by Rebecca Merrett

Kelly Ferguson: When data really matters

Nov 18, 20137 mins
Big DataInnovation

Turning data into actionable insight is a big part of Kelly Ferguson’s role at Mi9. As CIO, she is analytical, pragmatic, but also has a softer human side that makes her the complete package.

Ferguson landed a job at Microsoft in the United States when she first came out of university about 14 years ago. Her first role with the company was in finance, “a 12 hours a day staring at Excel kind of job”, she describes.

Even though it was not the most enjoyable role, she says, it did set her up to think hard-headedly, which is a huge benefit in her current role as CIO.

“I think it means I can bring a pragmatic approach and I tend to think before I act. I do run part of our procurement division here and my co-workers tell me I have a good reputation as a penny-pincher,” Ferguson says.

“I think it’s an advantage, and for any business to remain competitive, I think finance is a huge part of that. You have to be fiscally responsible and somewhat conservative and if you can do that, it generally leads to success.”

I do run part of our procurement division here and my co-workers tell me I have a good reputation as a penny-pincher

While at Microsoft, Ferguson moved her way up to the services division doing a mix of analytical and people management work. She says her time at Microsoft gave her exposure to new technology, which fed her passion to pursue a career in IT.

“I had opportunities to really play with some of the coolest technologies,” she says. “I had friends who were developing SQL and [creating] the latest versions of Microsoft products. Just that exposure gave me a passion for technology.”

Ferguson says that her experience at Microsoft and obtaining a PhD in applied mathematics certainly helped her to take on the CIO role at Mi9, which she has been in for just over one year.

She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Studies, which she says has given her some foundation to becoming more of a ‘people person’, rather than someone who hides behind a desktop computer all day.

Mi9, being a digital media company, relies heavily on data to drive both content and technology development. Ferguson works with the data scientists team to ensure that business operations run smoothly, and content creators are getting the information they need to engage readers across Mi9’s 80-plus websites.

Ferguson and the data scientists team recently discovered that a lot of readers were viewing television content past 6pm daily. TV content reaches about 4 million unique visitors a month, a good portion of Mi9’s total readership.

“We’ve made some changes to our home page directly as a result of the behaviour and the data that we’re seeing such as the time of day that people are clicking and what they are clicking on.

“Generally, in the morning people click on a lot of serious news. Around the middle of the day or lunch time you see a little bit of serious news followed by a lot of Kardashian-type content. You see a little bit of spike in news at the end of the day around 5pm.

“Then what we saw was really interesting in that post-6pm [timeslot], the majority of our audience are interacting with television news, television-entertainment news, articles about TV celebrities, and our EPG [electronic program guide] content.

“Our Jump-in and Catch-up [services] became unbelievably popular. So we make sure we are surfacing content in those categories as customers need it.”

Jump-in and Catch-up enable users to download TV shows online.

Ferguson is also using some of that insight to improve the Web experience of the Jump-in website. “It led us down a path where we started thinking about what’s going on with our EPG – should we improve it and can we make that experience better? How do you get to a show page? What do you have when you get to a show page? Are people clicking on the content? Are they interacting with that content? Are we giving them what they need?

“We are able to combine both the art and the science into really clear business outcomes.”

Ferguson and the data scientists also provide carefully curated insights to the editorial team to help with their decision making around which content is working well and which isn’t. She says it’s important not to get too carried away with the data by bombarding editorial with loads of information, and rather answer their specific questions and queries.

“When the data scientists team is surfacing content they are not just sending journalists many charts. They are also not sending many pages in Excel. They are sending one or two carefully curated charts that answer a very specific question.

“Now the conversations that we have a far more better – it’s about ‘what else could we do, what if this, what if that?’ rather than ‘I don’t think that data is right’. So there’s no more questioning about the data, it’s a much more fruitful and effective conversation around what the data means.”

Ferguson recently started using technologies such as programming language R and Hadoop to process petabytes of data in real time to churn out useful information more quickly and efficiently.

Related: Automating data analysis with R.

“It was taking us almost a week in order to process just one day’s worth of data. So we had about 30 million rows worth of data on daily basis, and it was talking us a week to process through our ETL [extraction transformation loading] system,” she says.

“We felt we were on the back foot at times when we were trying to give feedback. We were providing data a week late, or a week on from when the event happened and hearing the editorial team say ‘it would have been awesome if we knew that the next day rather than seven days later’.”

Creating an innovative organisation Ferguson helps lead a quarterly informal ‘Hackathon’ event at Mi9 where the design, data science, business applications, software development, and other teams get together to develop their ideas into concepts over a couple of days. These ideas could potentially be turned into new products and services. One idea that originated from one of these events was to create a real-time video dashboard. The video and IT teams worked together to build a concept and the project is now in production. Ferguson encourages external partners to participate in the hackathons either as judges or to assist in the development of the event. Mi9 has previously partnered with the likes of Amazon, Azure and Pollenizer for these events. The purpose of bringing in external participants is to bring new perspectives on how to go about solving a problem, or address a need, or even invest in something entirely new, Ferguson says. “We also had an interesting discussion with one of the leading Sydney-based universities earlier this week about having some of their students come in and we pay them to work with some of our teams directly in one of those hackathons. “It’s nice to get a different perspective. And what we found with the hackathon, it does tend to [attract] really cross functional teams working and pulling themselves together. So there’s an opportunity to reach out into the academic community as well.”

Follow Rebecca Merrett on Twitter: @Rebecca_Merrett

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