Analytics Leader Spotlight: Daniel DeFuso, Populytics
Welcome back to our “Analytics Leader Spotlight” series, where we get to share the stories of the people who are transforming their organizations with the power of data analytics. In today’s spotlight, Cort Johnson, VP of Growth at AtScale, interviews Daniel DeFuso, Lead Healthcare Business Intelligence Analyst at Populytics.
Daniel, can you give us a quick introduction about yourself? How did you get started in the data and analytics field? How has your career ultimately led you to where you are today?
A: I graduated with a Bachelor’s in secondary education mathematics. I was going to be a math teacher, but during my last semester I realized that I enjoyed math more than I enjoyed teaching math. So, I went back to school at a local community college and completed a two year degree in Information Services. That led to me starting a position at Dun and Bradstreet, (D&B) on the Sales Automation helpdesk. In that role, and throughout my career at D&B, I worked with the sales team, administering their customer lists, correcting and updating data, etc. Supporting the salesforce allowed me to make connections between my daily work and the business at large. The connection between my daily work and the company’s operation as a whole was gratifying. While at D&B, I started an MBA program with the intention of learning how I might continue my role in using technology to manage the organization. I was laid off from D&B during my MBA program and was fortunate enough to be able to continue my education. After completing my MBA, a former colleague had started a data warehousing project at a local office of FLSmidth & Co.. He told me that he valued the work that I had done when we worked together and asked me if I was interested. I had been working a contract job at the time and was looking for something more permanent, so I was interested. This position put me on the data and analytics path I’m on today. It continued my education and work and solidified one career goal I have. Wherever I work I try to answer the question: “How do I build systems that support the decision makers in the organization?” Through a few years there, I learned the more traditional, Kimball-style data warehousing, ETL, mostly relational models, a bit of OLAP, all on Oracle platforms.
Things were going well, I had met my wife during the MBA program and we had gotten married while I was at FLSmidth. However, four years into our marriage, my wife was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. This was devastating, of course, as it is for anyone receiving such a diagnosis. We had two daughters, we had to shift the entire focus of who we were as a family and what we needed to get done. It’s a hardship, to say the least, but for our family, attitude was everything. I remember my wife saying to me a couple days after she was diagnosed, her grandfather was a tank mechanic during World War II and he was injured during the Battle of the Bulge. She said “He has a purple heart. He was injured and he kept going. I have his genes, so let’s go get this.” From early on, she had the right attitude. “What’s the problem? How do we solve it?” It wasn’t a walk in the park by any stretch, but we did what we had to do.
About a year and a half into treatment, we had to switch our daughters daycare, so we got all of the kids who were friends at the old daycare together at a local park for the kids to play and the parents to catch up. My work cell phone went off and I mentioned that there was a server down somewhere. I mentioned that to my wife and one of the parents asked me where I worked and what I did. I told her where and what. She mentioned that she worked in the IS department at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN) and suggested I give her my resume as they might be hiring soon.
I certainly wasn’t looking for a new job with everything else going on in my life, but there were some good points to be considered. As an example, the LVHN office was closer to home and my daughters’ daycare. I was driving about 45 minutes each way to FLSmidth and with my wife having cancer and kids who were three and five at the time, it was tough. The LVHN office was 15 minutes from home. I worked on my resume and got it out there. I was called in for an interview, but didn’t get the position. I needed just a bit more experience specific to what LVHN was looking for.
Shortly after that interview, my wife’s cancer had spread too far to be treatable. She passed away that December. I was adjusting to being a single dad with daughters who were three and five years old. It was tough, but I tried to adopt my wife’s attitude. What is the problem? How do we solve it?” Two months after my wife died, I received a call about an open position at LVHN in the IS department and if I was interested, they wanted to talk to me about it. It seems crazy to consider changing jobs so shortly after such an upheaval to your life, but I did it. One of the things that my wife and I had talked about was that I can’t cure cancer. I’m not a doctor, that’s not what I went to school for, it’s not what I was trained to do, but I was always researching for her so we can have intelligent conversations with her doctors. I saw working for a health network as the opportunity of what I can do in the realm of data warehousing and business intelligence and help build those structures that support the decision makers. Can I do something to help a doctor make a better decision? Can I do something that supports the network’s initiative?
