company is now planning an IPO to help grow its operations and is currently hiring college and university graduates across a variety of disciplines.

Prior to launching Cloudera, Mike was working for Oracle by virtue of the acquisition of his previous startup, Sleepycat. Mike was a computer science student from UC Berkeley and before starting Cloudera he had been both an entrepreneur and an employee at both big and small companies.

When discussing the question of whether to start a company straight out of college or to join a company, Mike was of the view one can learn a lot by gaining experience at great companies before taking the plunge to launch something. But nonetheless, creating Cloudera was the product of combining a career of engineering and corporate experience in data technology with the enormous potential presented by the opportunities in Big Data.

Big Data, Open Data and Healthcare

Mike and Cloudera are big believers in open source software. The company has contributed to the development of the Hadoop framework and ensured that innovation to the framework has been made available to all. Mike pointed out that highly valuable platforms such as MySQL and Linux were created as open source projects, which ultimately contributed to their rapid development.

The primary topic of this year’s SVCO conference was about healthcare and how technology can help address some of the major challenges facing the sector. In the developed world, healthcare and drug development costs are spiralling out of control and in less developed countries; communities are still being devastated by diseases that constrain human potential and economic development.

So how can technology potentially help? Mike is a firm believer that the data revolution will help address some of these problems. He suggests that better and more efficient ways to both collect and analyse patient data will help clinicians and scientists create better and more cost-effective treatments; and also enable interventions by medical practitioners to happen earlier.

More interestingly though, Mike is of the view that Big Data which is openly and freely shared could unleash a wave of healthcare innovation. The rationale being that freely available data enables more people to work on a problem and ultimately accelerates innovation; much in the same way software rapidly advanced in an open source environment. The second consequence of a move towards shared and open data is that innovation is no longer constrained by geography i.e. Silicon Valley.

Open data would allow scientists anywhere in the world to source data from all around the world to solve local medical problems, which could ultimately create new hubs of healthcare technology innovation in many different places and address difficult healthcare problems.

In a sense, big data allows for the positive externalities of clusters – which in “Michael Porterian” thought is what really leads to accelerated innovation within clusters – to spill beyond the geographic boundaries of clusters such as Silicon Valley allowing other clusters of innovation to develop at lower costs and creating the much sought after multiplier effect of innovation.

By Srin Madipalli (@SrinMadipalli)

You can follow Mike on Twitter (@mikeolson) and if you are interested in finding out about hiring opportunities at Cloudera, visit their Careers page.

Be sure to check out our other features from SVCO 2013!


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