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Phil Simon (DC'93)

February 2013

Alum Q&A: The Intersection of People, Management and Technology

Phil Simon (DC’93) received his degree in policy and management. Since then, Simon has built an impressive career as a technology consultant working to help companies optimize their use of technology. He has written five books, including 2011’s “The Age of the Platform.” He also frequently gives talks on technology and has contributed to Inc. Magazine, NBC, CNBC, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, BusinessWeek, the New York Times and many other top media outlets. Simon’s latest book, “Too Big To Ignore: The Business Case for Big Data,” will be published in March.

Dietrich College News recently talked to Simon about his career and how he worked with several people with Carnegie Mellon connections for his upcoming book.

Your book that will be published next month focuses on Big Data. What is it about Big Data that companies don’t understand?

Many things. That’s why I wrote the book. For starters, Big Data isn’t a fad. It’s here to stay. Second, old standbys like relational databases just don’t play well with petabytes of tweets. YouTube vides, blog posts, customer reviews, and other forms of unstructured data, Third, Big Data isn’t a tool exclusively for big companies. Small companies, government agencies, and even individuals can harness the power of Big Data.

Who from Carnegie Mellon did you work with on “Too Big To Ignore: The Business Case for Big Data” and what did they contribute?

In the course of my research, I came across the work of Tom Mitchell, head of the Machine Learning Department at Carnegie Mellon. I quote him in the book. As I write in the book, “Computer model predictions based on historical evidence represent ‘one of more positive trends we’re going to see this century,’ he says. ‘We’re just beginning.’” I also gave some props to CMU's data science program.

For informally, fellow Tartan Scott Berkun (MCS ’94) has been a valued friend and source of inspiration for me over the years. Early in my writing career, he answered many of my questions and I read his blog frequently.

Your Twitter bio (@philsimon) says that you “focus on the intersection of people, management, and technology.” What exactly do you mean by that?

All of these are levers to achieve the same business end: lower costs, increase profits, innovate faster, and the like. It’s never about one thing. Take an organization with “perfect” technology but a dysfunctional corporate culture. I’d bet against that company any day of the week. The best companies understand that everything works as a system. In my writing, speaking, and consulting, I try to focus on those elements—and how they interact.

Your work as a technology consultant has spanned several industries – from health care and manufacturing to telecommunications and education. Are the technology problems they face similar?

Not really. Their ultimate aims are just too different. Organizations that focus on education for the most part don’t think in terms of a P&L.; As such, their technology tends to be pretty run-of-the-mill. Healthcare’s a bit different because profits matter, although the presence of a third-party entity (insurance companies) skews incentives. Telecomm and other “fast” industries tend to operate at lower margins. As such, their technology tends to be on the leading edge. Profits are fleeting; very little is guaranteed.

How did your undergraduate work at CMU help prepare you for your career?

Oh, gosh. I could write a book just about that. For one, CMU forced me to challenge myself. It’s one thing to be a smart cookie in high school, but imagine attending a school in which everyone was near the top of his or her class. Beyond the standard axioms, though, CMU placed a strong emphasis on technology—and I have always taken that with me. As they say, “even the poets can code.”

Without question, the workload CMU was off the charts. Still, once you realize what you’re capable of doing, “real world” projects become less daunting. Too Big to Ignore is my fifth book in the last four years—and I don’t write short texts. CMU gave me the confidence to know that I can accomplish what I want.

Finally, CMU imbued me with a passion for knowledge. I want to learn—even after nearly 20 years of graduating. Not everyone has the time nor desire to keep improving. I don’t think that will ever go away, and I have CMU to thank or blame!

What do you miss the most about your time at CMU?

My friends and the challenging academic environment.

Want to connect with Phil Simon?

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Contact Shilo Rea, Director of Public Relations at or (412) 268-6094.


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