UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Manipulating Big Data


Brett Kornfeld (MBA ‘05) has seen a big benefit from the recession — an expanded opportunity for innovation in how diverse datasets are captured and used.

The recession forced cost cutting that led to a number of innovations. Kornfeld, a certified financial analyst and director of applied strategy in the New York office of DISCERN, focuses on the development of technology that can manipulate Big Data — datasets of a size beyond the ability of software tools commonly used on Wall Street to capture, manage and process such information quickly.

DISCERN, headquartered in San Francisco, uses a cloud-based analytics platform to sort and organize a diverse array of data streams to provide investment guidance for corporations and fund managers. Statistical reports and metrics that used to be produced sporadically when resources were available now can be compiled instantly, everything from job trends in Silicon Valley to Arctic ice variations.

Analysts also must sift through what Kornfeld calls “noise,” the distracting data that accompany and overwhelm key information. For example, national housing reports that give broad numbers about predominantly localized markets only add to the noise. Headlines alone can’t tell investors how a company should be run. Big Data can.

But Big Data can be overwhelming.

“More data by itself doesn’t mean more information or decision-making ability,” said Kornfeld, who worked on the proprietary trading desks at Barclays Capital and Lehman Brothers before joining DISCERN. “Turn on a data pipe like a fire hose and people can be paralyzed. You need the ability to put data in context. We monitor specific data sources so our clients don’t have to themselves.”

DISCERN’s platform empowers customers to improve business returns through “Context-as-a-Service” products that Kornfeld views as the next generation of last decade’s Software-as-a-Service (cloud-hosted on-demand software) business trends.

“DISCERN’s mission is to become the premier provider of Big Data analytics services, whether it’s for corporations making investments or a portfolio manager picking stocks or credits,” he said. “We expect to do so by reducing decision-makers’ most common source of lost opportunity: all the noise out there.”

Kornfeld believes Wall Street lost its leadership role in the area because, as trading commissions fell, banks became content to de-emphasize investments in research. And while traditional research done by a phone and an Excel spreadsheet was great for the 1990s, it’s a different world now with much more information available to process.

“Better analysis, better ideas and better research lead to better value,” Kornfeld said.

Kornfeld was drawn to UNC Kenan-Flagler because of the intangibles it teaches — networking skills and important business concepts versus relying on textbook training. Even more important was the in-practice investment management taught by such UNC Kenan-Flagler faculty members as Greg Brown, Kenan Distinguished Scholar and professor of finance, and Mustapha Gultekin, associate professor of finance — mentors he frequently checks in with.

“I certainly learned much elsewhere,” he said, “but Carolina is the only school that led me to a job.”