Data Scientists Should Eat More Noodles

For data scientist Doug Brown, foreign countries and foreign food—not technology—sparked his successful career

The road to big data is typically paved with statistics homework and computer science certificates. But Doug Brown didn’t take a prepaved road—instead he paved his own. For him, the building blocks for a career in data science were passport stamps and Taiwanese noodles.

Originally from Toronto, Brown moved to the United States when his father was transferred to his company’s global headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Although Wisconsin is less than ninety minutes from Toronto by air, to a twelve-year-old boy, it felt a world away.

“It was life-changing,” recalls Brown, now vice president of operations for IRi-Aztec Canada, the Canadian subsidiary of Chicago-based market research company IRi. “I remember looking up the state in the phone book and telling my parents that Racine, Wisconsin, was in the 414 area code.”

Although American culture wasn’t drastically different from Canadian culture, Brown found even the subtlest differences—like his friends’ obsession with American football and deer hunting—titillating.

“Even if you’re only an hour’s flight from a place, some crucial, core elements of the way you live could be very different,” Brown continues. “Moving countries at a very young age definitely influenced me to embrace differences and helped me realize that change can be a very good thing.”

Wisconsin gave Brown his first taste of international citizenship, but not his last.

“My dad became S.C. Johnson’s area director for Asia when I was a university student, and I visited him in Manila a few times during summer breaks,” recalls Brown, who studied advertising at the University of Wisconsin. “He took me to Hong Kong in 1984, right when the United Kingdom agreed on the colony’s return to China, ending more than 150 years of British rule.”

So began a lifelong love affair with Southeast Asia—Brown subsequently began studying Mandarin in anticipation of working in China. He finally got his chance in 1991 when his employer, Toronto-based AC Nielsen, offered the twenty-six-year-old a job in Hong Kong.

“You have to understand that in this large world of ours, everyone is different and it’s vital to understand and believe that ‘different’ is not ‘bad.’ It’s just ‘different.'”

Brown’s first job out of university had been with a consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) company where he operated shelf-management software that helped salespeople influence shelf placement in supermarkets. “I was asked to operate the program and introduce it to the sales team and retailer customers,” Brown says. “It, too, was life-changing because I had to measure all the cookies and crackers in a supermarket and build a computer replica of the shelf set, then reorganize it according to how shoppers purchased cookies. That process of empathizing with consumers has been part of my entire career.”

AC Nielsen, which owned the software, recruited Brown from his role as a client to help it develop its category management practice in Canada. Nielsen Canada was the global headquarters for developing markets and decided in the late 1980s to leverage its software and expertise to establish itself in new Southeast Asia markets.

“It was a perfect storm of sorts: I wanted to go where no one else was interested; I was young and cheap, with a wife and no children; I only spoke basic Chinese, but spoke it more than anyone else at the company; and I was an expert in their tool of choice,” says Brown, who spent the next sixteen years living and working in executive retailing roles across Southeast Asia before settling permanently in Vancouver in 2008.

Today, he’s leveraging his experience with diverse cultures to help global retailers understand diverse customers.

“My international experience taught me that tolerance is a virtue, and it applies to much more than interacting with people from different countries. You have to understand that in this large world of ours, everyone is different and it’s vital to understand and believe that ‘different’ is not ‘bad.’ It’s just ‘different,’” says Brown, who applies his cultural literacy every day at IRi-Aztec, which captures, tracks, and interprets consumer data for its retail clients. “It’s important that a shopper insights analyst be able to step out of their belief system and never have preconceived ideas about what the data is telling them. This kind of bias leads them to ignore obvious insights and harms their ability to form conclusions about things that are outside of their beliefs.”

For example, while he lived in Asia, Brown worked for a Dutch retail group that was opening supermarkets in Thailand.

“When the Dutch management team asked to see the top-ten-selling items, they questioned the list I gave them, which had Johnnie Walker Black, followed by bird’s nest soup, chicken tonic, baby powder, and UHT milk,” he says. “‘Where were the cheese, deli meat, bread, and fresh milk?’ I had to explain that Asians are often lactose-intolerant and they don’t eat sandwiches. Thirty percent of global Johnnie Walker sales are in Thailand and we were the largest liquor retailer. Bird’s nest soup and chicken tonic are commonly given to ailing people by caring Thai friends and family. Thais apply baby powder to combat the heat and humidity, and the Thai king was leading an effort to introduce shelf-stable milk to Thai schoolchildren for nutritional purposes.”

Whether you’re a retailer in Vancouver or Bangkok, Brown says, understanding data in this fashion is more critical today than ever before.

“Intellectual property is as important as physical assets these days,” Brown says. “The CPG industry moves very, very quickly, which everyone can see firsthand by visiting the supermarket. Every week there are thousands of deliveries from hundreds of suppliers to warehouses and stores, thousands of new prices and promotions, hundreds of new items, and a vast amount of data changing hands behind the scenes to make all this happen. It’s vital in the bricks-and-mortar retailing world to have physical stores in good locations, but the size and complexity of just keeping them filled with the right product assortment and quantity requires a massive data-analytics effort.”

IRi-Aztec leads that effort by painting a picture about what is driving in-store sales, using its data about prices, promotions, advertising, social media, card marketing programs, product displays, etc.

“A simple example is a promotion that offers a better price if the shoppers buy multiple units,” Brown says. “A client told us they had been running a ‘3 for $9.99’ promotion regularly for years. They were unsure if the ‘three’ was valid and asked us to analyze this. We found that on a regular basis, shoppers buy 2.8 units without any incentive, so the promotion was likely driving little or no extra purchasing and was therefore just rewarding shoppers for doing what they normally would have done anyways. The client changed their promotion mechanic to ‘4 for $12.99’ and occasionally to ‘5 for $15’ to see how far it could motivate shoppers to buy more.”

The world is increasingly smaller and interconnected due to technology, and companies can now act globally without necessarily having a physical footprint.

Prepping your data plan

What’s the use of having a bunch of numbers if you don’t know what they’re for? Here are some of the services in which IRI-Aztec breaks it down:

MarketEdge allows the user to see how the performance of their market might impact product pricing and distribution

Customers take centre stage in this set of data analytics: ShopperView defines key customer types, frequency of purchase, and brand loyalty behaviours

Need perspective? DecisionAnalytics works to give a holistic view of how the business is behaving with up-to-the-minute data sourced from multiple directions

For those on the move, the Aztec Mobile app can show sales trends for any product with a bar code—simply scan, and voilà! Retail and distribution numbers on the spot.

“Our servers and data reside in a state-of-the-art Rogers data centre in Toronto, and the 24/7 Rogers engineers have more physical contact with our equipment than anyone else,” says Brown. “But our data engineers and analysts in western Canada, Cape Town, and Sydney form a global data-access chain that allows them to interact with the information as if the server was next door. Our South African colleagues perform quality control tasks on their Monday, which is our Sunday, and having this ‘extra’ day gives us time to maintain our high service level.”

His experience with diverse cultures and data sets has taught Brown that success isn’t always a right answer; often, it’s a good question instead.

Whether you’re a supermarket trying to increase your profits or an individual trying to advance your career, it’s that sort of inquisitiveness, Brown believes, that will get you there.