Welcome to the first full-length episode of In Conversation With.
In this episode Natasha introduces host Maarten Masschelein, CEO and co-founder of Soda Data, and we discover why he is the perfect host for the series, In Conversation With. We get a glimpse into what makes Maarten’s world go around, his passion for technology, and his journey to building the software, and providing the code, to solve the number one data challenge faced by every data team.
Welcome to the Soda Podcast and welcome to season one of the series In Conversation With. Just like good data helps the world go around, so do good conversations. Your host is Maarten Masschelein, CEO and founder of Soda Data. In this series, Maarten will be in conversation with practitioners, technologists, and change makers who all share a passion in making meaningful connections and rethinking traditional practices. They'll be talking about data, what makes their world go around, and sharing their thoughts, perspective, and ideas that we think will inspire you to be a part of the conversation and be a part of the change. Without further ado, here's your host Maarten Masschelein.
Greetings, everyone. I'm Natasha, and I'm from Soda Data, an idea born in Belgium that helps organizations create the observability data teams need to find, analyze, and resolve data issues. I'm delighted to welcome you to season one of the series that we are calling In Conversation With.
So Maarten, before we give you full host responsibilities, we want to first of all get to know a little bit more about you. So could you introduce yourself and let our listeners know a little bit more about you?
Yeah, sure thing. So I'm Maarten, one of the co-founders of Soda Data. I've been in the data space, the data management space for about 12 years now. Always on the software side, so on providing software tools and solutions for data teams to work better with data, but I've also had the data responsibility myself. So I've been in a position where I was managing both an operational system on Salesforce. I was managing a data warehouse and also responsible for reporting to the board. So I've learned the hard way that there's a lot of things that can go wrong with data. So that also inspired me to start this company and build something to help solve this problem.
Fantastic. So you've experienced data from both sides. Almost every angle, you could say.
In a way, yes. And through all of that, I kind of have a weak spot for technology. Always had, since day one, since the early days. When I was nine years old, we passed by a technology company close to where my grandparents lived, and already then they were in speech technology very, very early on, and already then had a passion for technology and data and information. And yeah, that has been a continuous stretch throughout my career.
So how can you change someone's perspective and approach to how they work in data?
Right. I think you have to put yourself in somebody else's shoes to really understand where they're coming from. And there's a lot of different roles in data. A lot of different people, stakeholders. Some are quite technical in nature, some are very much on the business side, using the outcomes. So it's really important to, for example, at an injunction or when there's a problem that arises, to really think hard about how does this person's life and day to day work look like? So how can I put myself in their shoes and better understand why they're reacting in a certain way? That's, I think, one of the most important things to do in data.
So most kids, when they're asked what they want to be when they grow up, don't say yet that they want to work in data. So tell us a little bit about how you started out in the field, what sparked your interest and made you want to be a practitioner and professional in the field of data.
As I said earlier, again, it was a continuous thread. And when I was in school, one of my favorite classes was data warehousing in SQL. I liked it a lot. In a way, it, for me, fits into my personality best, I would say. I have one part of my personality, kind of very introverted, and I like to kind of be busy sometimes for hours long, headset on, music, and kind of maybe do data analysis or hack something together. I love doing that, but at the same time, I love being amongst people. I get a lot of energy from that. And I think data is a great space for that, because you can kind of do both things. You can also talk about your work, then your outcomes, your analysis with others, and sell it internally in the organization. I think that's one of the very cool things about data that I've always loved.
I just wanted to pick up on one point that you gave there in your answer which I really liked: how data forms the start or a basis of a conversation for you, especially being an introvert using sort of the facts to talk around points or decisions that you need to make.
Yeah. What I like about data is you can just dig in and kind of look at many different angles. And I think in doing that, it's important to not think you already have the answer, but just to test the number of hypothesis, to kind of slice and dice it in different ways, explore it, and then out of that comes many different thought tracks, conversation starters, in a way, that you can then use with others to kind of figure out what's really going on. And we do that a lot internally. Like one of the mysterious things or data points, I would say, that we have as a company is our open source downloads. So for those listeners that don't know, we have part of our offering as an open source available there. And if we track the number of downloads, it's very interesting. It's growing very quickly, but it's also sometimes months are really off or different. So it's trying to understand the story behind all of that. So why is that different? I can really spend maybe a little bit too much time on those things.
