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January 27, 2020updated 28 Jan 2020 11:36am

Five Questions with…Rob Woollen, CEO of Sigma Computing

"We operate under the assumption that humans are naturally smart and curious"

By CBR Staff Writer

Every Monday morning we fire five questions at a senior technology sector leader. Today we’re pleased to be joined by Rob Woollen, CEO and co-founder of cloud analytics specialist Sigma Computing.

Rob  – What’s the Biggest Challenge for your Clients?

Sigma Computing

Rob Woolen

We live in an increasingly data-driven world. If business leaders and domain experts are going to be able to make data-driven decisions, then they need access to all the data that is relevant to them. Perhaps even data that may not seem relevant to them at first.

This has created a conundrum for CIOs: how do they balance giving employees access to the data that they need to be data-driven, with security and governance? Our customers have realised that they can no longer take the ‘ivory tower’ approach, where a select few safeguard all of a company’s data and dole out business intelligence (BI) to the masses, as they receive requests.

Our customers understand that this model is not scalable and will only lead to their demise in this fast-past world. Nor is it realistic to expect everyone at your company to learn SQL, so they can run their own queries in a traditional BI tool. Decisions must be made quickly and they must be made based on accurate data. Not an old report; or dashboard, which hasn’t been updated to answer the types of questions they have today; or worse yet, a spreadsheet full of data that was downloaded who knows how long ago.

What we offer is the ability to safely and securely grant access to data to anyone at the company that has an analytics-minded role – and today, that can be just about anyone at the company, from marketing to sales and finance. Sigma gives CIOs and data teams the peace of mind they need, because they still control the data and can manage who can see what, with a variety of access roles and definitions.

The biggest challenge for our customers now is ensuring that they are getting everything they can out of their data. This is still a fairly new technology and they don’t know what they don’t know.

Technology that Excites You Most?

I love Rust, which is the first programming language to really challenge the 25+ year streak that C and C++ have enjoyed. Rust is similar to C++, but it prioritizes safety, particularly memory safety, without sacrificing performance in any way. It has been the darling of the programming world for a few years now, but hasn’t quite broken into the mainstream vernacular yet, the way Java and C++ eventually did. It did find its way onto a whiteboard in an episode of Silicon Valley, which I got a kick out of.

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I am also still pretty in awe of my iPhone, and smartphones in general. It blows me away that I carry around this small computer with me everywhere I go. I use it constantly – so much more than a traditional computer or laptop. It makes me wonder how much longer those things will last and how the function of a computer will evolve, as smartphones continue to get smarter and smarter.

Greatest Success?

After marrying my wife and having my three amazing sons, I would have to say founding Sigma. I realize we are still getting started, but just founding the company and helping to grow it from a team of three to a company of more than 50, is a dream come true for me.

It has been an incredible journey and I have learned more than I ever imagined I would. After five years, I now know better and understand that I will continue to learn every single day. The day I stop learning will be the day I know this project is complete – at least for me – and it is time for me to move on to the next one.

Worst Failure?

My biggest failure was underestimating human intelligence. The first prototypes for our company assumed a computer would look at data and figure out the interesting questions to ask. The pitch sounded great to a lot of people, but in reality it was pretty useless.

I missed that these humans had lots of knowledge about their company, job, and domain that wasn’t captured in a database table. It took over a year of development to finally accept that approach was flawed.

We operate under the assumption that humans are naturally smart and curious, which is what led to Sigma’s spreadsheet-like interface that nearly every knowledge worker is familiar with. The spreadsheet has stood the test of time because it has proven to be the best interface for humans to say “what if,” experiment, and learn.

In Another Life I’d Be…

In another life I would be a teacher.

I absolutely love computer programming and can’t imagine doing anything else. I also love learning and helping others learn, so being a computer science professor is the perfect combination of those interests.

See also: Five Questions with… Segment CEO Peter Reinhardt

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