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Riverside’s CIO on wrestling with 30 years of data

Riverside chief information officer Eric Feldman tells pfm about his unusual route to private equity and leveraging data.


Riverside Company

Chief information officer

Office of the Mayor for the City of New York

Director of management information systems

The Princeton Review

Assistant vice-president of technical operations

Advances in technology come in spurts. For the Riverside Company, that means taking stock of where the private equity firm is now and where it wants to be.

Advances in technology come in spurts. For the Riverside Company, that means taking stock of where the private equity firm is now and where it wants to be.

Part of the responsibility on how to adapt to technology falls to Eric Feldman, the chief information officer. In Riverside’s view, now is the time to plan for the firm’s future.

“We are working on a number of Riverside initiatives. We’re trying to get smarter,” he says from the firm’s headquarters in New York’s Rockefeller Center looking over Fifth Avenue. “We’re at the stage now where we’re starting to pivot, and technology has advanced as well.”

That means, as an example, evaluating how to apply artificial intelligence and machine learning throughout various parts of the business. The firm is currently in talks with a third-party group in reviewing strategies that would leverage its 30 years-worth of data.

“There are numerous ways that platforms such as artificial intelligence could be applied to how we operate at Riverside,” Feldman says. “What we are working on today is evaluating opportunities within the company so we can clearly identify which problems we’re trying to solve. It’s a very competitive market, from a fundraising and deal sourcing perspective, for example, so taking stock of existing processes with the goal of leveraging more advanced technologies could really provide an advantage.”

Riverside uses a global team, the aforementioned 30 years of data and a number of industry-standard subscription services to feed this pipeline. The amount of data is massive, both structured and unstructured, including a proprietary system used for the management of the firm’s portfolio companies.

Yet, that wealth of information can be too much for a single person to sift through in order to find patterns and to connect the dots across a global organization. Given the proliferation of cloud-based systems, designing integrations is becoming more and more complex.  It’s manageable today, but it won’t be sustainable for the long term, Feldman says.

“We have access to vast amounts of historical and current data across multiple systems such as our global CRM, portfolio management and accounting platforms. Being smarter about how we aggregate these disparate data sets and structuring it in a way where we can ask questions of the data can help us make more informed decisions,” he says.

For example, harnessing technology such as AI would allow Riverside to look at the same amount of deals but give it the insight to spend time differently on opportunities, based on intelligence gathered from a tool set.

“There are a lot of consultants who now specialize in AI-based technologies focusing on financial services firms,” Feldman says. “We’re finding the right partner to work with us, to either build the system or use an existing platform that’s out there. That’s going to be a big focus for us this year.”

The long and winding road

Feldman’s path to information technology was an unconventional one. He grew up in Chicago surrounded by technology, writing programs on the TRS-80 home computer in the 1980s. His father has a background in educational technology, and Feldman taught himself to write video game programs and take computers apart and re-assemble them.

At Eastern Illinois University, he enrolled as a history major, putting himself on a path to law school. When he graduated in 1994, he joined a legal firm in Washington, DC but quickly realized law wasn’t for him. Instead, he helped the firm’s two-man IT team to develop their email system via Lotus Notes.

One thing led to another, and he worked in start-ups and technological consulting firms in the US and abroad before finding his way to The Princeton Review and then the Office of the Mayor for the City of New York in Michael Bloomberg’s administration.

As manager of information systems in the mayor’s office, Feldman found that being patient and listening to what people needed were key skills in an environment that involved demanding politicians and working on complex, big-scale projects. He worked on a graffiti-tracking application tied to information number 311 that is still in use .

His work at the mayor’s office caught the attention of Riverside chief operating officer Pamela Hendrickson, who was overseeing Riverside’s growth and needed to address the increasing demands of the firm from a technical and project management perspective.

One of Feldman’s first moves after being hired in April 2011 was to take stock of the existing global technology set-up and prioritize tasks and projects by their sense of urgency: immediate, the next six to 12 months and long term. He spoke with department heads about their needs, and built a dedicated technology team to replace consultants that had been used.

Feldman notes that at its core, the IT operations function worked within Riverside, but it needed structure. “By introducing some best practices, such as the introduction of an incident tracking system and formalizing functional roles within the group, this created an easy-to-access help desk from an end-user perspective, so some of the larger infrastructure-focused needs could be addressed,” he says.

“These changes over the course of a year transformed the team and modernized the overall technology stack. Making slight changes helped to change the perception of the technology team, which demonstrated that the team was to be trusted and considered an important partner.”

Feldman’s other initial tasks included the transition of core infrastructure to enterprise-grade data centers, as well as the creation of a project management office. Spending time with Riverside staff helped to develop the longer term roadmap, which eventually led to a company-wide initiative focusing on cloud-based technologies.

Looking forward

One of his goals this year is to help the management company chief financial officer, Jason Murphy, with continuing to develop use cases for NetSuite, the software program that manages the firm’s finances and operations.

“For me, this job is really about building relationships,” Feldman says. “We provide a combination of advisory and technical services for my colleagues around the globe. Partnering with Riverside’s department heads, for example, around their technology strategies benefits not only them but the entire company. For NetSuite, this is Jason’s platform, and he has some great ideas on how to expand its use across the firm. I’ll work hand-in-glove with him to help his department achieve its goals.”

He explains that helping Murphy includes deciding whether there’s a drive to be less dependent on Excel for specific budgeting needs and looking at platforms where the technology team can assist. Taking it from a beginning-to-end perspective, that involves the creation of the budget directly from NetSuite, not dependent on Excel, and then shared to departmental leaders for review and approval. Using NetSuite as the system of record would drive this workflow with integrations built into it, Feldman says.

“My team and I are there to support Jason and his priorities. Jason and I speak daily and this is one of many areas we plan to focus on in 2019.”

Working in tech

What’s your advice for anyone who wants to work in the IT-related fields in private equity?

Depending on the firm, there are numerous options for someone who is looking to start their technology career in private equity.

For me, personally, when I first started working in technology many years ago, there was a glut of opportunities because of the explosion of Microsoft-based technologies at the time. If you had basic skills, and more importantly, Microsoft-focused certifications – the world was your oyster.

Today, things are a bit more competitive, and I come across people who are starting off with backgrounds in computer science or a technology-related field more often than not.

Many people I know around my age, who are in similar positions I’m in, all seem to have liberal arts backgrounds, so that’s a noticeable difference.

Starting off working for a help desk in a private equity firm or even as a software specialist is a great introduction to the business and the various systems in use. Beyond the help desk, there are great opportunities for technicians on the systems and security side.

Looking past IT operations, project management as well as development and report writing are also strong choices. Taking the time to build relationships will be important to make connections with peer groups as well to grow your network. Taking the opportunity to really understand the inner workings of a private
equity business will only help someone grow within their company.

What kind of applicant do you look for?

It depends on the role. Within Riverside’s technology team there are positions where having experience within a financial services firm is preferred. For others, it’s not required but all candidates must possess an eagerness to work hard and learn new things. More and more, the ability to work with certain reporting packages or data visualization platforms is in demand.

Generically speaking, being good with data massaging and manipulation is a useful skill. We also look for people who are confident and articulate and are comfortable speaking with senior management.

Would you be looking for someone to help you in areas like interpreting the data, or is that a role that is likely to be outsourced?

The way that I think about these for Riverside is we have departments that have a lot of smart people that work here.

When it comes to the AI project mentioned earlier, that’s not an area of expertise for any of us. So this is where we tap into a third party and their role will not be helping us to interpret the data, but they will help us to build the frameworks so we can move forward.