Chief data officer is such a new role that there are already three different variants, reflecting a lack of agreement on how much data governance it should include. With the number of UK CDOs barely in the hundreds, it is also hard for data practitioners with aspirations to seniority to understand the path to the C-suite.
This is reinforced by the variety of ways in which current CDOs got to their posts. For Andy Day, CDO at Sainsbury’s, it was his eighth job, whereas Graeme McDermott, CDO at Addison Lee, spent 17 years at the AA before moving to his new role. In fact, McDermott had a near miss with a totally different career path early on. “I took an actuarial science degree and was intending to become an actuary because I heard it was highly-paid,” he told the audience at this year’s DataIQ Summit.
While that might not look like an obvious place to start, he pointed out tha actuarial science pre-dates data science by 30 years and provided a robust foundation in how to set up databases and write complex algorithms, practices which have now come very much to the fore. “Eight years in, I realised I wasn’t going to finish my actuarial exams, so I had to find something else,” he recalled.
"Nobody cares about your algorithm. I discovered that when I had to quote Pythagoras to explain a model and my boss's eyes glazed over.”
It was the lure of analytical software and an opportunity in the MI team at the AA which brought him into the industry, with an unexpected career acceleration when his boss left after six months, leaving him in charge of a data warehousing project. Not only did that provide hands-on experience and the opportunity to build an analytical team from scratch, it also exposed him to the top levels of the business and how it perceives data and analytics.
“I reported to the chief financial officer who loved what we did, but didn’t understand it, so I had to keep it simple. Nobody cares about your algorithm. I discovered that when I had to quote Pythagoras to explain a model and my boss's eyes glazed over,” said McDermott.
A sequence of data warehousing projects ensued, driven in part by the three changes of ownership which the AA went through during the Noughties as it entered and exited the hands of private equity and Centrica, merging and demerging customer bases along the way. Perhaps the most valuable shift was the one which occured around marketing, which also gave McDermott a real insight into where the corporate power base lies.
“No matter what I did, it is the executive that can make data very important overnight, as when it decided to switch from above-the-line advertising to below-the-line direct marketing,” he said. BY now reporting to the commercial director - “intelligent, insightful and hungry for data” - McDermott had become a virtual knowledge base for the company with an intimate understanding of where data resided and also what would be valuable to the business.
Despite appearing to be permanently embedded in the AA, a situation which led to one recruiter telling him he was “institutionalised and unemployable”, McDermott finally followed the AA’s former CFO in exiting for Addison Lee in 2016, not least because of the lure of becoming its first CDO. “A year on, they get it. We have now done 12 month of listening, rebuilding and focusing on how to move the business forward,” he said. As to what type of CDO he is, McDermott describes himself as “v2.5” with a strong focus on ensuring data and analytics are value generators.
Day was also the first CDO within his company, having exited News UK from the position of business intelligence director when the return of a CEO led to an internal reorganisation and decentralisation of the capability he had built up. While on garden leave, he considered carefully what his next step should be. “I had a list of three organisations I wanted to work for, two of them phoned me up and one of them was Sainsbury’s,” he recalled.
Part of the appeal was joining a business that holds a lot of data - the grocery chain sells 40,000 products and has millions of customers - yet at the same time has an apparently very simple, direct business model of getting food from the farm to the fork. “The business has a mandate to change and sees the opportunities, so I jumped at the chance,” said Day.
As he told the conference, having confidently told the CEO he would come up with a data-led transformation plan within 60 days, on day two he “hit the wall” when the true complexity of retailing and supply chains, together with all the attendant data they generate, hit home. In part, this was down to the sheer wealth of opportunities to deliver value from data and analytics across ranging, pricing, logistics, customer management and even optimisation of refrigeration.
“In a £23 billion turnover business (in 2016), you only need to move the levers a small bit to make a big difference,” he noted. That doesn’t mean constraining the ambition of what can be achieved, but rather keeping in focus how anaytics can be operationalised.
“Set an ambitious target - think in terms of the maximum transformational purpose.”
Drawing on his experience attending Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, Day said: “Set an ambitious target - think in terms of the maximum transformational purpose.” For him, that means having the goal of "making everything better through analytics”, which transforms the potentially unachievable moon shot into a sequence of missions that develop and embed skills, capabilities and culture. Even so, Day has identified several game-changers which, if they come off, will crown his already storied career.
What the careers of both Day and McDermott demonstrate is that it is not where you start that matters - Day’s degree was in geography - but where you want to end up. Developing core skills is the first phase of that, followed by gaining a deep understanding of business. Learn how to get your CFO to accept an insight without having to explain Greek geometry turns your career moon shot into a lunar landing.