Ashish Singru, Senior Director and Head of eBay’s Global Business Analytics Center, in an Exclusive Interview with Manipal ProLearn!
By Aditi Bhat
- Previous experience – Microsoft, SABMiller, Young & Rubicam (Ad Agency), Gallup (Market Research)
- Educational qualification – University of Iowa (Masters’ in Business), Rutgers (Masters’ in Engineering), IIT-Kanpur (B.Tech.)
- Specialization areas – E-commerce, Marketing Analytics, Financial ROI Analysis, Advertising, Customer Loyalty.
We recently had the privilege of talking to Mr. Ashish Singru, who is the Senior Director of eBay and also heads the Global Business Analytics Center of the company. In this interview, Ashish gets candid about his passion for all things data and reveals how he spearheaded the ‘data revolution’ in India. Whether you are a data science enthusiast or not, his life and career lessons will serve as an inspiration to every professional aiming to make it big. So let’s get started!
Manipal ProLearn: You have been named one of the Top 10 Most Influential Analytics Leaders in India by Analytics India Magazine. How did the transition occur from a Research Director for The Gallup Organization to the Senior Director and Head of eBay’s Global Business Analytics Center, and then as one of the top analytics leaders in the country?
Ashish: I began my career 20 years ago when words like analytics and big data were unheard of. I started as a Customer Loyalty Consultant at Gallup because I wanted to grow in a role where I could apply my analytical thinking in a practical setting. One of my passions was also the human aspect of business. So it was the perfect opportunity to kick-start my career.
I worked in the CRM/Loyalty area for six years as a third-party consultant, where I provided recommendations to clients and also helped them with designing and implementing loyalty programs. In that environment, I got to work with the clients’ internal customer databases, extract relevant information, and build models that could be used to drive marketing programs.
Then I moved to the corporate side, where I got to work on all aspects of marketing. I got deeper into using data analytics by combining it with many other sources of insights like customer surveys and focus groups to get a complete picture of the impact of marketing. I spent two years in the data-rich environment of FMCG business, which was educative and enriching, allowing me to create interesting city-level marketing strategies using micro-level data.
I also got to participate in the brutally competitive advertising battles between beer brands and applying data analytics to win them! After that, I joined Microsoft (the US) in a global marketing insights role, where I got to learn and practice how to take a marketing concept and apply it in remote corners of the world while using data to refine and customize what works in different regions. In all these companies, I managed analysts and also a lot of top-notch analytics vendors for my initiatives, and learned a lot from all of them as well.
During the initial 14 years of my journey, my role was primarily to influence decision-makers and various parts of the organization directly as an individual, even though I managed and directed others.
Post Microsoft, I was back in India and worked in a media agency for a year where I was able to help large clients like Airtel launch their 3G services in the urban market with the help of digital marketing while offering value-added services to their rural customers. This role was operational in nature – making sure marketing and advertising programs are launched effectively, and supervising a large team of 60-70 people to deliver the same.
In the last six years at eBay, I have tried to bring together all these experiences to build and manage the company’s global analytics center. It requires experience in understanding data analytics, figuring out how to hire and develop the right kind of talent, building healthy and productive relationships with business units, leaders and colleagues across the company, and creating a strong culture that combines the unique local flavour with the global culture of the company. It has been a continuous learning process, but a satisfying and successful journey.
Manipal ProLearn: You have witnessed the analytics and big data industry grow from the scratch. In fact, you have played an instrumental role in shaping it. How has the journey been for you? What was your driving factor?
Ashish: It has been an enjoyable journey with a fair share of highs and lows. Like I mentioned earlier, there was no big data or digital marketing as such when I started about 15-18 years ago. So the expectations were low from analytics. People did not believe in it yet and we had to use all our persuasive powers along with good data analysis to turn decision-makers into believers.
The analytics ecosystem was smaller and more collaborative those days. Today, we have far more tools for modelling and simulation that make data management and analysis less laborious. At the same time, expectations from analytics have gone up, and those in the profession have to manage clients and stakeholders wisely while educating them in terms of what is possible, how many resources are needed and how quickly the task can be done.
Given all of these realities, the driving factor for me to stay and grow in the analytics domain has been the thrill of coming up with great insights that can drive the business forward or solve a difficult problem. Also, the improved technology (internet, database, visualization) gives analytics professionals a far greater ability to directly plug their work into the organization’s business processes and impact a much wider range of decision-makers as well as outcomes. This is truly fulfilling and keeps me engaged in this line of work.
Manipal ProLearn: Would you like share any interesting project that you worked on?
Ashish: One of the most fun projects was in my early days in analytics when I worked for the second most popular beer company in the US. We used sophisticated time-series modelling for marketing as well as distributing and analysing the data related to the pricing, promotions and even the weather to understand how the preferences of beer consumers differ across ethnic groups and geographic locations. We took into consideration factors like the beer brands they bought, their preferred outlets (e.g. convenience store, supermarket or bar), and the kind of marketing that worked best for a certain group. It was amazing to learn how human behaviour can vary based on so many variables on a relatively simple decision as buying beer. My work also had a major impact on deciding our advertising strategy for different target groups and in different cities across the US.
Manipal ProLearn: How was your experience at Microsoft?
Ashish: Given the vast global scale of Microsoft, I learned a lot there about how a company should develop strategies to serve a wide range of products to an even wider range of consumers in a highly competitive market. The use of data analytics is particularly effective in such complex environment because you have a lot of different opinions on what to do, and data can act as a mediator to help decide on the best course of action.
It also helped me develop a balanced view of how B2B and B2C aspects of technology differ from each other, how products are developed and marketed, and how buyers react to them.
Manipal ProLearn: You have been quoted saying, “You need to take risks in your career, I took some risks in my career and in the hindsight those risks have been the reasons why I am where I am”. Now career risks don’t turn out well always. What do you suggest a back-up plan should look-like in case the risk doesn’t pay off?
Ashish: In my experience, the back-up plan should be the willingness to accept that either the risk was a miscalculation or that you did not put in the right effort to make the risk work, and then take that learning to start a new journey again. As long as you stay humble, curious, and are willing to work hard - failure is less likely to lead to more failure, but rather will lead to more success.
Manipal ProLearn: According to you, what is the biggest challenge that the industry is facing today and how can we overcome it?
Ashish: The industry is facing the challenge of hype. Somehow there are great expectations that analytics will constantly provide ground-breaking insights, ever faster and with ever-increasing complexity. How the growth of analytics in an organization can keep pace with the organization’s style and speed of working is an important question for each participant in the industry. Unclear expectations and lack of alignment on how we run together (Analytics and the rest of business) can lead to friction and frustration, which we should strive to avoid.
Manipal ProLearn: Did you always intend to join the field of analytics? What would have been your second preferred career choice had it not been this?
Ashish: No, it was a truly accidental profession for me. In business school, I had some inspiring professors who lit the spark of interest in the field. Then certain experiences and opportunities led to a growing interest to build a career in this line of work.
Had it not been analytics, I would have probably been a management consultant in the private sector or an economic or development policy consultant in the government sector.
Manipal ProLearn: What is the one trait that you think is essential to thrive in the ever-evolving field of analytics and data science?
Ashish: ‘Curiosity’ – you need to be curious about solving problems using data to be effective each day in your work in this field. You also need to be curious about learning new skills, techniques and business areas to stay industry-relevant and keep evolving in the field.
Manipal ProLearn: What is the one mistake, according to you, that professionals in the field should never commit?
Ashish: Letting personal opinions about a business problem cloud your ability to provide objective data-driven insights – never do that. Often, what we find via analytics is opposite to our common sense and personal bias. I believe we will be doing a disservice to our organization if we skew our conclusions from data due to personal biases.
Manipal ProLearn: You have been in the industry for a long time now, but is there something that you wish you had done differently in your career?
