Why diverse data teams lead to bigger wins, and other perspectives from retail tech: A Q&A with Stitch Fix CTO, Cathy Polinsky
Cathy Polinsky’s deep love of programming, problem-solving, and perfecting client experiences has propelled her to become one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent tech leaders.
After cutting her teeth in software development and engineering at Amazon, Yahoo!, Oracle, and Salesforce, Polinsky is Stitch Fix’s Chief Technology Officer. Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service, transforms the way people find what they love through personalized selections of apparel, which are curated by a unique and powerful combination of data science and their team of professional stylists.
Polinsky’s background using tech to enhance and personalize the consumer experience drives her passion for big data’s potential to support life’s most important decisions. Naturally, she becomes animated when speaking about how real-world evidence (RWE) will be critical to improving health and health care.
With her deep technology and leadership expertise, we’re proud to welcome Cathy as she joins Aetion’s Board of Directors to help us advance data-driven decision-making for our customers.
These responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What do you see as health care’s biggest challenge?
A: Coming from a patient perspective, I would say that the whole health care space is confusing to navigate. The prospect of improving health care’s big decisions — is a treatment safe and effective, and what’s its value? — with big data especially excites me.
And when we’re talking about improving decision-making in health care, nothing strikes me as more important than the adoption of RWE.
Something that has impressed me over the last decade is the evolution of personalized approaches to treating cancer. My dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma a few years ago, and because of the advances in that space, he has had a full recovery.
We’ve done a lot in cancer, but there are a lot of diseases for which we don’t yet have that level of insight into which treatments will work best for which patients.
Q: Do you see parallels between the impact of data in the health care space and in your own work?
A: Data is being used to transform every single industry. The challenge is in how we use it, especially in the RWE space. There’s so much data out there, but it’s hard to put it to use without a platform that can provide genuine insight.
This parallels the client experience in retail: consumers have so much choice that the challenge becomes navigating through all of those choices, finding which clothes are going to fit them well, how different colors are going to look on them. This challenge of choice seems to be happening in medicine and other fields as well.
In my industry, we often talk about the paradox of choice, about how much data is out there and how more data does not necessarily make things easier for people. That’s what I think the RWE space is trying to solve, using existing data to attain insights and to advance personalization.
Q: What can the health care industry learn from e-commerce, or from the technology space in general?
A: At Stitch Fix, I frequently observe how important it is to have a diversity of expertise working on technology problems. We recruit people with expertise that include retail, physics, biotechnology, economics, and psychology. These different backgrounds bring unique approaches to problem-solving. Different disciplines and ways of thinking help us tackle the hardest technology challenges.
That’s what’s great about approaching health care transformation with RWE: the pairing of diverse health care expertise with people who have big data experience and different analytics approaches. Bringing these perspectives together leads to bigger wins.
Q: Where do you see enterprise tech going? How do you think it will evolve over the next five years?
A: The big opportunity in enterprise technology is data science as a service. There are so many companies that are trying to figure out how to apply data science and artificial intelligence to support their customers and optimize their business, but they don’t have the expertise or tools to achieve this. This new field of building analytical platforms allows companies to focus on using insights and data science to run their business instead of having to reinvent the wheel by building out a platform themselves. Data science as a service will help businesses gain insights from the data deluge.
Q: Are there technology capabilities that should be top of mind for pharma leaders as they select an RWE platform?
A: As you think about using data to answer health care’s toughest questions, a focus on an end-to-end solution is key. That is, a single partner who can provide scientific expertise and software to support every step of the process, from protocol design to stakeholder engagement. For some pharma companies this starts with the end-to-end needs of a single study, and for others, it expands as they integrate RWE capabilities throughout their enterprise. And of course, given the nascent and high-stakes nature of this space, it’s so important that the technology reflects deep industry and regulatory expertise.