At the time, LVHN marketing was “A passion for better medicine.” I saw that everyday when I took my wife in for her treatment. Those nurses and doctors deal with the worst possible cases and they still walk in and smile and joke with you and laugh with you. And they still treat you the way you would want to be treated. They acknowledge the reality of it, but they had a passion for doing it and making the patient as comfortable as possible. You could feel it was true and people were living the values of the organization. For the first time, I had a personal connection to an organization. I felt that I had an opportunity to do something bigger than me, bigger than business. I was three months outside of my wife passing away and I’m taking a new job, to have that opportunity. I’ve been with the network ever since. It’s been six years. About a year or so ago, I switched positions from LVHN IS to Populytics. Populytics is a distinct company within LVHN. We’re working on advanced analytics for insurance administration, physician support, and population health management. This is an even better fit for me, where I’m going and what I want to do. “How can I use what I know to help the doctors make the best decisions?” That’s where I’m at and how I’m doing, it’s how I got here.
It’s an incredibly moving and emotional story, thank you for sharing that. I’m curious, you’ve talked about the mentality shift that you and your family took when you found out as a family that your wife was diagnosed. How did that mental shift stay with you until today and how do you think of your job and life in general with this new perspective?
A: At a base level, you realize that there are a lot of things that are just no longer important. A lot of the petty things, the little things. The kid didn’t make her bed. It’s the small things like that. But you also realize, and you hear it said a lot and you don’t believe it until you go through it, but you don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re faced with that challenge. I don’t have the same “I can’t do this or this isn’t in my wheelhouse,” it’s more of a “Well, let me find out more about that and see what I can do.” And prior to that, there was this silo mentality of “Stay in your lane this isn’t something that you should be bothered with”. But now, there’s much more of a curiosity of “What can I do to help? How can I figure this out?” It has its downsides. Can you lose sight of yourself during those times? Yeah. You help someone with their work, but your work sacrifices a little bit. You have to balance that. But generally speaking, I’ve found that I have a much more of an interest in the bigger picture, the broader things.
One thing that’s always stuck with me since we talked and you brought it up here again, is about the ability to take your skill set and the things that you’re passionate about in your career and apply it to a mission-driven cause that resonates with you. In the case of working for Lehigh Valley Health Network and now Populytics, trying to use that ability to leverage data to make better decisions, arguably faster. Since you first took the role to where you are today, how has that gone for you and do you feel like you can make an impact?
A: The network itself is a huge regional organization. I’m not even sure how many thousands of employees we have. I think the last that I’ve heard was 18,000 employees, eleven hospitals maybe. I was in the IS department supporting that. When I started, I started working on a data warehouse initiative that they had in place and eventually that was migrated to the epic EHR system in their Caboodle data warehouse. I was curious as to where I was going to fit in, what am I going to do here, what am I gonna see here, where can I make the impact? In all honesty, it was a slow go at first because it was so big.
There was so much going on and it was probably two to three years in when we really started focusing on the BI portion. We had the data warehouse and we had basic reporting, but we didn’t have true analytics systems. We had a version of TIBCO Spotfire, that was customized by McKesson and we only put that in when I was there for two years (I started in 2013), so we were just getting started then with analytics. I found a bit of niche in being able to be the one to make recommendations. We went with TIBCO because we had that integration with other McKesson systems we had in place. So, I was able to help implement that. I installed the system, I helped build the server but then I also did the proof of concept for the reporting.
To be able to be part of a team that makes the recommendations and does the implementation was huge. A year later, our new CIO and he wanted Tableau. I thought to myself “I’ve worked with Tableau before this ought to be easy.” And again, I was there front to back, I installed Tableau, I built proof of concept dashboards and the one dashboard we built, was very patient and cost focused. That was a realization that I didn’t make previously as I was on the “other side of the wall” as a patient. That balance between quality care and lower cost, that was a struggle that the network had that I didn’t realize. It really drives the business. How much care can you provide for how little cost?
We called it the CMI project. We looked at DRG codes and MCCs to evaluate how patients are diagnosed and coded so we can accurately represent what’s going on with them but also maximize the amount of money we get from medicare and our reimbursements. Working directly with the doctors who were in charge of that effort, it was the first time at LVHN, that I could see the impact of my work. I remember talking to a doctor who said that we had this spike in September, we hired three people based upon that spike, we have more coders and we saw the trend go in the right direction as far as getting more reimbursements. These types of codes were going up, these types of codes were going down and it was shifting the bottom line in that area. That was when I knew that I “made it”. It didn’t have anything to do with cancer or a specific illness or disease, but you can see how improvements in the coding process affects the reimbursements that we receive as a network
Those are the opportunities that I’m looking for, I don’t always have them. They’re not always there, but I keep looking for them. Now that I’m with the Populytics organization, I have more opportunities to find those and support those initiatives. The nice thing about Populytics is that there is focus that I didn’t get when I was in the IS department. It’s a much smaller team, so the focus there is what’s appealing to me at this point where we can say “These are the initiatives, we’re all on the same page, we’re all talking about the same thing, how do we go about getting that done?” The IS department, you might be the only person working on your project and the person next to you is working on a completely different piece of the organization, so for me personally I appreciate the focus that I have.
