Rigid machines meet human creativity: Advising on data strategies

Disparate experiences have helped Kirsten Thompson apply human strategy to technical questions.

Rigid machines meet human creativity: Advising on data strategies
Kirsten Thompson is national lead of Dentons’ Transformative Technologies and Data Strategy group

Computers are all about 1s and 0s, black and white. They do not work in ambiguity.

But for Kirsten Thompson, who leads the transformative technologies and data strategy group at Dentons, ambiguity is the essence of her practice.

“I have colleagues who are tax lawyers and securities lawyers, and you can tell who they are because they carry around these very large books full of rules,” she says. “My practice horrifies them, because there are no rules, there's very little guidance, it's all first principles.”

First principles can often be gleaned from very disparate sources, as her career path attests.

Thompson started off studying journalism and taking science courses as electives. When she finished her degree and decided against pursuing a career in media, she completed a biochemistry degree. At that time, with the dawning of same sex marriage advocacy and gay rights litigation in Canada, law school sparked her interest, so she attended Queen’s University.

After articling at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, she joined as a litigation associate with a focus on health law and IT/IP matters. But a conventional path was not in the cards and she eventually moved inhouse at the technology company Softchoice.

“My journey through the profession of law has matched my journey through academia in that it has been circuitous. When I first started, privacy was not really a thing; data was certainly unheard of.”

Thompson eventually returned to McCarthys, when “the internet was now firmly established as a thing,” and started a practice in privacy law. Being a new area, though, it took some convincing within the firm that this would be a growth area, and she moved among the firm’s knowledge management, litigation and technology teams.

For Thompson, though, it started to dawn on her that privacy wasn’t really the underlying issue for companies dealing with technology. And, unlike what the software and hardware her clients were dealing with could offer, Thompson had to think more creatively about where things were going to go.

“I was really focused on privacy for about two years. And then it dawned on me that it wasn't about privacy; it was about [the] managing of information.”

All her clients, she realized, were dealing with different types of data. “They're all trying to protect it. They're trying to hang on to it, they are trying to recover it if it's gotten away from them. They are trying to leverage it for value.”

It eventually brought her to Dentons, where even geographical boundaries are often irrelevant.

“If you are in the world of intangibles, which is largely what my world is, I have to worry less about borders than most people. Very few companies come to me with a jurisdictionally limited data problem.”

In her current position at Dentons, Thompson does not specialize in any industry. Recently, she helped her firm launch what it calls “Dentons data” where companies can get project management and a fixed price and timeline to get a data-related project up and running. As an inhouse lawyer, Thompson noticed that things such as document retention and contract management were often pushed aside for more pressing concerns, so this offering is meant to help address that gap.

Thompson continues to jump around in her pursuits, including taking coding courses online and manipulating data on her own, “just so I can understand some of the technologies my clients are using.” 

For Thompson, the rules and categories, like the 1s and 0s that power the machines her clients use, are simply means to achieve a result that needs to be driven by a human strategy. And when humans are involved, things are never predictable.

“I love what I do. And I finally was able to stitch together the thing that drove me out of journalism, the thing that drove me out of biochemistry. I've now been able to stitch it together in an area that is both high level and detail oriented and this sort of mess you never know what you're going to get.”

Governments struggling, too

Thompson sits on two public bodies to advise governments. “All governments are doing what my clients are doing,” Thomson says. “I assist companies with digital transformation. The governments are doing exactly the same thing.”

Open Banking Advisory Committee

The federal Liberals launched the Advisory Committee on Open Banking in September 2018, and Thompson is one of four members. The committee is exploring the potential merits of open banking, which will allow Canadians to share their financial transaction data with financial service providers more easily. “Canada is just starting the journey toward open banking,” says Thompson. “Other jurisdictions are much further along.”

Ontario’s Digital and Data Task Force

The provincial government’s task force has a much broader mandate than the open banking committee. It aims to help “Ontarians and businesses benefit directly from the data economy, while ensuring their personal privacy is protected,” according to a government press release. Thompson is one of eight on the task force.

These initiatives, Thompson says, highlight how a lot of what governments are looking at is “how to level the playing field so that you don't end up with giant multinational, global companies that control the resource and everyone else is left on the periphery.” 

Beyond the hype

Thompson advises in many areas where hype is easy to come by, but detailed knowledge is slim:

Artificial Intelligence: Companies will come to Thompson and say they want to use AI because “everybody has artificial intelligence.” After doing a deep dive into the company’s data, which is often in disparate formats, and its strategy, she will sometimes conclude that a good old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet will do the job.

Cybersecurity: Having advised on more than 100 cyberbreaches, Thompson says they now have a “a cadence to the routine.” However, what continues to surprise her is the “ingenuity” of it. “It's less and less the one-off hacker in somebody's basement. Increasingly, it's organized business crime. So, these are sophisticated, well-funded entities that are targeting companies.”

Blockchain: While acknowledging the hype cycle for this technology is on the wane, she says its real impact will be felt behind the scenes. “It has the potential to take out an entire compliance department in a large financial institution.”

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