Remembering Larry

By Daragh O Brien
December 4, 2020
25min read

I was saddened this week to learn that my friend and mentor Larry English had passed away at the end of October.

I first met Larry almost two decades ago when I first entered the wonderful world of data quality, just a kid with a crazy dream. Or, more accurately, a frazzled project manager trying to get his head around how and why my employer seemed to have a ‘SideShow Bob standing on rakes‘ approach to dealing with problems in data and a Keystone Kops approach to planning projects to avoid data quality issues.

Eamonn, consultant working on one of my projects had referenced a copy of Larry’s Improving Data Warehousing and Business Information Quality in a presentation. Eamonn was very keen on this book, so I went and ordered a copy from this plucky startup called Amazon.

The book changed my life. It was the beginning of a learning journey I continue on today. And it was the gateway to other deep thinkers in the world of Data Quality and Data Governance. Of course, Larry preferred the term “Information Quality” and, as I type this, I can see him smiling.

A little while later I blagged my way to the IRMUK Information Quality Conference in London to attend one of Larry’s in-person courses. He made an immediate impression, bringing to mind a Southern preacher imparting wisdom and insights in a dynamic and passionate way. The slide pack was huge. The knowledge share was bigger.

Yoda to my Luke Skywalker

That meeting started a teacher/mentor relationship that spanned a decade. Larry encouraged me to share my thinking at conferences, not least because it meant I could attend the conference for free, making it easier for me to get access to training my employer wouldn’t fund.

When I wrote my first book (which had been commissioned as a short industry report but became a bigger beast), Larry gave generously of his time to walk through the finer points of his methodology with me and to review my case studies and findings. Pedantic and detail focused, his feedback on things could be frustrating. But in hindsight I can see it was simply an extension of his passion for data and the potential boon to society from improving the quality of data, and his desire to help improve thinking (and thinkers) in the profession. Certainly, his suggestions and pointers when I shared workplace challenges were invaluable free consultancy from someone who always tried to encourage me to do better and be better.

But with Larry there was no “try or try not”. There really was just “do or do not”. This could sometimes lead to mutual frustration.

Getting Involved

Larry invited me to get involved with a professional association he and Tom Redman had kicked off to provide a focal point for the nascent discipline of Information Quality Management (Larry’s term) aka Data Quality Management (Tom’s term). I served on the IAIDQ Board (now IQ International) for almost a decade as VP for Publicity, developing their first geographic ‘Community of Practice’, and contributing to the development of their Information Quality Certified Practitioner certification. Larry was a constant presence on our Board calls as an Advisor (or perhaps ‘fretful parent’ might be a better description). Larry’s vision for what he wanted IAIDQ to achieve was very clear to him and the volunteer Boards in the first decade of the IAIDQ’s existence put in a huge volunteer effort to develop a model for delivery that respected those insights and principles as we worked to develop a professional association that was just hitting its stride as the Global Financial Crisis struck. The irony of a global financial crisis that had poor quality data at its heart hitting the discretionary budgets of companies who might have funded membership or provided sponsorships was not lost on us at the time.

But by encouraging me to get involved, Larry opened a door for me to some of the most important friendships and mutual learning experiences of my life. Because, at his core, Larry was a connection maker. He made the connection between failures in data quality and the failures in manufacturing quality long before most had even thought of it. And, in person, Larry was generous in making introductions between people who he thought would ‘click’ and benefit from talking to each other. It is ultimately through Larry that I have been lucky to have developed close connections with data management pioneers like Tom Redman (the other father of Data Quality Management), Danette McGilvray, Tony Shaw of Dataversity, Jeremy Hall in IRMUK, Laura Sebastien-Coleman, Dr Markus Helfert, Grant Robinson, Arnt-Erik Hansen, Andrew Griffiths, Bob Seiner, John Ladley, and literally dozens of others who I am thankful to consider good acquaintances if not friends.

It is doubly sad that in the week I learned of Larry’s passing, the IAIDQ/IQ International Board announced they would be winding up the Association as it has struggled to sustain momentum in the increasingly challenging world of professional associations.

A personal connection.

Larry was 29 years older than me to the day. For most of the years I knew him, I would get an email on our shared birthday. He’d probably give me one of his ‘over-the-glasses’ stares for saying that he was very much a stereotypical Aquarian: focused, ahead of his time, and possessed of a passion for his chosen area of activity that could often be challenging to keep pace with as he seemed to have jumped to the answer before leadership in organisations had even figured out that there was a question to be asked.

But Larry was always balanced his professional drive with a genial southern charm that was difficult to match. One of my most enjoyable times with him was when he came to Dublin in 2006 to deliver a Master Class for the ICS and the IAIDQ’s Irish Community. The day prior to the event I spent the full day with Larry running around Dublin showing him key sights in the city in an exhausting schedule. Everything from where St. Valentine is buried, Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin Castle, the Book of Kells… all in a single day. Larry lugged more camera equipment with him that day than I think I’d ever seen outside of a professional photo shoot. And we dined heartily on seafood in the Lord Edward.

He then delivered a six-hour master class of content on Data Quality that I think sowed significant seeds in Ireland (some of which have borne fruit in recent years).

It was on that trip that I discussed with Larry the idea of data protection and privacy as a quality characteristic of data and how it is managed. It was a new concept for him but intuitively he saw that it was related, and he agreed that we needed to break down the silos that existed between management disciplines for data and encouraged me to dig into the thinking more. I am hopeful that he would have recognised his fingerprints in the work Katherine O’Keefe and I have done in Ethical Data Management, particularly our harking back to the work of W.Edwards Deming as a foundational starting point.

As my family unpacks our Christmas decorations this year, I find myself looking at the Christmas cards I received over the years from Larry and his wife Diane. Always with a small personal note from him to me, particularly the year my kid arrived into the world.

Decline of a Giant

It was around then that I noticed Larry slipping. Losing his place in his presentation a little. All things that I put down to the fatigue of his 300 days a year on the road working with clients. But as the years progressed, the slips became more noticeable as his usually fastidious timekeeping and almost legendary struggle to complete his course content without running over began to fade. The last time I saw Larry in person was at EDW in San Diego a few years ago. It was clear he was lost and was struggling, both literally and figuratively. And it was touching how many of us who knew him rallied around, almost without speaking, to make sure he was chaperoned and got back to his wife Diane safely. We all recognised how much we owed him.

Giant Footprints

I don’t think I’d be doing what I do today if it wasn’t for Larry. The world of data management would not be what it is today without his influence. And I do hope he didn’t feel at the end that his life’s mission wasn’t achieved. Because, while less than 3% of organisations today don’t have data that meets basic quality standards, at least there is a generation of leaders in the profession who understand that that sucks, is not sustainable, and can be fixed.

We all have some giant foot prints to walk in.

Some reading for you…

Here’s a collection of Larry’s articles on Sadly his company’s website where much of his articles (Larry predated the blog format) were posted has long since fallen away.

His books are available on Amazon. And I think he’d get a kick out of the data quality problem in Amazon’s metadata. Apparently the book has been out since the 17th Century.

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