Robert Curtis, Managing Director, APAC, InterWorks

As part of a 25-year career in data and technology, Robert has been assisting organisations in Asia Pacific of all sizes and verticals in finding and maintaining success with their data and analytics. In his 15+ years with InterWorks and serving as the Managing Director for Asia Pacific, Robert has worked with some of the largest companies in the world as a trusted advisor and solution partner.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Robert shared his professional trajectory, insights on the future of data science, the best piece of advice he has ever received, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Robert. Please share your background and areas of interest.

My primary responsibility is managing the success and growth of InterWorks’ business in Asia Pacific. This means I get to work with customers on delivery of their data solutions, build and grow with our amazing technical partners, manage a great team of consultants in Australia and Singapore, as well as set the strategic direction of our business both in APAC as well as globally in collaboration with our senior leadership.

What is your most favorite aspect of your current role as Managing Director, APAC at InterWorks?

There are a lot of things that I really enjoy about my role at InterWorks. The first is that we have a pretty stringent hiring method, which means we’re only looking for super-star candidates. We’re a relatively small consultancy, by design, so our ambition is to put amazing people in every position. Getting to work with this quality of people every day is the best part of my job.

The other thing that makes this role special for me is that I founded our business operations over here in Asia Pacific. It started 10 years ago as a solo operator and now we’re in four different cities across two countries with hundreds of clients. It was a lot of hard work, but looking back at the journey, it’s been an incredible adventure.

What does the future of Data Science look like?

The future of data across every discipline is generative AI. As a tool, it opens up more solutions for our customers. With scalable cloud computing, we now have essentially unlimited compute on demand which is essential to train AI models for maximum value. And it’s revolutionising new solutions across every industry vertical – healthcare, supply chain, energy, manufacturing, retail, you name it.

When generative AI reaches maturity in the next 12 months or so, it will the biggest distruptor in business, potentially ever.

With 25+ years of industry experience, according to you, what skills or characteristics make someone a seasoned data scientist?

My role and the team we’ve built here in Asia Pacific is composed of a lot of data specialists – data architects, data engineers, data scientists, platform architects, analytics specialists, and many more. And the common trait across all these roles that more clearly predict a successful career is simple.

It’s a commitment to working hard.

All the other things that are needed – technical acumen, certifications, customer relationships, managerial experience – all of that comes from showing up every day to work with the aim of producing an exceptional outcome for every encounter you have, whether its with a client or a partner or a co-worker. You show me that level of commitment to excellence, I’ll show you someone that is going to have a stellar career.

The meaning of leadership can change from one era to the other, how would you define the meaning of leadership today?

I’ll break this down into two categories. There’s the technical requirement of leadership and then there’s the attributes of being a leader. They are slightly different.

My role requires me to take extreme accountability for the performance of my region (Asia Pacific) and my team. This includes our delivery of data solutions to clients. It also includes our profitability, our Go to Market approach, the effectiveness of our systems and processes in operations, sales, and HR. All that and more. To assist me, I have built up a leadership tier in my organisation that I can rely on to contribute incremental strategy and execution across the various domains of our business as well as reliably delegate important tasks, as needed.

As for the attributes of being a leader? I think it’s simple. When something goes wrong, it’s my fault and I take the slings and arrows that might come with that failure. I will deal with managing and correcting team members privately. When something goes right, I put the spotlight on my team so they can enjoy the praise and credit for a job well done.

A good leader realises their team’s success is their success.

How do you keep yourself skilled and relevant in terms of knowledge?

It’s not as hard as it sounds when you’re in the race. Everyday clients are asking about new things, partners are releasing groundbreaking technologies, and our innovative consultants are coming up with new ideas on how to solve problems. The challenge is probably more deciding where to spend your energy amidst the swirl of opportunities.

In your academic or work career, were there any mentors who have helped you grow along the way? What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Unlike failure, no one succeeds alone.

Everyone has had help and encouragement along the way and for me it’s no different. The founder of our business, Behfar Jahanshahi, and I have been close friends since we were in pre-school. It’s been incredibly important to see his path and success in growing a global consulting business over 27 years from the humble beginnings of his college apartment. James Wright is my current manager and our Chief Strategy Officer. He taught me the leadership philosophy I detailed above. Johnnie Hurns, our Chief Operating Officer, has been one of my best friends since I was 13 years old.

I guess its obvious to me that your mentors are people that you build long-term relationships with and understand your journey and your goals. When it comes to people you turn to for guidance and encouragement, it’s all about quality rather than quantity. Find them and hold onto them.

Which technology are you investing in now to prepare for the future?

Generative AI is the biggest investment we’re making as a global consultancy and, quite frankly, it’s one of the easiest decisions we’ve made in our history. The potential for gen AI to be a transformative force is undeniable. And it’s showing up in every single one of our technical partnerships, whether as AI-assisted workflows or vector databases to drive LLMs or user-focused AI accelerators.

Very exciting times head.

The other thing that we’re really focusing on is data governance. Data is proliferating at an incredible rate (cloud computing, IoT, etc), while the ability for data leaders to understand what data they have has not. This means that within these data lakes or warehouses, there are potential time bombs that could go off to seriously damage the credibility or financial stability of the organisation … or present amazing opportunities in value creation. Without knowing what data you have or its quality, you can’t mitigate risk or capitalise on game changing opportunities.

Data governance, particularly bolstered by AI, solves that problem. It’s the #1 problem that data leaders tell us they need to solve.

What are your passions outside of work?

I have a passion for life in its totality. Which means I don’t really rest. There’s no time to wait for tomorrow. I set a big goal and then go tackle it with as much energy and conviction as possible. For example, I had three goals that I set about 10 years ago, 1) learn a new language, 2) become a Brazillian jiu-jitsu black belt, and 3) learn a musical instrument. These were just things that were on my bucket list, things I thought were fascinating.

So, I have practiced Spanish every day for 4 years. I do jiu-jitsu six times a week and have advanced (so far) to purple belt. And my home is filled with musical instruments. And I’m already dreaming up more big goals that I can go chase down.

But the number one thing for me, that gives me the most joy, is being a dad. I’m blessed to have five amazing boys (as well as a superstar wife that looks after all of us).

Where would you like to be in the next 5 years?

This is hard question for me, because it’s not so much about ‘where’ I want to be. I’m very happy with the work and my life as it stands right now. I’m motivated by more, i.e. more money or more responsibility or more titles. Again, you get to a point in your career where it’s all about quality instead of quantity.

Instead, I’ll answer this by saying that I want the trajectory of my life to remain the same. I want to maintain the capability of working hard at everything I do (work, life, family) and passionately enjoying the journey to the next horizon.

And the next one.

And the next.

What is the one piece of advice that you can share with other professionals in your industry?

This is true for people in my industry, but I think it’s valuable for everyone. I hear people from time to time saying things like “if they pay me more, I’ll work harder” or “that’s my not job”. I think this is a fallacy.

You are in charge of your journey.

You are in charge of your career.

My approach has been always to work harder than everyone else. To commit yourself so fully to goals that they cease to be large and imposing, or difficult and draining, but rather inevitable. I came from very humble beginnings, hand-me down clothes and missed meals and the like. As soon as I realised that my success was fully dependent on me, and not someone else or a lucky break, it was liberating. I would hope that more and more people take this level of ownership of their future.

The world is yours. Now go find a dream big enough and let’s get started!

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