Alisha Witty’s NASA-Inspired Approach to Analytics

An BI and Analytics professional with more than 18 years of experience, Alisha Witty is the global director of business intelligence and enterprise architecture for Domtar Corporation. Alisha Witty is currently featured in Sync magazine by David Baez.

When your first gig out of college is to help make sure that missions into space go off without a hitch—just as a young, starstruck Alisha Witty was tasked with while at NASA—you’re ready for pretty much anything that may come afterward.

As a former analyst and engineer with the space association, Witty tested the space shuttle system code for several years before moving into operations, where she worked on the simulator that trains astronauts prior to missions.

As one might imagine, in such an important and perilous enterprise, there is no room for mistakes. NASA has a “zero-defect” culture with the most rigorous quality assurance imaginable—in data and every other area—with sundry internal and external audits for all flights. Alisha Witty left NASA for graduate school in 2005, but she has brought that zero-defect ethos to all of her subsequent jobs.

In 2013, she became the chief data architect of the personal care division of Domtar, the largest integrated producer of uncoated freesheet paper in North America and a leading global marketer and producer of a complete line of absorbent hygiene products. In three short years, the company has already felt the influence of her NASA-inspired outlook and approach. “I’ve carried what I learned at NASA throughout my career,” she says. “Our teams carry projects out with military precision. I can’t say that at Domtar we’re absolutely defect-free, but we strive for thoroughly tested and documented processes and procedures.”

Alisha Witty says one of the reasons her team is so successful is because she stays out of people’s way, granting them as much autonomy as possible. “We hire smart people,” Witty says. “The worst thing you can do with bright and motivated people is to inhibit them with hierarchy, processes, and procedures. This kills innovative spirit and creative solutions.”

And it’s this culture of innovation that is driven from the top, she says, noting that the CEO is frequently reminding everyone that if they have a different opinion they should speak up.

“When you have a difference of opinion, that can drive collaboration and blend together a couple of new ways of thought, and that’s what drives innovation,” she explains. “Otherwise, you’ll have incremental improvement, but not breakthroughs. The senior leadership here focuses on promoting independent thinking. People don’t feel compelled to do things the way they were done in the past. It’s important for people to feel comfortable to fail because we learn from that how to build something stronger and better.”