Ace Hardware Moving Slowly Toward Big Data, But Pace Is Accelerating

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    I’m attending the Teradata 2014 Partners Conference in Nashville this week, and the time sink has already proven to be worth it, if for no other reason than that I had the opportunity yesterday to speak with Mark Cothron, data architect at Ace Hardware Corp.

    A self-professed and unapologetic Teradata fan, Cothron has been with Oak Brook, Ill.-based Ace Hardware since 1986, and he’s been integral at every step along the way in a partnership with Teradata that dates back nearly 15 years. “I’ve probably loaded 80 percent of the data in Teradata,” he said.

    It’s rare to find a single individual who can speak from first-hand experience about the entire history of a company’s longstanding association with an IT vendor, and especially rare when the vendor is in a space that’s as hot as data analytics is right now. So I asked Cothron what Teradata has gotten better at over the years.

    “They’ve taken their suite of platforms, and made it more user-specific, whether you just need an appliance, or an Enterprise Data Warehouse—the new technology that came out in 2008,” Cothron said. “Their recent acquisitions are positioning anybody who works with Teradata to be in a better place to move forward.”

    Cothron said it also positions Teradata well to drive the big data bandwagon that Ace will eventually jump on.

    “Ace is not always bleeding-edge—sometimes we are, and it’s painful, so we try not to be bleeding-edge. Our big data plan has been to wait and see,” he said. “Now, Teradata has a lot of companies they’ve acquired, that they work with, so that when we jump on the bandwagon, the wagon is going  to be going pretty fast, as opposed to five miles an hour, or backwards.”

    As for areas in which there’s still room for improvement, Cothron cited the example of Ace’s recent Customer Information Management suite upgrade. He said they’re in the process of testing it by sending SMS messages to Ace Rewards customers, and getting the multistep communications working in their environment. He said Teradata has a tendency to underestimate the money and time it will take to complete such a project.

    “That’s partly because of the customization that we’ve done over the years,” Cothron acknowledged. “Teradata does a good job of mitigating that, and making sure the value is there. They’ve been a good partner. But they can’t give back the time.”

    Teradata officials noted during a media briefing at the conference that everything the company offers can be provided in the cloud. I asked Cothron how important that is to Ace, and he indicated that at this point it’s taking baby steps into the cloud.

    “We just moved to Salesforce, and we use Informatica Cloud to load Salesforce. And we just moved our Outlook system into the cloud. That’s really our first venture into cloud,” he said. “I don’t know, but I would expect that when we tackle the Big Data situation, we’ll probably at least play with it in the cloud. And it may stay in the cloud. It’s a little bit less expensive to get into that arena when you don’t have to bring the hardware onsite.”

    Teradata also highlighted its adoption of a range of open-source technologies at the conference, so I asked Cothron how meaningful that is to what Ace is doing. He said in his current environment, it really doesn’t mean anything to him.

    “We bring the data in, we load it into our data warehouse, we use it in our customer relationship tool, our analysis and promotional stuff,” he said. “It doesn’t have a lot of bearing on what we’re doing today, but it adds to the breadth of tools and options you have to work with Big Data. So I think it will have a bearing in the future.”

    Cothron explained that one of the biggest challenges he’s facing right now stems from the fact that Ace is structured as a co-op, and doesn’t own the POS systems in the stores.

    “So it becomes a challenge for us to implement some of these new things,” he said. “Trying to interact with the customer at the point of sale [is difficult because] we didn’t build the point of sale—it’s not standard across the stores. And different Ace Hardware stores will sell the same hammer, but with different SKUs. My job is to figure out which hammer they just sold.”

    I asked Cothron about the seemingly ubiquitous problems companies face in finding and retaining people with the data analytics skills they need. He said Ace has turned to offshoring to help mitigate that problem.

    “We have what we need for now, but if I left tomorrow, it might be a problem,” he said. “We outsource to Cognizant in India, but everything they do always comes through me—I’m always the architect behind anything that touches Teradata. Having that, we keep control of the system.”

    Cothron said the only problem he’s had with offshoring is the same one he faces internally.

    “When you get good people in those companies, they move on, and up, and you lose that knowledge,” he said. “Anytime you lose the knowledge, whether it’s internal or outsourced, I think it’s a problem.”

    On the other hand, Cothron pointed out, turnover can sometimes be a good thing.

    “Ten years ago, all that [a lot of people in the business] cared about was wholesale, and what was running on the IBM machine. They didn’t care about Teradata, and they didn’t care about the data warehouse,” he said. “But as those people move on, and new blood comes in, all of a sudden you see a shift in the need and desire for more data. We have a new CEO, who’s young and who grew up through marketing. So all of a sudden, things are changing, and moving a lot faster.”

    A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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