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Tom Betts, Chief data officer, Financial Times

Path to power

 

My first career was in the music industry - setting up and running a record label. My second career was in the travel sector - setting up a travel aggregator portal. So, I think that makes data my third career. I studied artificial intelligence at undergraduate and Master’s level. Back then, nobody was hiring graduates with AI experience, so I started out as a consultant at Detica (now BAE Applied Intelligence). It took me to telecoms, insurance, financial services and government to do both commercial and fraud/risk work. In 2009, I joined the Financial Times to help develop a new web analytics capability. The commercial focus of the team delivered results and grew quickly. The FT developed a reputation for leading the media industry in digital business models catalysed by data. I was fortunate enough to grow with the team, leading first the digital analytics team, then restructuring disparate analytics groups to form one central analytics unit. I spent two years working in education at Pearson to establish a new learner analytics capability in some of its educational businesses. Returning to the FT in 2015 as chief data officer, I was appointed to the FT board.

 

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

 

Witnessing first-hand the extent to which data can transform organisations. When I left consulting, I imagined that a client-side role might be a little pedestrian and may only hold my attention for a couple of years. Many years later, I still feel enormously privileged to work in an area which is having such transformative impact and offers unique, diverse and varied challenges.

 

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

 

Algorithms are cool, but ultimately our work is so often still about people. Communication, storytelling and influencing skills are king.

 

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

 

While so much focus and attention was paid to preparing for the evolving privacy legislation, some huge stories involving data rocked the world and dominated the headlines. Data breaches, lack of algorithmic transparency leading to the spread of misinformation and a distinct lack of governance in how data is being used to drive growth.

 

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

 

See above. More GDPR-like regulation emerging around the world. And, at the same time, more scandals involving how data is being used, more investigations and more interest in data from media, governments and regulators. On a more positive note, this will all help move towards more transparent uses of data with clearer exchanges of value and more easily explainable algorithmic approaches.

 

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

 

A specific focus on attracting talent from more diverse sources combined with significant focus on developing our people. I believe that organisations can differentiate themselves by developing empowered cultures, offering unique challenges and opportunities, and providing more flexible working conditions.

 

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

 

The technology we rely upon is continuing to become increasingly commoditised. I think that means it will continue to get easier to build more personalised and data-rich products. And more people will.

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