Examining the Current and Future State of IT

Naveed Asem (MSIT '13) discusses his role as the Chief Data and Analytics Officer at Donnelley Financial Solutions and what trends he sees impacting IT today.

Naveed Asem (MSIT '13) is the Chief Data and Analytics Officer and Senior Vice President at Donnelley Financial Solutions (DFIN), a $1.2 billion company that provides software and services to help clients communicate with confidence in a complex regulatory environment.

In his role, Asem is responsible for ensuring DFIN makes data-driven decisions throughout the organization. He also works with his peers and colleagues to ensure DFIN is following emerging standards around security, architecture, cloud operations and technology throughout the organization.

Asem's experience in Northwestern's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) program helped prepare him for where he is today, and that's one reason why he enjoys being a part of the program's Industry Advisory Board (IAB). He got so much out of the program that he is happy to remain engaged and help the program continue to grow.

Recently, he took time to talk about his professional journey and where he sees the state of IT in 2019.  

What is your primary goal in your role at DFIN Solutions?

My key goal is to create products that help our clients (internal and external) commercialize and monetize data. This usually involves building products that are secure but in the cloud, using machine learning and artificial intelligence, and leveraging robotic process automation to automate the delivery of products and actionable insights to the end users.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

There are three challenging aspects in the data and analytics space that most organizations focus on:

  1. Data Transparency: In the last few years, there has been an enormous focus on data transparency and trust. This is evident in many global regulations such as GDPR. The biggest challenge here is to ensure data is properly tracked, secured, and made transparent to the end user upon request. Building trust in data is also very important as a growing number of organizations are driving toward a path of a data-driven culture. Losing trust in data can have a catastrophic impact to the general use and adoption of data.

  2. Business Value & Innovation: The success of an organization is greatly dependent on the competency of its products and the continuous innovation that makes these products relevant to the customers. Ensuring that you are continuously improving your products is crucial to ensuring your company and its products don't become outdated and irrelevant.

  3. Security: Our clients trust us with data security when they provide us with their regulatory disclosures. One single breach in security protocol can have a devastating impact to a company's financial position. In the governance risk and compliance (GRC) space, we have to ensure that no client data is made public before it is filed with the SEC. We have solved this challenge in many ways by enforcing IT governance protocols and bringing security to the front-line of product development.

How would you describe the current state of IT today?

You can solve almost any business problem with technology if you are given an adequate understanding of the problem, time to build a solution, and resources to work on the solution. I call these the three legs of a delivery platform. I see the current state of IT as something that addresses these three areas by using the following trends:

  1.  Containerization: This helps with the "time" and "resource" issue of the delivery platform. Nowadays, it is very easy and quick to move an on-prem solution to the cloud with a few clicks of a button using a Platform-As-A-Service offering. However, this move comes at a price. The price is a deep dependency on that cloud provider's software offerings that are usually difficult to move away from. For example, if you are using Microsoft's Azure Functions, you can't easily move to Amazon AWS's Lambda. Companies overcome this challenge by containerizing their solutions using a docker and orchestrating them using kubernetes. This is a new trend for a growing number of companies and adds a lot more benefits on top of being cloud agnostic.

  2. NLP and Deep Learning: I'm sure you're already bored of reading up on the buzz around machine learning and artificial intelligence. Our biggest use case is the natural language processing (NLP) that helps us automatically extract structure out of unstructured data and vice versa. We also use deep learning to automatically tag and annotate data based on historical learning. These uses of ML and AI has provided us with great operational efficiencies and increased our revenue realization.

  3. Ease: One of the biggest trends I see in the current state of IT is a focus on making everything around us. All of these major technological advancements are conspiring together to make our lives easier. Infrastructure as a code gives us a magical button that will build or tear down the infrastructure for our organization. Machine learning and artificial intelligence will find all the hidden and difficult-to-see patterns in your data. NLP is doing a job of a thousand people who may have to manually read through each line of text to pull meaning out. Even things like self-driving cars are making it easy for you to get to places without having to drive.

I think the biggest trend in technology today is a focus around making life easy. I just hope we spend the majority of this saved time in being mindful and living prosperous lives while connecting with each other.

As you look ahead to 2019, what do you think will be the biggest challenge facing the industry in the coming months?

The biggest challenge is going to be security and transparency of not only data but operational intentions around the use of systems. You already see a huge debate in the politics on how social media companies are using our data to influence the operation of their platforms. There will be an even bigger focus on the intention of the operational process and what decisions these companies are making.

What do you think will surprise the general public about data and analytics in 2019?

What I found very surprising is the amount of untapped opportunity in data that a large number of companies have. We can drive an exponential value out of the data that some of the companies collect around user interactions with their system or just audit the trail of log information that they collect. From recommendations to behavior analysis, we can build smart systems that can do our job for us. Why should I have to go to Amazon to order razor blades every month? I'm sure Amazon has enough sale data from my account for it to predict when I will run out of razor blades. Companies all around us have so much data that is just sitting there, without being used.

What excites you most about your job?

I am most excited by — and proud of — the data and analytics teams I have built at DFIN Solutions. This was no easy quest. I had to hire people with experience in many different diverse technologies and industry backgrounds so that I could balance the teams with good diversity and culture.

The hard work of pulling together such a talented team is already paying off. I constantly notice the teams come together when they face a difficult and complex problem by defining a common goal and breaking down the solution into smaller delivery-ready chunks.

I also enjoy learning from my teams about new technologies, delivery frameworks, and their unique perspectives in solving business problems.

Looking back on your MSIT experience, what are two or three lessons that you still implement today?

I focused my MSIT experience on public speaking and explaining concepts to people who were outside my data space. This has helped me articulate ideas to leaders throughout DFIN Solutions. I am able to have a conversation with our C-suite and board at a level where I don't lose their attention and make concepts relevant to what they understand.  

What do you enjoy most about being a part of the Industry Advisory Board (IAB) in MSIT?

I enjoy interacting with other Industry Advisory Board members and our conversations around the future state of the MSIT program. We strive to make the program better and ensure it remains current. I think MSIT is a great program and I have personally learned a lot from it. I am glad I am able to contribute back to the success of the program by being part of the IAB.

What advice would you give to a prospective student considering MSIT?

Try to get the most out of the program and have fun. Focus on building friendships and relationships with your peers and teachers. I still stay connected with a lot of my peers from MSIT.