Just talking through some of the things that you made you feel that that project was a success for you, I think was pretty interesting. Overall, how would you articulate when you take on a project, what are the things that you’re trying to do that indicate success to you?
A: What are the basics? On time, on budget, (although ahead of time and under budget would be better.) Sometimes it’s just usage. Are people using the data I provided? Are the dashboards using that data being used? You set up projects with end goals in mind, but you don’t always get that feedback once it’s out in the wild. The CMI project where we recognized increased reimbursements, that’s huge. That’s what we look for.
Performance is something that I’ve been focused on lately, so I always look to see if things are performing better than they have been. As an organization, we’re in the middle of migrating to our Big Data platform as a full production platform for our analytics. Are systems faster? Are queries faster? A year ago, I didn’t know what AtScale was, if I’m being honest. But now I’m one of the administrators. To be able to see what AtScale can do to deliver data faster is really on the forefront of my mind right now.
Success has always been a tricky thing for me. When we talk about an “analytics leader,” in the past I led by example. This position that I’m in now, I have more of a mentoring role and more of a guidance kind of role. I’m still figuring out that leadership stuff as well. I struggle with defining success, other than those basic metrics. I think I’m on that journey to realize what success means to the organization overall and again finding where I can make the impact. When I can see the impact, I know that I’ve been successful. I don’t always know how my work is going to make that impact.
As a leader and a mentor, as you’re thinking about the initiatives that you are undertaking and the challenges that you’re trying to solve for the company and from the mission-driven perspective as well, how do you prioritize the challenges that you’re trying to undertake?
A: Certain things have deadlines, you can’t change those priorities. I try to prioritize those things where I think the impact will be seen and noticed. We all work together to all go in the same direction and that’s one thing that I like about the organization. The structure itself supports prioritization.
To your point, when you get put onto a new project, some of the stuff that you were articulating about working AtScale on about performance and robustness, that may be a priority because the constituents that you serve within your organization and our glamoring about the ability to analyze more data longitudinally faster and they’re not able to do it today and so maybe that bumps up the priority because ultimately you’ll be able to deliver faster, better insights to the people who need to use them to ultimately make decisions. It’s always interesting for us to learn how folks think about that within their organization and personally and what they do to prioritize those projects.
A: Yes and to that point I would say that right now I’m still in some ways following and in some ways leading. A lot of the work that I have done with AtScale was building out the robustness of the system and tuning it. I’ve worked with the AtScaleProfessional Services team for a month now, learning and tuning. It has been a priority for that reason. How do we deliver it faster, better. Again, that foundation for expansion and things like that.
As we wrap up, what advice would you have for others in the industry who are building their careers in data and analytics?
A: The first thing is do your best to stay on top of trends and see what’s coming and what’s on the horizon. Personally I feel like I’m a little behind the eight ball. I come from a more traditional data warehousing background. I wasn’t familiar with Hadoop, Hive and AtScale until I started this position. Try to do what you can independently of your day to day job in order to know what’s out there and identify those tools that may help you. Don’t neglect your “soft skills”. Understand time management, understand project management. Even if you’re not a leader in managing projects, you still have to manage your own workload, those things can be very helpful.
I love the story of how you built your career. Starting with your passion for math and thinking that you wanted to be a teacher and then just being flexible enough to let opportunities take you to places where you can take the things that you love to do and apply it to things that you think are interesting and could have a massive impact on the things that you care about. Just hearing that story is so inspirational. People get caught up in trying to find the perfect path as opposed to following what you’re curious and passionate about and letting that lead you to opportunity.
A: That’s exactly it. Keep the curiosity, by all means. Build a network. Talk with peers outside of your organization, talk with random strangers. I’m where I’m at because I met a friend of a friend at a park. Just have that conversation. That curiosity and that openness has led to these opportunities in my life. There’s no perfect path for you except the one you are on. You make the best decisions with the information you have at the time. Strive to learn from successes and failures.
Thank you, Daniel!
Want to hear from more other AtScale Analytics Leaders? Check out our past interviews: