Exasol’s recent Journey to CDO research explored how data leaders can succeed in what’s being called “the most influential role of the decade”. The report was drawn from surveying thousands of active chief data officers from across the UK, US and Germany, along with in-depth interviews to learn about their educational backgrounds, skill-sets, and experiences.
The Journey to CDO made some surprising discoveries about what needs to change in order for today’s aspiring data officers to prosper. One CDO who provided such insights was Derek Danois, CDO at GE Healthcare. Here, we dig into his experiences of the role.
The Data Dreamer: Do you think that having a technical background is a must-have for a CDO?
Derek Danois: CDOs can absolutely come from an arts background, but they will need the innate curiosity to self-learn the likes of statistical analysis frameworks, cloud engineering and architecture, and how to effectively lead teams. For example, liberal arts subjects train you to think critically, so it’s then just about becoming familiar with the data vocabulary and processes.
Flexibility is definitely required when it comes to talent acquisition because most people will never have a CV that makes them a complete package on paper. A person’s background could seem technically perfect, but if I was faced with the choice of someone with a 70% complete skill set and someone else who was obviously inquisitive and hungry to learn new things – I’d pick the latter.
For example, I didn’t have multiple years of data science training. But I did have the foundational knowledge a that allowed me to ask the right questions. And I also had to learn the nuances of statistical analysis to be effective in supporting my team’s work and what they could work on next.
When it comes to CDO job ads, companies need to be clearer and better define success criteria so that expectations and responsibilities can be set appropriately. Watch out for vacancies that are asking for a really broad bucket of requirements. It’s likely that they are uncertain as to what they want or need from a CDO. I’ve seen CDO job specs that are asking for so many things that it’s not feasible for any candidate to realistically have.
As a data leader, how do you go about shaping the right team?
Talent management and staff retention are core parts of the CDO role. Great talent is scarce, and you need to work out how to build your team to maximise its impact. You need to understand your different team members, their acumen and experiences – and listen to them. You also need to launch new initiatives or invest in new resources where required to enable them to do what they need and want to do.
It’s also about looking for people that have a passion and drive to transform a company. The data function is not a back-office operation, it requires a lot of engagement across business functions and educating every individual on what data can enable them to do – essentially, data democratization.
This is where team dynamics and diversity come in, you need a team that has different skill sets. There will be those who are best placed to implement the tech stack, those are best at educating users on how use it, and those who can inspire people to rely on data insights. All will have individual personalities and require management in different ways.
Tell us more about this, what backgrounds – technical, business or arts – have the people in your data teams come from?
My team all come from varying backgrounds, including a physician, marketer, data asset manager, Healthcare IT manager and another with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Bringing together a diverse set of people creates really good conversation and the cross pollination of experience and ideas.
This combination of people also means I have team members who are excellent communicators, which is imperative when dealing with multiple business functions and helping them to understand the data at their fingertips. For example, my colleague with the marketing background is a strong liaison to the commercial part of the business and asset to the data analysis they need – they are credible and completely understand the customer engagement needs.
There are also parts of the business that have traditional ways of working and function in a certain way that can cause friction when it comes time to change. A strong, cross-skilled team brings the dynamic engagement to achieve different elements of what’s required and bring this all together so that change doesn’t take longer than it needs to.
How do we stop data leader roles being perceived as only suited for technical people?
We need to create opportunities for more people to be exposed to data analysis procedures, and how and why data is used throughout a business. There are common elements that help to drive organisations forward and data is one of them – it’s about educating every employee on how it does this. When this happens, more people will get onboard to help their organisation grow.
Training helps to overcome a lot of barriers with the foundational elements of data and every organisation should look to include data modules as part of their formal development programmes. Once people are up to speed it allows for different discussions around data to happen.
Ultimately, the ROI will speak for itself. When every person in an organisation can contribute to the next piece of data-driven revenue it’s incredibly powerful. Data grows an organisation and justifies central budgets and the likes of product developments to help to move things faster.