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Tom Spencer, Head of customer data science, Aviva Quantum, Aviva

Path to power

 

My undergraduate degree was Biochemistry. I was all set to do a PhD, but got so bored stuck in a lab all day, I decided to pivot into business. Following a year of work and travel in Africa, I found out about a small (at the time) company called dunnhumby which was doing exciting things blending the art of marketing with data science and the exhilarating pace of retail. It was a perfect match and I was fortunate to be part of its explosive growth for the next 14 years. My first role was customer insight analyst (effectively what we’d now call a data scientist) where I cut my teeth analysing large retail datasets. In 2008, I relocated Seoul to establish dunnhumby Korea as analytics lead, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the local Tesco team. I spent the next nine years in Asia, two years based in China building and leading the region’s analytics teams, and then latterly as country head of the South Korea business. I am now back in the UK as head of customer data science at Aviva, leading a world-class team focused on using data science and technology to make Aviva better for customers.

 

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

 

My move to South Korea with dunnhumby was transformative, both professionally and personally. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance - a real leap into the unknown - and fast-tracked my development. The pace in Korea was relentless and the local work culture extremely challenging, but I thrived on it. It was the start of almost a decade in Asia working with some incredible and inspiring people across the region, particularly on dunnhumby’s Asian leadership team.

 

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

 

I hold a lot of store in the Coleman Cox quote: “I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.” Also, always focus on the end result - getting execution and business impact is what matters, not how sophisticated your algorithm is.

 

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

 

It certainly went by faster than I was expecting! We all knew the GDPR was coming and things reached fever pitch towards May, but I was perhaps expecting a few more companies in the headlines by now. By and large, I think it’s been a good thing to see the data discussion become more mainstream. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the big surprise, but again it helped to raise data in the public consciousness.

 

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

 

Brexit aside, no massive change, just things accelerating as ever. GDPR bedding-in and a few more test cases to help companies better understand the practicalities. Investigative journalism will continue to shine a light on those playing fast and loose with customer data. I also expect an increasing focus on execution and return on investment from data science and AI.

 

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

 

Keeping the bar very high, working with good recruiters, and being very upfront with candidates about the type of people we want in our team - strong data scientists who collaborate well, roll-up their sleeves and work with a smile. We are also working hard on development pathways for our people, empowering them to own and shape their growth, with our support and investment to make it happen.

 

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

 

I’m most optimistic about the growing data awareness in the general population. It has increased hugely over the last year or two and can only be a good thing. We need people to understand what companies are doing with data and what benefits they get. We need an open conversation about data ethics and the kind of world we want to live in. We need to talk about the downsides as well as the upsides.
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