All right. Well, before we go down that rabbit hole, tell us a little bit about your career trajectory. What were you doing before you founded Soda?
Right. So after my studies, I joined a software company called Collibra. They were Brussels-based, one of the very few companies, software companies in Brussels, where I met the founders and I thought, wow, I can learn a whole bunch here. This is gonna be a great start for my career. Of course, it's a bit risky. This company might not go anywhere, 'cause I didn't necessarily even understand exactly what they were doing at the time, but I liked the people a lot. And so that was, I think for me, for my career, quite defining. I've learned so much and I love being amongst entrepreneurs. I mentioned earlier, I grew up in an entrepreneur family and just together go and realize something that you might think upfront just nearly impossible. But then every step of the way, you kind of see you're getting there, and you celebrate certain moments. It's really fantastic.
So you've mentioned your entrepreneurial family. What do they entrepreneur in? And you never, did you ever dabble in that part of the family business?
I think secretly they wanted me to, but yeah, it's actually import/export and some kind of production processes on linen or flax, if that's familiar. Flax is used in the dollar bills, is used in clothing, it's very popular, I think, in interior design as well. And it's predominantly produced in France. I think about 80% of global production actually is happening in France. And yeah, the Belgians are this country in between. They speak a lot of languages, so, typically see a lot of the people then buy the flax and then sell it, for example, to US or China or other parts of the world. So that was the business they were in.
Fantastic. So knowing that the family business is in flax, what inspired you to found Soda? And what were you hoping to achieve?
What a segue. I think first and foremost, for me it's really, it's about the journey and it's about people that come together to achieve ambitious, lavish goals. I think that was the core of it. When you could say that the subject, like it was not predestined that that was gonna be the subject, but that was where I think most of the needs were at the time when we started, where we saw the biggest opportunity. And we felt that when it comes to people working with data, a lot of effort has been put in in terms of roles, responsibilities, and then search and discovery and annotation of kind of business metadata. But where the industry was lagging was in terms of principles and practices around how it can improve the reliability and quality of those systems. The technology was very antiquated, so there are some technology that already exists, but it's more than 20 years old, so it was created with the advent of the first data warehouse, almost. So we felt that that was a very interesting space to dive into and to get started. And then we'll see where that story brings us.
And I know you've spoken about this before, but your experience at Collibra helped you see in terms of how to build the right solution for what was missing in the data industry, right?
Yes, because you get a quite unique perspective. On the one hand, you're offering software to help companies kind of address data challenges. And of course it's not just software; you help them with the change that comes with it. So you learn a lot of the things that companies need while you're there. But at the same time, I was struggling with data myself, and the company was only 350 people, I think, at the time. But already, our data problems were actually quite significant. So, for example, it's a really terrible feeling, but at the end of a quarter, for example, you do a bunch of analysis to see ultimately what happens at the end of a quarter with for example, revenue and sales. And then you realize that certain dashboards are just, yeah, they didn't refresh for the last couple of weeks. You didn't know about it, the data's not there, so you're kind of, well, you're flying blind. You don't have the tools that you kind of built for that exact moment. And it's at a time where everyone's looking, everyone wants the answers. So, yeah, it's a terrible feeling. So yeah, those two together give quite a unique perspective for us to start figuring out what does our initial product look like? As they say, what's the MVP, the minimal viable product? And, I think quite quickly we got a very good response from our first set of customers around, kind of the core angle that we were tackling.
And part of the "we" that you talk about is your co-founder, Tom Baeyens, that you founded Soda with. So tell us a bit about Tom and your relationship with him and what makes you great partners.
Right. Well, first and foremost, Tom's a funny guy. So we always have lots of giggles and yeah, he's amazing. He's reliable, he's got no ego, he's super smart. So a lot of great characteristics. We're pretty much the exact opposites of each other, which is also not bad, I think.
He's the yin to your yang?
