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Catherine Brien, Chief data officer, Guardian News and Media

Path to power

 

I studied Maths at Cambridge, which in hindsight turned out to be a fantastic foundation. I went into management consulting and gravitated towards the challenges needing a more data/maths -led approach, such as understanding customer motivations and behaviour, or logistics efficiencies. I learnt to understand the essence of a business challenge, translate it into a maths problem, source the data and solve it to the best of our ability, and then translate it back into something that could be implemented. This experience taught me many things - the importance of framing the problem well; picking the right tool for the job (neural network, basic MI, research?); judging how important data really is versus judgement and experience; and that insight counts for nothing if it can’t be implemented. In 2016, I joined Co-operative Group as data science director to launch the journey to make data a group-wide asset as the business reoriented around members, rather than the business unit. I worked across the group, created a version one, single joined-up data environment, introduced group-wide data governance, and introduced data science as a new capability. Then, in September 2018, I joined the Guardian as CDO. This is a new role and we have an ambitious agenda that I’m really excited to be leading.

 

What has been the highlight of your career in the industry to date?

 

The highlight has always been finding the “aha!” moments and enabling people/organisations to achieve more. Working with data is about enabling people (or systems) to make better decisions, faster and more simply than they could before. And it’s fabulous watching this in action.

 

If you could give your younger self some advice about how to progress in this industry, what would it be?

 

I’ve been very lucky in many respects. I’ve had some great mentors to whom I owe a lot and I’ve had huge variety in my career - working across different industries in different contexts and in different disciplines, both within data and also more broadly. I think this has served me really well, particularly as I’ve become more senior. I think my key advice would be, obsess about the business outcome and take career opportunities as they come. Don’t be afraid to take roles that are outside of your comfort zone - and get a basic level of familiarity with the full breadth of disciplines. But, most importantly, have fun.

 

Did 2018 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

 

Well, GDPR was obviously the big event of the year. After huge effort and prep for many of us, it came into force and there was a collective sigh of relief around the nation’s boardrooms that all was well (though I don’t know anyone who is complacent). Less expected - is it really only a year since the Cambridge Analytica story broke? And Facebook is arguably not quite as strong as it was.

 

What do you expect 2019 to be like for the industry?

 

Continuing the theme, I think that ethics in data, AI and tech is still a very active issue. I believe that a strong ethical position is not at odds with being commercially successful, and I think that many of us will be exploring that this year. We’re seeing more and more innovation in this space, too, which will be interesting to follow and I wonder what kind of shifts will come in the advertising space.

 

Talent and skills are always a challenge to find - how are you tackling this in your organisation?

 

First is to demonstrate how strategically critical our data capability is and how seriously we are taking it across all areas of our operations (journalism as well as business). I’m lucky that my role is on the executive committee, which sends a very strong signal. This year, we’ll also have a strong focus on training and development, and creating attractive career paths.

 

What aspect of data, analytics or their use are you most optimistic about and why?

 

I think the opportunities and potential from data are becoming better understood, which is fabulous because it means that more will benefit. Advances in algorithms also continue to be very exciting and - back to ethics - I feel very positive about the maturity of the debate that is happening. It has a long way to run and I look forward to being a part of it.

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