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Brian Hills, Chief Executive, The Data Lab

Describe your career to date

I started my career in telecoms, working for HP in test and measurement as a software engineer. One day I found myself in a datacentre of a large telco analysing data and identified the needle in the haystack that lead to uncovering a large case of fraud – I was then hooked on data and analytics. I moved on to work at the University of Edinburgh with astronomers, helping to deploy machine learning models to analyse sky surveys, then back into industry with Sumerian, helping large financial institutions analyse and optimise their IT estates, progressing to lead my first data team. 

 

I moved to Skyscanner to start and build the data team, supporting the growth of the organisation over two years, from 170 people in one office to more than 650 people in six offices around the world. In 2015, I joined The Data Lab to help Scotland realise the economic and social benefit of data and AI through developing a portfolio of services across innovation, skills and community. I have led product development and data science, and moved to CEO in 2022.

What key skills or attributes do you consider have contributed to your success in this role? 

Ultimately, it’s a passion for the purpose of what we do: changing lives and creating new opportunities for our economy and society by catalysing pioneering collaborations across industry, academia and the public sector, anchored in our values of support, respect, innovate and grow. 

 

What level of data maturity do you see across the data industry and what tends to hold this back? 

There is still such a wide spectrum of data maturity across organisations. On the SME and public sector side we work with many organisations who have either not started, or are taking their first tentative steps on their data journey. Key points of friction are: strategy – understanding how data can play a key part of an organisation’s strategy; investment – many organisations lack the investment to move forward, or perceive the investment as too expensive; skills – what skills to hire and how to access/compete on benefits; suppliers – what suppliers to engage with and how to work with them to deliver success. Larger organisations have more resources to tackle many of these challenges and there are well understood playbooks to create data functions. The key challenge for them is access to talent.

What trends are you seeing in terms of the data and analytics resources that are in demand? 

On the talent side I see a growth in untapped potential. There has been a bias in accessing new talent at Msc/PhD level but many new paths to data careers exist, including an increase in college-level education. However, many people following these routes struggle to access roles; there is a need for interventions to provide connectivity here and commitments from employers to engage and invest in developing careers. 

 

What challenges do you see for data in the year ahead that will have an impact on you and on the industry as a whole? 

In a word ChatGPT. The hype and interest in this goes way beyond what we experienced back in the days of the big data hype cycle eight years ago and social media has fuelled public engagement/hysteria. I think everyone in the data industry has a responsibility to discuss and debate these new data and AI technologies and help to engage and educate the public.

How do you see data literacy developing across a) your network and b) the data industry generally? 

I think it’s a top priority. Over the past year there has been a strong focus on upskilling and reskilling for roles of the future and a lot of that focus is on data. In our Data Skills for Work programme, working with colleges, universities and suppliers, we have helped over 500 people in the Edinburgh region develop data skills and are working to expand this across the country. Our online community then enables them to continue their journey by connecting with peers, events and other content.

 

What solutions do you see for the challenge of attracting, nurturing and retaining talent? 

I will always remember a conversation I had at one of our past data talent events. As I was walking round the exhibitors at the start of the day the members of the NHS team told me they were worried no one would be interested in them as they were next to a tech “unicorn”. I encouraged them to tell the stories of how they use data to save lives, the interesting problems they are trying to tackle and how they can help career development. They hired a few people from that event and it was a great success for them. For me, it is about creating a culture that develops a strong sense of purpose and values, which enables data talent to learn, grow and make a difference. 

Brian Hills
has been included in:
  • 100 Influencers 2022 (EMEA)
  • 100 Influencers 2023 (EMEA)