Well, you could say so. Yeah, we're quite different, and what makes it really great, really nice is that it kind of comes naturally, who does what, also in the early days of a company. There's not a lot of discussion about this, because we kind of know immediately, well, that's something that you excel at, so go and do this. And then, I think we're always very supportive. We chat very regularly about what's going on, problems we see, like how we tackle them. So yeah, it's been a great partnership. Close to four years now.
So, you're allowed to indulge yourself here and talk a little bit about Soda and what makes Soda unique. What sets us apart in the market?
Right. I think we're super focused on solving key parts of the workflow that data teams currently struggle with, especially as it relates to the process of, kind of discovering problems in a proactive way, finding and then analyzing what has gone wrong. Ideally, prioritize, because there's quite some alerts, so why should we solve this before something else? And then ultimately resolving or fixing the problem. So we're hyper focused on that workflow, and we do that by partnering in the ecosystem with a lot of the players that are already there. And we're definitely not a company that tries to kind of reinvent the wheel or do everything, pretty much. No, we're in a large ecosystem, fast growing ecosystem. And we try to play as nicely with everyone else in there. That has resulted in a lot of great partnerships that we've set up with cool companies in the data space. I think that's what sets us apart. There's a big focus on doing something extremely well and then doing that together with the community. And part of that is our partners, but also another part is the community that we're building in an open source.
And that's what part of this podcast is about, right, bringing the community together and being a part of that. So it aligns very well. So we're gonna move into talking a little bit more around accomplishments and what you are most proud of in terms of what you've accomplished with the company so far.
Well, that's a difficult one. There's always key moments that stand out. Like one moment was just pre-pandemic. I think we're all fed up talking about it, but still, it's a point of history that we have. And what happened is, kind of a lot of governments were aggregating data from hospitals, and that all had to be set up very, very quickly. There was no infrastructure, no real process in place to do that at that scale of frequency.
And you're talking about COVID data here specifically, right?
Yes. Yeah. And what we've noticed is that in our open source project was actually very, very early, but we noticed that there's a couple of countries that found it, and they embedded it in their workflow, especially because capturing data from humans is, it is what it is, but it's error prone. There's a lot of things that can go wrong, because mostly humans, kind of in that collection and delivery process. So yeah, we were very surprised and super happy to know that there was, from the very early days there were two countries that had implemented our software as part of their Stack, and they were using that data to set policy in their countries. And that felt like, wow. We had a real impact, and we didn't even know about it till now. That was an amazing feeling. And that's something to be, I think, I'm very proud of.
I agree. I think the power of open source, as well, so that's really fantastic. How are you hoping Soda will grow in the future?
I think first and foremost, I wanted to be, of course, a category leader in the space. I think there's a lot of work to be done. And I think we're in a very good position to help grow the user base, the customers, the team. And then secondly, I want to create a place where everyone loves to come and work. That there's a lot of place for having fun and connecting with people. Like minded or driven, ambitious people. And making sure that whenever somebody wakes up in the morning that they're enjoying their lives and they're happy where they are. Creating such a place is definitely something I wanna continue doing.
Good reason for you to get out of bed every morning, for sure. So we hear you have a thing for music, classic cars, and cooking. Tell us about that.
It seems like such an odd combination, but I consider them the good things in life, yeah. One of the things I, for example, really like doing is cooking for big groups, like I've created a family tradition for my grandma. She's 90 this summer. And yeah, we make paella every year. So I make paella for the entire family. For those of you who don't know, it's a Spanish rice dish. It's amazing to make. It's kind of like, it's a thing you do with everyone. You're all around a like, big pan in the garden. It's really nice. And life is even better when I can go to my grandma with a classic car. I have a Fiat 124, so it's a convertible 2plus2, it's a sports Spider. It's an amazing car, '77. I love driving around. It's a great feeling of freedom. Yeah, it's the only car I have, but it's one for pure leisure and fun, for over the weekends when the weather is good.
But does the paella dish fit in the Fiat, or do they have to travel separately?
It luckily does. Yeah. There's not a lot of storage, but that does fit. Yeah.
Fantastic. All right. So you live in Brussels, and it would be great to share with our listeners what you love about Brussels, especially when you could, I guess, live anywhere in the world. I mean, Soda is a remote first company, and it's pretty easy to be working from anywhere and living anywhere. So what keeps you there and which city or country would pull you away? It's a two in one for you there.
