As President and CEO of Giant Oak, a software company focusing on big data and behavioral analytics, Dr. Gary Shiffman keeps busy, which keeps him happy.
“Being the CEO of a small and growing company is the most fun I could imagine having in the office,” he said. “It is a process which requires one to do 50 different things every day, and I love the pace.”
But running a successful company is far from being the only thing Shiffman has on his plate. He has been a professor at Georgetown University for the past 12 years, the place he describes as the source of his greatest intellectual challenges. And this is perhaps the key insight into understanding Shiffman.
“When I’m in the classroom, I bring real world experiences with me and that benefits my students,” he said. “But my students challenge me more than anybody that I meet professionally, and that is why I love them. I’ve been in government for half of my career; I’ve been in the room with generals and admirals, with the President of the United States, with cabinet secretaries. I’ve been with the C-suite of Fortune 200 companies. But none of those experiences have challenged me to the extent that 18 Georgetown graduate students challenge me each week. So my professional experiences make me a better teacher, and time in the classroom helps me stay on the frontiers of knowledge, building better tools to engage in the national security fight.”
With a Ph.D. in economics, Shiffman is well equipped to bring valuable knowledge and experience to that fight.
“The massive growth in data creation, aggregation, and storage has the potential to change the way we work in law enforcement, intelligence, and defense in the sense that the availability of high value data is no longer limited to data that we get through the intelligence community or other official channels,” he said. “The evolution of the internet of things (IOT) and proliferation of personally generated data make the world of valuable data much larger than it ever has been. As scientists, we’ve always worked with data; as social scientists, we observe human behavior in order to build models and make predictions. So-called ‘big data’ allows us to do this with more precision. As members of the defense, intelligence, and law enforcement communities, we need to get better at extracting value out of data, especially the new forms of data that we are not used to exploring.”
One of the big questions surrounding big data is how to leverage it so the government can do more with less, and we posed that question to Shiffman.
“If we’re doing this right, what used to require 100 analysts could take 10, or those same 100 could do the work of 1,000,” Shiffman said. “The challenge is finding efficiencies from data, analytics and business processes. We haven’t done that yet because this additional data is new and organizations don’t have the capacity to make sense of it yet. The market — industry — must provide the mythical data scientists, but this workforce does not exist at scale yet. And the market must provide tools that allow non-math-y and non-coding domain experts to draw correct conclusions from ‘big data.’ Thinking about the market today: this is where opportunities lie.”
As an economist, Shiffman is trained to find efficiencies, and he and the Giant Oak team are bringing that expertise to their government clients.
“We have deployments in and out of government where we are doing more with less–where we’ve executed a process that would’ve taken weeks and accomplished it in minutes,” he said. “Giant Oak is focusing on the analytic process in a specific domain and finding ways to leverage data and turn it into relevant information to accomplish a mission.”
“We’re not trying to build one analytic that works across all domains; we’ll build domain-specific analytics, for a human trafficking, drug trafficking, counter-terrorism, money laundering, etc., and we’ll build them in conjunction with the specific user communities that use them.”
When he isn’t busy leading a company or teaching the data scientists of the future, Shiffman enjoys catching up on his reading, whether it’s a new book to help him teach big data to the captivating power of fictional villains.
“A piece of non-fiction that I’m going to start promoting to all of my colleagues is Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data by Charles Wheelan,” he said. “We had this rush to big data and we developed our first generation of analytics that were mostly wrong in the sense that they caused us to draw the wrong conclusions. If everyone in the policy community would read Naked Statistics, we would do so much better as a national security community in drawing the right conclusions.”
And for the role of fiction?
“At Giant Oak we spend a lot of time talking about fictional villains and why they’re relevant to people engaged in real world law enforcement and defense,” said Shiffman.
“At Giant Oak, we find motivation in the challenge of finding Keyser Söze, for example, the uber villain from the 1995 film, The Usual Suspects.”
“Regarding the internet of things and predictive analytics, it seems The Matrix might be instructive — ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’”
At the end of the day, Shiffman is an economist at heart, and his training provides a unique lens through which to view the big data industry.
“We frequently hear the analogy that data is the new oil. But what good is unrefined oil? Analytics is the new refinery,” he said. “In the last several years, we focused on making data available. If data is oil by analogy, we’re at the point now where we need to take crude oil and turn it into something people can use, like kerosene. Rockefeller will rise where Vanderbilt once stood. That’s where we are in the data world — we must develop refineries, these methods for taking crude, or raw data, and make it useful to everyone.”
We asked Shiffman who will be the Vanderbilt or Rockefeller of the big data industry. “Giant Oak,” he said. “Giant Oak will be the Standard Oil of the big data industry.”