Santa Clause Data Superhero

“Make your list, check it twice”: A conversation with St. Nicholas, Head of Gift Ops, North Pole

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Happy holidays! This week’s interviewee might surprise you. What also might surprise you is that he and his wife (they’re co-founders) suffer from the same data quality issues most business leaders do.

Every year around this time, kids around the world send their holiday gift requests to Santa Clause up at the North Pole — and managing all those incoming requests is no easy task. From merging and de-duplicating requests to normalizing gift types, data cleanliness is a constant focus for Santa and the elves.  In case you’re wondering, mixing up My Little Pony with an actual pony is a really big deal.

Through it all, Santa and the team maintain their jolly demeanor.  We sat down with big guy to understand how he makes it all work.

What’s your greatest challenge?

No question, our greatest operational challenge is data quality. People call the list I keep on all the kids around the world “THE list.” I wish it was just one list. The world is unbelievably diverse and a lot of people don’t realize we serve more than just North America. 

This is a global operation and that means I’ve got data teams in EMEA, APAC, India, Africa, and the poles. On top of that there are 3.14 billion people who aren’t connected to the internet, an increasing number of whom don’t believe I exist. Which is like, are you kidding? But we keep data on all of them regardless.

We’re also a bit like the post office in that if someone believes, we have a mandate to deliver. No matter where. This means we’re a last-mile service deliverer and we do a lot of carrying packages for Amazon, who I’ve heard is building out a competitive gift delivery network. Am I worried? No. I’m building my own thing using blockchain. That’s about all I can say about that.

Now I will say, if we only had a simpler way to merge, dedupe and normalize data in our lists (you wouldn’t believe how many different ways there are to ask for a pony), it would free a lot of elf hours. Just a few of the errors that have come from bad data:

  • Naughty kids getting a pass
  • Nice kids get getting reprimanded
  • Double-gifting
  • Regifting
  • Giving the wrong gift
  • Gifts going to old addresses

Where do you store all of that data?

Believe it or not, our solution is quite literally snowflakes — and it has absolutely no connection to that Snowflake company that just started a few years back.  Did you know that an individual snowflake is made up of 1019 water molecules? It’s no wonder that no two are alike.  We use snowflakes up here in the North Pole to keep track of everything, been doing it for ages.  Each unique snowflake has everything we need to know — and the data gets recombined and refreshed as needed up in the clouds.

Who else has or needs access to that data?

Maybe it goes without saying that we’re not the only holiday provider. We’re a lot bigger in the U.S. than we are elsewhere, but because of our mandate, we go wherever people are. That means we spend a lot of time cooperating with people of other faiths and ensuring that all of our data is up-to-date everywhere.

Among them: Kwanzaa, Diwali, Hanukkah, Las Posadas, Chinese New Year, Winter Solstice.

If I had to pick one I really identify with, yeah, it’s Winter Solstice. I have a soft-spot for non-denominational pagan traditions. You know I began my career in modern day Myra, Turkey in 280 A.D. right? Then I spent a lot of time in Europe during the renaissance. I’m pretty well-traveled.

What’s your #1 data quality tip?

You collect a lot of data on us Santa, should we be worried about our privacy?

I’d like to just put this one to rest: My operation is fully GDPR compliant. You can opt out. You just have to send a request to 123 Elf Road, North Pole, 88888. (No, but seriously.) Also, when CCPA launched in California, just half of firms were ready for it and we were one of them. That’s your right to be forgotten, access to your data, cookies, the whole thing. (Yes, you can delete those delicious cookies you shared, if that’s your idea of holiday cheer.)

Anything else on your mind?

I wasn’t invented by Coca-Cola. I’m really tired of hearing that. My current wardrobe style was inspired by a German-American cartoonist in the 1870s. And as for the anti-consumerism argument, I’m with you. People should be sending each other fewer, but more thoughtful gifts. Sometimes those are handmade. Sometimes they aren’t. Either way we’ll deliver them. I’m just here to bring cheer, you know?

Also I’m bullish on water-soluble shipping peanuts. Totally biodegradable. It’s the future.

And of course, be kind to one another! It’s always been important, but I think we can all agree a little kindness can make all the difference today. 

About the authorNick is a CEO, founder, and author with over 25 years of experience in tech who writes about data ecosystems, SaaS, and product development. He spent nearly seven years as EVP of Product at Marketo and is now CEO and Founder of Syncari.

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