All right. So why Brussels? On the one hand, I think it's one of the only cities in Belgium which is close to my family that I really like, really enjoy. It has a lot of benefits. I think one of the things I really enjoy about it, especially 'cause now we have to travel again quite a bit, is its proximity. Amsterdam is what, two hours. London, two hours. Paris, an hour and 15 minutes by train. That's totally amazing. And the city itself has a lot to offer. There's a lot of cultures coming together. It's kind of like, in a way, it's a bit of the, hmm. I don't know if this analogy holds, but it's the New York of Europe? In a sense that...
It has so many different cultures together. It's really, really amazing. There's so many different parts of the city to explore. It lacks a bit of parks and green - that’s something I maybe dislike about it - but certain areas then have loads of it. And I also dislike maybe, but that's kind of central, Northern Europe, is just the weather, I guess. So if there's a city that pulls me away, it's Lisbon or a bit more Southern. I think, to live. Either that or the US, New York, I enjoyed a lot as well.
And you lived in New York, so you are, I think, pretty qualified to state Brussels is the New York of Europe, but I'd like to see if anyone challenges you on that. I can already hear. So this new podcast "In Conversation With" will be dropping new episodes monthly, and you're going to be talking to different guests in and around the data space, perhaps a little bit broader. What are you hoping to offer the listeners?
I think, so it's variety of insights. Insights into how certain industries, like, what are the key priorities, challenges? How are they tackling it? That's definitely an area that I'd like to cover. I also wanna see if there's any adjacent areas or like, for example, within software engineering, what are some things that we can bring into data or from product management? So what can we use, concepts that already exist there, and how can we apply them? But not necessarily only in a theoretical way. Maybe also try to get tips, best practices, to listeners. I think it's gonna be a bit of a combination of those things.
I think that's a great basis and a great combo. So, Africa is one of your favorite continents to visit, and you gave yourself some time off this year and spent time in Nairobi. So tell us about your trip, your love for Africa, favorite country, favorite places you've visited. It would be great to hear.
Cool. Yeah, I think I've done my seventh or eighth trip to Africa this year. I had friends who live there. My sister moved to South Africa about, wow, it's probably six, seven years ago now. I've always loved the continent. Uganda, I've been there quite a bit, and now, recently, Kenya. Kenya was, we planned it very last minute. It's kind of, the times as well. It's kind of tricky. It was tricky to travel a while ago. And we just arrived by plane and we rented a car and that was it. We didn't have anything planned. And we said, well, there's this famous region here, Maasai Mara, lots of people here. Let's go check 'em out. So, we drove down. We of course got stuck with the car. We got to meet the people because they helped us out. They're amazing. Yeah. And then, fully disconnected, got rid of all phones and computers and you know, be in nature, be out in the bush, enjoy food. Yeah. It's my favorite way to fully disconnect. And yeah, for me, cross Africa, whatever country you visit, you meet amazing people that are super nice, super helpful, and a great vibe to just relax, wind down. Yeah. It's one of my favorite destinations, really.
Fantastic. I lived in Kenya for about, I think, four years. And they say it's one of the countries in Africa that steals your heart. So, maybe that will pull you away from Brussels. So I've got a bit of a challenging question for you now, if the rest haven't been challenging. But sharing a favorite story, maybe around data that you've never told before.
Hmm. Well, there's one. I haven't told it before. It's kind of somebody else's story. So they've told it before, but I haven't. So I guess it qualifies. It was a difficult question. So there was this one pretty large company. I think it was an insurance company in the US. And they measured how much time and effort we spend on solving problems with data? And they tracked one issue end to end. All of the people involved, all the time they spent. They ended up for one problem, just to figure out what the root cause was, they ended up involving 25 people.
I think they're talking about multiple weeks of people, hours of work, just for one, kind of solving one issue. Not even solving it, figuring out why there was that issue. So for me, it was kind of mind blowing or boggling. I was like, how are we spending so much time on these things? And it's like, it's super frustrating as well. Like, figuring out, it's like a hot potato. It goes around, senior management is kind of involved typically, especially when it's a very visible issue. It's very frustrating.
