The common themes across the roles I’ve had over my career (11 roles over 19 years) are building teams with a common goal and strong sense of purpose and fun, supporting talented technical specialists by creating an environment in which they can be at their best and, ultimately, uncovering new insights to create change that adds value to organisations, their customers and their employees. It’s interesting that it took me at least half of my career to figure out that this is what I do as at the early stage of a career, the output is much more obvious than the role you’ve played to make it happen. I realised about ten years in that my strengths lie more in the “how”.
There have been a number of highs. I put them all down to a combination of hard work and the luck of good timing. Being a part of the dunnhumby team in the late 1990s, working with Tesco which was so committed to understanding its customers through data and using insight to deliver the best experience possible. It was such an exciting time, working with great people and pioneering a new way of doing business before the term big data existed. Another highlight was living in India for three years to set up a data and analytics team. It was where I learnt about the importance of team culture, as well as where I found my own leadership style. Living in India was incredibly exciting and lots of fun. It also had a big impact on how I understand the world around me and I am very grateful for that gift. In 2017, I became the first chief data officer at Direct Line Group. I feel that I’m only just getting started as the opportunity is huge. It’s a privilege to have the opportunity to continue to break new ground and have an impact on a business, its customers and its people.
Learning through a wide range of experiences is hugely valuable. You get to know yourself and your strengths, gain experience of different organisations, industries and situations. You also get to learn from more people and build your network. Changing roles regularly is important for growth. That doesn’t have to mean changing employer if they offer that variety and growth. It’s important to take on roles that will really stretch you. If you know you can do it before you start, you probably aren’t stretching yourself enough.
I believe our industry will look back at 2018 as a pivotal point in time. It was a year in which the role that data can play in society - for good and for bad - was under the spotlight. Data privacy and its potential for misuse became part of public debate as the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story broke and coverage of the introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation helped educate people about their data rights. As a passionate believer in the positive impact data can have, developing our code of ethics as an industry is critical.
The data privacy debate will rightly continue, as will questions over the ethics of data use and algorithmic decisions and their impact. I see this as the biggest challenge for the industry as a whole at this point. As well as grappling with these issues, data leaders and practitioners in 2019 will continue to work to attract, develop and retain great talent in an increasingly competitive market, as well as working to educate and learn with their organisations what it takes to truly to be data-led.
I believe the way to tackle the talent and skills challenge is to build diverse teams that combine people who have a deep knowledge of the business and industry with people from other sectors and backgrounds. For most people, particularly in technical roles, new skills are relatively easy to learn - it’s the mindset and willingness to try new things that matters more. At Direct Line Group, we are tackling this by building a community across our data and analytics teams to share learning and help people grow their skills and careers across our functions.
I’m most optimistic about people living better, safer, healthier and happier lives through the insight data brings. We are still at the early stages, but smart technology and connected living will help us all make better choices for ourselves and the societies we are part of.