Brandon Hootman, Director of Digital Data at Caterpillar, is committed to helping the manufacturing giant use technology to improve service delivery to customers. So dedicated it’s a matter of family pride.
“My father worked at Caterpillar,” he says. “I was told from a young age that if you get the opportunity to work there, it’s quite an exciting place to work. It’s a big company, but it also feels like a family.”
Hootman joined Caterpillar 20 years ago. After working in a number of increasingly senior IT management roles, including a stint with the company in Belgium, Hootman was appointed Director of Digital Data in early 2019.
“It’s been really interesting to see not only the evolution of what Caterpillar has been doing over the last 20 years, but also to see the role that technology has played in that transition,” he says.
Modernization of data management
Hootman’s role in the company includes digital ecosystem and data functions. He is responsible for overseeing the management of the data that drives Caterpillar’s digital offering, which encompasses a wide range of customer and dealer services.
“It’s not about digitizing production,” he says. “My work focuses 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 this data in, harmonizing it, cleaning it, and then making sure the data is available throughout the back end of our ecosystem.
“We learned a lot about modern data management. And in addition to my role in digital, I lead our enterprise data strategy and enterprise data council, where we work with cross-functional units within the business to help them find the right data and ensure they build that data capability – we can to share and use across the organization.”
According to Hootman, his team’s data-driven efforts are helping Caterpillar stay ahead of its competitors. While legacy technology systems may have once been a limiting factor in digitization efforts, the work his team has completed has provided a strong foundation for the company’s long-term development and analysis processes.
“There’s always been a drive to have a unified back end where you have a consistent dataset to drive success in other areas, whether it’s applications, analytical use cases, or business intelligence,” he says. “However, the technology was never mature enough to be able to do that.
“Before the work we’ve undertaken now, many of our digital objects operated as a full stack, where they processed, stored and managed the data independently. The ability to unify and federate data on the back end to ensure consistency, transaction speed, and decision making was the real opportunity we needed to strive for.”
“We’ve spent a lot of time getting the key fundamentals right, and now we’re getting to the exciting part of it.”
Brandon Hootman, Caterpillar
Hootman’s fundamental efforts focused on a number of areas. The company has a strong in-house team of data specialists including product managers, solution designers, architects, engineers and scientists. As part of its founding processes, Caterpillar internally developed data pipelines and supporting management infrastructure.
The company was also keen on using cloud technologies to achieve a clean move away from resource-intensive extraction, transformation, and loading (ETL) processes. The goal was to use on-demand IT to create a more efficient way to process and share the vast amount of information the company collects and stores.
“We put a lot of effort early on in building our core capabilities, data pipelines, management functions and things like that,” says Hootman. As part of this underlying infrastructure, Caterpillar implemented Snowflake technology in 2017, which provides a data lake to bring information together in a single place.
“Snowflake has really allowed us from a digital perspective – but probably more importantly from an enterprise perspective – to bring and share a lot of data with other functional units within the company,” he says. “That really allowed us to unlock value.”
According to Hootman, Caterpillar can now share data across the enterprise without having to perform full, unmanaged replication of information, which may have been the case in the past when users relied on ETL. He says that from a processing perspective, much of his team’s work has focused on ensuring the company benefits from a consistent view of its data.
“We’ve spent a lot of time getting the most important basic data right, and now we’re getting to the fun part of it,” he says. “We have a data core in our digital platform that we can now really combine and use in different ways. So we have several exciting digital use cases that are taking the use of data to the next level.”
Development of data-driven services
Hootman says one of the areas his team is focusing its attention on is the next generation of its fleet management applications, which will be used to provide insights from the company’s smallest retail customers to larger, more complex customers.
“It’s really exciting how the data is coming together to support this work because it’s not just telematics data – it’s not just ‘where is my asset, how many hours is it working and what is the fuel consumption?’ . We’re now bringing in the maintenance history of that asset and the usage of that asset to really help our customers make better decisions,” he says.
According to Hootman, the work his team has done on the underlying platform is critical to helping the company develop new data-driven services. The goal is to create a digital ecosystem of connected apps that provide insight into all of the company’s data assets.
“So, after managing your fleet of assets, if you need to have those assets serviced or order parts, it’s a much more seamless process to navigate between that and our trading system,” he says. “We’re really proud of the work we’ve done on the back end of the platform to support this process.”
What remains critical going forward, Hootman says, is that digitalization is central to the enabling services Caterpillar aims to create for its customers. He wants to ensure that customers are getting the most value from their assets when purchasing the company’s products, from the smallest scale on a construction site to the large scale equipment on a mining site.
“Our digital solutions help them manage asset availability, utilization, planning and maintenance,” he says. “We want to ensure that these service events are a very seamless experience for the customer when it comes to interacting with our dealer network and getting the services they need. So we are fully focused on the customer’s use case and how we can further optimize it and improve the experience.”
driving culture change
Hootman’s data-driven transformation efforts are moving forward at a brisk pace. Crucially, he says, the key to continued success lies much more in his ability to drive cultural change across the organization than just technology adoption.
“What helped us was that we took 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 bringing it into the business, and the business has a hard time rationalizing what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Hootman says his team spent time analyzing the rest of the company’s digital core competencies early on in the data strategy. They went to each domain and identified the business leaders who should be responsible for the data. Creating this structure allowed them to focus on longer-term goals.
“When we started decomposing those domains into the data to support their work, it meant the data was explained in terms the company understood,” he says. “It was extremely important for us to ensure that the data was organized in a way that met the needs of the business.”
According to Hootman, building this data-driven culture has helped create a sense of effective digital leadership. While technology and technical skills will always be important, successful leaders need to build strong bonds with the people who use data every day.
“Getting a foot in the door and understanding the business is extremely important, especially when it comes to data,” he says. “You need to be able to dissect what the company is doing with the data, whether that information is being generated by an asset or by a system.”
Leading from the front
Hootman continues to refine his own personal approach to digital leadership and says it’s critical for data professionals to keep an eye on broader industry trends.
To that end, Hootman represents Caterpillar at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research, which provides academic research insights for enterprise technology leaders.
“Focusing on the next horizon in terms of upcoming waves has been really helpful in determining where the strategy needs to be longer term,” he says.
Back at the grassroots, Hootman says there’s a significant range of data-driven efforts that will keep his team busy. Given the company’s commitment to digital transformation, it’s an exciting time to be working for Caterpillar, he says.
“I find it very satisfying to see the work we are doing now,” he adds. “It’s the culmination of a lot of ideas we had and the technology allows us to bring them together. We make significant investments in technology and the teams that work with these systems.”