Usama Fayyad – CEO, Open Insights

Usama Fayyad, Ph.D. is the chief data officer and group managing director at Barclays PLC. He also leads Oasis500, a tech startup investment fund, following his appointment as executive chairman in 2010 by King Abdullah II of Jordan. He was also chairman, co-founder, and chief technology officer of ChoozOn Corporation/Blue Kangaroo, a mobile search engine service based in Silicon Valley.

In 2008, Usama founded Open Insights, a U.S.-based data strategy, technology, and consulting firm that helps enterprises to deploy data-driven solutions that effectively and dramatically grow revenue and competitive advantage. Prior to this, he served as Yahoo!’s chief data officer and executive vice president where he was responsible for Yahoo!’s global data strategy, architecting its data policies and systems, and managing its data analytics and data processing infrastructure. The data teams he built at Yahoo! collected, managed, and processed over 25 terabytes of data per day, and drove a major part of ad targeting revenue and data insights businesses globally.

In 2003, Usama co-founded and led the DMX Group, a data mining and data strategy consulting and technology company that specializes in big data analytics for Fortune 500 clients. DMX Group was acquired by Yahoo! in 2004. Prior to 2003, he co-founded and served as CEO of Audience Science. He also has experience at Microsoft, where he led the data mining and exploration group at Microsoft Research and also headed the data mining products group for Microsoft’s server division.

From 1989 to 1996, Usama held a leadership role at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where his work garnered him the Lew Allen Award for Excellence in Research from Caltech, as well as a U.S. Government medal from NASA.

Usama has published over 100 technical articles on data mining, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and databases. He holds over 30 patents, is a fellow of the Association for Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, and a fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery. He has edited two influential books on data mining and served as editor-in-chief on two key industry journals.

Usama earned his Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is active in the academic community with several adjunct professor posts and is the only person to receive both the ACM’s SIGKDD Innovation Award (2007) and Service Award (2003).

1. How do you define success?
To me, success is about learning and gaining knowledge, so as long as you are learning (with depth of experience), you are succeeding.

2. What is the key to success?
Being clear and focused on what you are doing, always observing and understanding what is happening, as well as reacting deliberately and thoughtfully, because that allows you to evaluate if a situation is good or bad. Many people reach the wrong conclusion because they did not evaluate properly. Give it your all and a serious effort, and you will succeed. Most fail to succeed because they never try hard enough.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
I am always maximizing learning, and by my definition, success then becomes easily attainable. How much you learn and how much you choose to analyze, understand, explain, and then reach insight, is all under your control. In my model, it is very difficult to fail. You fail when you don’t try hard enough. Life is too precious to waste my time on things I am not willing to try hard enough to achieve.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The certainty of two things: 1) things will always get better, especially if you are trying honestly and seriously, and 2) things can always be so much worse. People sometimes let things get to them and depress them. I try not to take it seriously. It is rare that your physical survival is at risk—compared to that, any situation is trivial.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Life is filled with so many great lessons. It is hard for me to choose a greatest or best. I never understand when people ask what is your favorite book or song, or “What have you…” Some great lessons include, in science for example, that simple theories and simple explanations are truly more likely to be correct. It can be demonstrated mathematically! Also, more generally, that the deepest and most elegant of learnings or theories can be found in the most mundane situations. So, always get your hands dirty with work and you will uncover amazing gems.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
These days, I truly enjoy sleep. I thoroughly enjoy “work,” and I hate to call it “work.” So, I have no spare time. Work is pleasure. Family and kids are pleasure. Being with good friends and companions is pleasure. Overcoming problems is pleasure. Skiing is pleasure. Chess is pleasure. Teaching others is pleasure. Teaching my kids is pleasure. Reading is pleasure. I wish I still had time to do science. I miss deep research in science. But then there is only so much time, and we choose what to prioritize. Come to think of it, I need to start exercising again.

7. What makes a great leader?
A great leader is a leader who leads by example. Great leaders understand that they are about enabling their team members to succeed. Hence, leadership is service, not glory and visibility. When people understand that, they realize that leading means sacrificing achieving their own goals for the sake of helping their team achieve theirs.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
I loved being a student. I did five degrees in university and I wanted to stay a student forever. Thankfully, I grew up. All of education is a beginning and not an end. It is preparation for what you are about to do. Find something that people really need and make sure you truly enjoy it. Passion at work will change your life, and passion will make work feel like pleasure. Work hard, give it your all, and great things will unfold.


This interview is an excerpt from Success: 30 Interviews with Entrepreneurs & Executives by Jason Navallo.

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