Ashish: If I had to change something… I would take up a more intense business or technology role at some point of my career – preferably at an earlier stage. I think it would have helped me influence decision-makers more effectively.
Manipal ProLearn: What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Ashish: I get to work with extremely sharp and curious people every day. I enjoy working with them to solve problems. I also guide them professionally, which adds to my job satisfaction.
Manipal ProLearn: What is expected to be the next big development in the world of analytics and data science?
Ashish: Purely my personal opinion – I would like to consider a truly big development to be the changed mind-set in organizations on the consumption of analytics. Currently, the skew is much more towards using it as a service provided by a dedicated analytics department. We already have the technology to democratize analytics and use it to self-serve business teams without the need of analysts to service it.
If the mind-set changes sharply towards self-serving a large portion of what is currently consumed, it will be a huge leap forward for analytics professionals because the smart minds in that world will be able to focus their time on the more tricky and impactful needs of the organization.
Manipal ProLearn: A lot is said about the talent gap in the industry. While the industry has emerged as the most sought-after career field in just a few years with several learners signing up for data science and analytics courses, what do you think the self-employment opportunities look like in this industry?
Ashish: I think freelancing or self-employment has a bright future in this industry. Many organizations have a spike in demand for analytics work or have intermittent demand for analytics work. Freelance professionals can help address that sort of demand. Also, freelancers in my view, are highly motivated to keep learning new skills and stay in demand, which can significantly contribute to the upscaling of skill utilization across new tools.
Manipal ProLearn: On a lighter note, what do you prefer doing in your free time when you are not crunching numbers?
Ashish: Outside of work, my interests are not really related to data or numbers. I am a huge history buff, and read a lot about history and historical characters. I also like to watch historical documentaries and movies.
Also, I travel a lot with my family – I am lucky that we share common interests so there is always a general consensus on the kind of places we wish to visit. Another passion is nature, wildlife and bird-watching, which I try to enjoy whenever I get the opportunity – whether sitting in my balcony and observing birds or going to a city park or national park.
I am a huge sports fan as well. Growing up, I played every kind of sport in school. I was an off-spinner for the school cricket team in Class XI. Swimming is my favourite sport and I enjoy both pool and open-water swimming. I love watching cricket, but more than that I enjoy reading cricket history and literature. World Cup Football is also a religion for me.
Manipal ProLearn: Social media has turned into a way of life these days and almost everyone is active on at least one social media platform. However, which popular social media channel do you just not understand? Have tried using analytics to help figure it out?
Ashish: I am not a power user of any social media channel by any means. Frankly, I am still trying to understand all of them! However, if I had to pick one that I cannot seem to get my head around, it has to be Snapchat. My son is 14 and though he doesn’t use the app yet, I will probably learn about it from him one day. In terms of applying analytics to help understand – hmm, it would be a good R&D project for sure, I have no idea of what it will reveal, but it does sound fascinating.
Manipal ProLearn: You are among the most influential analytics leaders in the country and are an inspiration for several aspiring professionals in the industry. However, which analytics and data science leader do you admire and why?
Ashish: Not a specific person, but I really admire all the analytics start-ups, particularly those that are developing analytic products in India. It is not an easy work and certainly not an easy path to success. I truly appreciate their passion and hard work to help and create value in the ecosystem.
Manipal ProLearn: Your advice to those who wish to follow your footsteps and evolve as one of the most influential analytics leaders in India?
Ashish: Stay humble, but confident and persistent with your ideas. Stay brave and calm through the crisis. Always stay curious and wrap it all with hard work. It is incredibly important to collaborate and work well with others as you go ahead in your career. Your success depends heavily on others and vice versa so respect that reality. Treat others the way you want to be treated yourself. All of this will tide you through success and failures.
On that inspirational note, we thank Mr. Ashish Singru for taking out time from his busy schedule and sharing his thoughts with us. His knowledge and experience will help our learners understand the industry better and make smarter choices.