Using Data To Make Better Decisions with Matt Falk

In this episode of the B2B Leadership podcast, best-selling author and leadership coach Nils Vinje speaks with Matt Falk, VP of engineering at Orbital Insight.
In this episode...

0:24 - About Matt- Matt explains where he works and the type of work he does.
0:47 - Geospatial data - What is it, and what problem does geospatial data solve?
2:30 - Practical data usage - What are some specific uses of this kind of data?
4:54 - First leadership position - Matt shares the story of what put him on the path to leadership.
6:24 - Think differently - What enabled Matt to be selected for a leadership role over someone else?
8:32 - Core leadership characteristics - Are these things Matt always did, or things he learned along the way?
12:46 - New leadership ideas - It started with setting the bar and keeping it level.
15:45 - New leadership reactions - How did customers and internal colleagues respond to a new approach?
17:34 - Organization size - How big is Orbital Insight, and who is an ideal employee?
21:50 - Core hiring characteristics - Who makes a great fit within the Orbital Insight team?
25:17 - Being proactive is necessary - How do you screen for proactivity in an interview?
28:08 - Concrete culture - Matt explains how important traits are embedded into everybody at the organization.
35:52 - Innovation advice - Matt gives clarity on what can foster innovation in an individual.
38:49 - Advice to your younger self - What would Matt tell his younger self?
Learn more about Orbital Insight at
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Data plays a vital role in everything that people do.

In this episode, our guest Matt Falk will talk about how to make better leadership decisions using data.

Read on to know more about Matt's leadership journey.

About Matt

Matt Falk is the VP of Engineering at Orbital Insight, a medium-sized startup company that deals with geospatial data trying to understand what's happening on and to the earth using their Go Platform.

Geospatial data

What is geospatial data?

Geospatial data is anything that has a latitude and longitude coordinate associated with it.

One of the very first geospatial data sources that Orbital Insight worked with was the satellite imagery that comes from overhead sensors constantly orbiting around the globe, taking pictures.

Additional data sources that go into their platform comes from everybody's cell phone and from connected planes or cars with OnStar systems.

Practical data usage

Geospatial data usage is infinite. Every day, Orbital Insight comes across something new that they can do with this data.

One of its main uses is around supply chain traceability. Geospatial data allows them to start building out the first, second and third tier suppliers of a particular location, giving an unprecedented view of somebody's supply chain that clients can't get with their own data.

Another use case is focused on site monitoring This can be applied in a government use case or if you're looking at a single commercial property.

Orbital Insight gets a sense of what the level of activity there is in a particular location and how it trends over time using the geospatial data.

First leadership position

Matt's first leadership role was when he was at Palantir, a large data analytics company that has a number of different divisions that work with any type of data.

He was part of the cybersecurity division when he got the opportunity to take on his first real leadership role. It was only a few months in when he was asked to lead a program from a technical perspective for one of the largest cyber customers they had at that point.

Think differently

What enabled Matt to be selected for that first leadership role?

Matt was proactive in nature and organized. When he got into the company, he noticed that the programs at that time were not systematic. Everyone was doing their own thing.

They were working on data engineering, pulling data from different sources and a lot of it was failing on a day-to-day basis.

Matt started to get a handle on what their program is doing and started organizing some of the inefficiencies on the team. He optimized their processes, cleaned it up and made it standardized. This allowed them to accelerate their delivery execution timeline to their customers.

Nobody asked him to find all the inefficiencies in his team. He identified the opportunities on his own and provided solutions which enabled him to be selected for that first leadership role ahead of anyone else in their division at that time.

Core leadership characteristics

The three core areas that Matt has been focusing on and learned over the years are what he calls the three O's. First is organization, second is optimization and the third is inn-ovation. The third one is what he usually jokes about.

Organization has proved extremely valuable, not just from a technical aspect, but from a business aspect and a structural team organization aspect. It has grown over time.

Everything that he does revolves around organization. He finds it as a hobby. Matt said it makes processes more efficient, structured and clean.

When he sees something that's not organized or structured in any way, he steps in and does something about it.

Matt shared what happened when he took the opportunity to lead one of the largest projects in the cyber division for Palantir.

Their client had been their customer for a few years at that point. It was an exciting project but over time, the interest from the customer's perspective waned a little bit. Matt noticed that the customer wanted too much from them and his team couldn't keep up with the requests that came in each month. Realistic expectations were not set.

That's when Matt thought of the phrase that he likes to live by which is to under promise and over deliver.

He came up with an idea to commit to less than what the customer asked them for and make their customer happier as a result by exceeding their expectation and delivering more than what was expected.

New leadership ideas

Set the bar and keep it level. If you know where the bar is, you can always exceed it.

Matt's bosses were originally against his idea but he won them over in the end.

He talked to their client and set proper expectations about what they can deliver at the end of the month.

