CDO interview: Brandon Hootman, director of digital data, Caterpillar

Manufacturing giant is modernising its data management and turning to digital to steal a march on its competitors

Brandon Hootman, director of digital data at Caterpillar, is committed to helping the manufacturing giant use technology to improve how it provides services to customers. So committed, in fact, that it’s a matter of family pride.

“My father worked at Caterpillar,” he says. “It was shared with me at a pretty young age that if you get an opportunity to go work there, it’s a pretty exciting place to work. It’s a large company, but it also feels like family, too.”

Hootman joined Caterpillar 20 years ago. Having worked in a range of increasingly senior IT management positions, including a stint for the company in Belgium, Hootman became director of digital data at the start of 2019.

“It’s been really interesting to see over the last 20 years not only the evolution of what Caterpillar has been doing, but to also see the role that technology has played in that transition,” he says.

Modernising data management

Hootman’s role at the company encompasses digital ecosystem and data capabilities. He is responsible for overseeing the management of the data that drives Caterpillar’s digital proposition, which includes a broad range of customer-facing and dealer-facing services.

“It isn’t about the digitisation of manufacturing,” he says. “My work is focused on the external elements. So, we have a very large independent dealer network that produces a lot of data. My team is responsible for bringing that data in, harmonising that data, cleansing that data, and then ensuring that data is available across the back-end of our ecosystem.

“In that process, we have learned a lot about modern data management. And in addition to my role in digital, I chair our enterprise data strategy and enterprise data council, where we work with cross-functional units inside of the enterprise to help them get the data right and ensure that – as they are building that data capability – we are able to share it and leverage that across the enterprise.”

Hootman says his team’s data-led efforts are helping Caterpillar to steal a competitive march on its competitors. While legacy technology systems might once have been a limiting factor to digitisation efforts, the work that his team has completed has created strong foundations for the company’s long-term development and analytical processes.

“There have always been ambitions to have a unified back-end, where you have a consistent set of data to drive success in other areas, whether that’s applications, analytic use cases or business intelligence,” he says. “However, the technology was never mature enough to be able to do that.

“Prior to the work we’ve now undertaken, a lot of our digital properties were run as a full stack, where they processed, stored and managed the data independently. Being able to unify and federate data on the back-end for consistency, speed of transactions and decision-making was the real opportunity that we had to aim for.”

“We spent a lot of time getting the core foundational data right and now we are crossing into the exciting part of it”

Brandon Hootman, Caterpillar

Hootman’s foundational efforts have been centred on a number of areas. The company has a strong internal team of data specialists, including product managers, solution designers, architects, engineers and scientists. As part of its foundation-building processes, Caterpillar developed data pipelines and a supporting management infrastructure in-house.

The company was also keen to use cloud technologies to help make a clean break from resource-intensive extract, transform and load (ETL) processes. The aim was to use on-demand IT to create a more efficient way to process and share the huge amount of information the company collects and stores.

“We put a lot of effort early on into building our core capabilities, data pipeline, management functions and those types of thing,” says Hootman. As part of this underlying infrastructure, Caterpillar implemented Snowflake technology in 2017, which provides a data lake to help bring information together in a single location.

“Snowflake has really allowed us from a digital standpoint – but, probably more importantly, from an enterprise standpoint – to bring in and share a lot of data across other functional units within the company,” he says. “That has truly allowed us to unlock value.”

Hootman says Caterpillar can now share data across the business without having to do a full unmanaged replication of information, which might have been the case in the past when users relied on ETL. He says much of his team’s work from a processing standpoint has been focused on ensuring the business benefits from a consistent view of its data.

“We spent a lot of time getting the core foundational data right and now we are crossing into the exciting part of it,” he says. “We’ve got a core of data within our digital platform that we now get the opportunity to really start to combine and utilise in different ways. So, we’ve got several exciting use cases coming up within digital that take the use of data to the next level.”

Developing data-led services

Hootman says one of the areas where his team is focusing its attention is the next generation of its fleet-management applications, which are used to provide insight to the firm’s smallest retail clients all the way up to larger, more complex customers.

“It’s really exciting how the data comes together to be able to support that work because it’s not just telematics data – it’s not just about, ‘where’s my asset, how many hours are on it and what’s the fuel burn on it?’. We’re now bringing in service history of that asset and utilisation of that asset to really help our customers make better decisions,” he says.

Hootman says the work his team has undertaken on the underlying platform is crucial in helping the firm to create new data-led services. The objective is to create a digital ecosystem of joined-up apps that provide insight from across the company’s data resources.

“So, as you go from managing your fleet of assets, if you do need to have service done on those assets or order parts, it’s a much more seamless process of being able to navigate between that and our commerce system,” he says. “We’re really proud of the work that we’ve done on the back-end of the platform to be able to support that process.”

What remains crucial going forward, says Hootman, is that digital is a core enabler for the supporting services that Caterpillar wants to create for its customers. He wants to ensure that when customers buy the company’s products, whether at the smallest scale on a construction site or up to large-scale equipment on a mining site, that they get the most value from their assets.

“Our digital solutions help them manage asset availability, utilisation, scheduling and maintenance,” he says. “We want to ensure that, as those service events happen, it’s a very seamless experience for the customer in terms of interacting with our dealer network and getting the services they need. So, we are squarely focused on the customer use case and how we continue to optimise that and make the experience better.”

Driving cultural change

So Hootman’s data-led transformation efforts continue at pace. Crucially, he says, the key to ongoing success is much more about his ability to drive cultural change across the organisation, rather than simply the introduction of technology.

“What helped us is taking the time to really understand our business and how data should be structured to support that business,” he says. “If you start with the technology first, you end up building something and you take it to the business and the business has a hard time rationalising what you’re trying to achieve.”

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Hootman says his team spent time analysing core digital skills across the rest of the enterprise at the beginning of the data strategy. They went to each domain and identified the business leaders who should be accountable for data. Creating this structure allowed them to focus on longer-term goals.

“As we started to decompose those domains down into the data to be able to support their work, it meant the data was explained in the terms that the business understood,” he says. “Making sure the data was organised in a way that represented the needs of the business was extremely important for us.”

Hootman says building this data-enabled culture has helped to create a sense of effective digital leadership. Although technology and engineering capability will always be important, successful leaders must build strong bonds with the people who use data on a daily basis.

“Having one foot in the business and understanding the business is extremely important, especially when it comes to data,” he says. “You have to be able to decompose what the business is doing with the data, whether that information is being generated by an asset or whether it’s being generated by a system.”

Leading from the front

Hootman continues to hone his own personal approach to digital leadership, and says it is crucial for data professionals to keep a watchful eye on broader industry trends.

To this end, Hootman represents Caterpillar on the MIT Center for Information System Research, which provides academic research insights for business technology leaders.

“Focusing on the next horizon in terms of waves that are coming has been really helpful for framing where the strategy needs to be on a longer-term basis,” he says.

Back at base, Hootman says there is a significant range of data-led efforts that will continue to keep his team busy. With the company’s commitment to digital transformation, it’s an exciting time to work for Caterpillar, he says.

“I feel it’s very gratifying to see the work that we’re doing now,” he adds. “It’s the culmination of a lot of ideas that we’ve had and the technology is allowing us to bring those together. We are making significant investments in technology and the teams that are building things with those systems.”

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