Netezza Chief Talks About “Formative” PTC Days, IBM Deal History, and the Future of Big Data

The name’s Baum. James Baum.

OK, he might not be a dead ringer for 007, but I get the feeling Baum could handle himself in a firefight, high-stakes poker game, or dinner with the Queen, all with equal aplomb. He is a highly skilled pilot. He’s also pretty good with business intelligence, data warehouse appliances, and “big data”—all of which sound like tools of the trade for any self-respecting spy.

Except he’s not a spy, of course. Baum is the president and CEO of Netezza, the Marlborough, MA-based business analytics firm that was snapped up by IBM for $1.7 billion last September. He has helped lead Netezza since 2006, so his experience includes taking the firm public (in 2007) and managing big teams through tough economic times. He also has a unique perspective on building business software companies over the past couple of decades, working on startups in the dot-com era, and fending off competitors in crowded spaces. (He talks some pretty good trash about these competitors too, as you’ll see towards the end of this story.)

I sat down with Baum last week to talk about the IBM (NYSE: IBM) deal and integration, but also about his broader tech experience and the dramatic rise of big data. Lately, the term has become a buzzword for the skyrocketing amounts of information that businesses are trying to harness to better serve their customers. The field is certainly hopping in Massachusetts, as evidenced by EMC’s acquisition of Greenplum, Hewlett-Packard’s purchase of Vertica, and, of course, the Big Blue-Netezza deal last fall.

“Big data is here to stay,” Baum says. “This is a really important trend in the technology industry. There’s still a lot to be done. We haven’t figured all of this out yet.”

If you don’t know big data from pig data, don’t worry. Baum, 47, is adept at explaining its significance to experts and novices alike. He grew up in Burnt Hills, NY, the son of a Skidmore College professor and the head of a hospital nursing department. Baum studied engineering at WPI in Massachusetts and RPI in New York before starting his career at Boston-area-based Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) in 1989. And that’s where things got interesting.

(In case you were wondering, PTC (NASDAQ: PMTC) is the computer-aided design and product development software firm that grew into a billion-dollar giant in the late ‘90s, slipped in the early 2000s, and is back to raking in $1 billion in annual revenues since 2008. It’s one of the underrated success stories of the Boston tech scene.)

Read below for Baum’s deeper insights and perspective on big data and business intelligence, as well as broader lessons for entrepreneurs and executives. I’ve edited the interview for length and clarity:

Xconomy: So tell me about your early career and how it shaped you.

Jim Baum: It was an interesting time in 1988. The tech industry as we understand it today was pretty young. It was a very formative time, with Data General, Digital, and Oracle was just getting going. I went to a small startup in Waltham, called Parametric Technology, or PTC. Sam Geisberg started it in 1985 with $50,000.

I joined PTC in 1989 as employee 95. It was a great, great experience. I worked for some of the best leaders I’ve ever met. I was there 11 years. The company went public [in 1989] on about $11 million in revenue. We had 40 quarters of growth in earnings and revenue. It was a rocket ship, … Next Page »

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