Matt's team exceeded their customer's expectations. They delivered more than they expected to, which was more than they told their client they were going to deliver. They under promised and over delivered.

New leadership reactions

How did their internal colleagues respond to Matt's new approach?

A lot of what they learned on that project was used elsewhere in the company. They ran the program for a few more months. They started creating a cyber focused team that worked across the different customers and asked Matt to lead it because of what he had shown on that project.

Organization size

Matt's engineering organization has over 50 people across a total of four teams. At the core of their platform, they have an infrastructure engineering team that works on things like DevOps, Site Reliability and Cloud operations.

The second team is platform engineering which sits on top of their core infrastructure that is currently working on optimizing the platform they built.

On top of that, they have a product engineering team that is responsible for building different apps and different products on top of that platform.

The fourth team is a model engineering team more akin to R&D. This is where a lot more of their core IP comes out. This team is made up of AI scientists.

They also have a chief architect and security architect in the team.

Core hiring characteristics

When people talk about leadership, they often just think about management.

Orbital Insight takes a little bit of a different approach, a more holistic approach that anybody can be a leader. It doesn't have to be somebody in a management position or somebody in a position of power. You can be a leader in any position you want as long as you take that step to be a leader.

One of the core characteristics that Orbital Insight is looking for is a heavily valued quality of being proactive. It is a key focus for start up companies. Startups don't have the luxury of having a number of people in the organization that are not go-getters.

Proactivity Is not a managerial thing. It's a leadership quality that anybody can have.

Another core skill that they are looking for is the ability to be innovative. Being able to think outside the box is a big quality for them.

Being proactive is necessary

How does Orbital Insight screen for proactivity in an interview?

Screening for proactivity in an interview is difficult. It's easier to screen in the innovation aspect because you can ask particular questions and see if they came up with answers.

In the proactive nature, you can tell based on questions you're asking if they probe further into the conversation.

If you're asking a technical topic, and you leave it a little bit more open ended, and they don't ask you either clarifying questions, that's somewhat of a hint there.

The candidate's ability to probe and learn more about the situation is one clue to determine their level of proactivity.

In interviews, client conversations or internal conversations, always be proactive. Do not just accept whatever somebody else is saying at face value because it comes with a big amount of risk that you're just overlaying whatever your perception or your interpretation is on top of their situation which leads to complete misalignment and a lot of assumptions and frustration.

Concrete culture

The three O concepts have been a concrete part of the culture that Matt has built within his organization.

How did Matt embed these concepts consciously into the culture of everybody in his organization?

He's leading by example. It's the adage in communication. If you said it once, you haven't said it at all. If you said it eight times, you said it enough to constantly re-emphasize those topics.

From an organization standpoint, everything that he does is extremely organized. Everything Matt is working on is open and visible to his team. Whenever he's tracking things, taking notes, or organizing something, he does it in a place where it's completely visible to the rest of his team.

For optimization, the two areas to focus on is efficiency within the actual products and efficiency within the organization.

For efficiencies throughout the organization, a lot of the processes come into play. Different people work on these and propose different policies that can be implemented.

From the optimization of the organization standpoint, it's having the right processes in place. The ones that fit your organization, the structure that you're at currently, the size of your team, the people that you currently have and the things that you value.

Be a bit more unique and build up your culture as part of the process. When it doesn't work, shift and try something else out. Do not be afraid to put a process into place that doesn't work, you can swap it out and try something new.

Optimization from a coding perspective is something that they do a bit more through the requirements. It comes down to their key performance indicators or KPIs.

Knowing that they have top level SLAs or KPIs that they need to hit and that they're working towards from a product perspective, sets the tone for how optimized they need to be within different aspects of their code.

From an innovation standpoint, this is making sure that they're facilitating enough time to be innovative. Allow your people to be innovative, foster that, and give them the bandwidth to be able to think about new ideas. Give them room for innovation and room to think about more things.

Innovation advice

Matt's biggest piece of advice to those who want to improve in the area of organization so that they can be more innovative is to properly track your to-do list.

Most people have different ways of tracking their to-do lists or putting things onto their to-do list, but it doesn't necessarily follow a structure or certain format, and it doesn't flow into everything else that they do. They do well in one area, but it doesn't flow throughout their entire workflow.

If you want to become more structured and organized, do it across your entire work environment, as opposed to just one of them.

Advice to your younger self

If Matt could go back to the early onset of his career in Palantir, he would tell himself to be more proactive, and when you're unsure, ask somebody. Know that you can be a leader without being a manager.

Balance your focus between the organization and innovation aspect. Back then Matt was focused more on the organization aspect. He was not focused on having innovation be an aspect of his day to day job.

Focus on innovation. Allow yourself to develop new ideas, innovate, design a little bit more, and come up with more novel solutions.

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