Yeah. It's a good story. And ties very nicely with the issues that you're trying to solve and help organizations and people with at Soda. So I like it. So do you have a favorite role on a data team? I don't know if this would be the equivalent of choosing your favorite pet, child, or personal favorite item, I don't know, but if there was a role that you would wanna play on a data team, which one would be your favorite?
Well, I think being on the consumer side is definitely, when things go well and when the team's great and as a data consumer, but that's maybe not a real role or official role. We kind of in data teams work for the consumer. But when you have trusted quality insights and you're a consumer, it's fantastic. If not that, I would have to choose between the engineer and the data owner, and I will go for data owner, 'cause it's one of those roles that companies or teams find the hardest to figure out and to kind appoint and to kind of define what actually that role exactly is. So yeah, I'd go for data owner, and I can actually go a bit into what that role is, but ...
Save it for one of your conversations?
That's actually a good idea. Let's do that.
Right. There you go.
Let's see if we end up in a fight, you know.
There's only very pleasant conversation to be allowed.
Okay. Got it.
What's the most challenging role on a data team?
That's an easy one, I think. It's data/analytics engineer. Yeah. There's, on the one hand, the shortage today in most companies, so they're understaffed. They take care of a critical part of the data flow and kind of make data products work. And they're also typically the first people that get questions from the business saying, well this is wrong or off or doesn't work or... it must be quite stressful to be in that role. So I definitely think that's the most challenging one.
And one that you're out there to help with Soda. I'm giving you lots of plugs here, look at this! So you've worked across different roles in your career, which gave you sort of good visibility across a business, running a business, building a product. Was there one or maybe more sort of life changing or impactful or defining moments for you?
I think the most, kind of, life changing or impactful one was when I moved from the comfort of Belgium into kind of a management role in the US. A lot of things changed. So, basically pack your bags and go, and you start building a new life somewhere else in a new city, new culture, new managers, new management style. So a lot of new things. And that really puts you not on edge, but it kind of gives you a wealth of areas to explore and learn. So that was definitely for me a career defining moment. Yeah.
I can understand that. So, just flipping back to the data team, what's one of the things that what we call a modern data team should not be without?
Modern data teams. They shouldn't be without trusted data, I guess, when things always go wrong or where there's no visibility or understanding of how the system is performing, how healthy our data is. I think that's a very, that's an annoying place to be. And our practices are quite new, I guess. Data, although it's been around for a while, it's not been around as long as software engineering, for example. And it makes it so that there's a lot less good practice and a lot less kind of no-brainers for data teams to adopt. So, I think that's the area where if we get beyond that hurdle, it's gonna be a lot easier to automate with data to make confident, data informed decisions.
And as we prepare to say, the next generation of how data is produced, used, and consumed in society and business, what do you think we need?
It goes back to the previous one. It's practices, ways of working, tools, things that are generally accepted in the industry that this is the way to do it, and everyone does it. Now we're in this in between we're still figuring out, and there's a lot of change that comes with that. So it's not easy right now. We're pre-industrial when it comes to data. I think if we get to the industrial age, it's gonna be much easier.
And what's your vision for the role that Soda will play in that future?
That's help industrialize it. So, that's helping create best practices, ways of working that everyone can adopt that works for them very well. Minimal effort, but makes everyone do the right thing when it comes to data. That's, I think, where we want to go as a company.
So Maarten, as we round up your interview, there's one question that I'd love you to answer, which is: what do you never compromise on?
Well, when it comes to people, I never compromise on being respectful. When I see, in any kind of or type of setting, when somebody's not respectful, for me to immediately invite myself to speak up. And, yeah, it's such a basic, standard thing. It's easy. Yeah. So I never compromise on that.
That's fantastic. Thank you.
Thanks, Tash. It has been great. I really can't wait to speak with all the guests, so I'm very much looking forward to it.
That was a great conversation. When our peers share, it's an opportunity to listen where others have tried, where others have succeeded, we can learn. Oh, for the power of trusted relationships and this data community. Join the journey and get connected. Follow Soda to be the first to know about new conversations as soon as they drop. We'll meet you back here soon at the Soda Podcast.