Hiring a Chief Data Officer? Here’s 5 Must-Have and 5 Must-Avoid Skills

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johnthuma_headshotIn this special guest feature, John Thuma, Director of Analytics at Teradata, shares his five “desired” and five “undesireable” traits to look for in CDOs. He argues that CDOs need to have an ego, have been a data science practitioner and a gamer. Undesirable traits include not being a DIYer, being a cowardly lion and being nepotistic in building teams. John leads a group data scientists supporting projects related to Teradata UDA and Aster. He and his team take on complex analytic projects in the following areas: time series and pathing, clustering, affinity, text analytics, and more. They serve a variety of verticals, including life sciences, retail, manufacturing, government, financial services, and insurance. John considers himself a player coach; in other words, he’s active in technology and keeps his hands on the keyboard.

In my travels in the corporate world I have seen one common theme: Most organizations are trying to figure out how to be more like Amazon, Uber, and Google. All three organizations have flipped our worlds upside down and we aren’t going back. The secret ingredient these organizations have is “DATA INNOVATION!” In order for organizations to make this transition they have to start thinking about DATA as a core asset of the company.

Unfortunately, data management and governance has played a secondary role for most organizations. Let’s be honest here: for the past 20-30 years most CIO’s and CTO’s were focused on cost avoidance rather than innovation. This is a mistake and we need to flip this around and rethink innovation.

So what is the way forward?  The answer is building a Data Office and investing in a Chief Data Officer (CDO). But, finding a CDO is not easy. And, generally, organizations should NOT recruit the CIO or CTO types to run this office. In my experience, there are some key qualities in a CDO candidate that you should seek out, and some you should avoid.

The 5 qualities you want in a Chief Data Officer: 

  • Innovation Disrupter – Yesterday’s IT leadership succeeded on raw horsepower and brute force. You are either growing or you are dying. Well those days are gone and tomorrow’s leaders will either innovate or die. The CDO will play a vital role in being the chief innovator of an organization. These people will be charged with keeping your organization competitive in a digital world.
  • Pound Wise Penny Foolish – IT budgets are shrinking and have been for years. Innovation in IT is a must. CDO’s must figure out a way to navigate the low spend waters. The CDO will need to take risks with business partners to justify budgets and that is ROI. It cannot be all about cost avoidance.
  • Ego/Emotional Genius – Working on complex projects with complex ROI requires more than just knowledge of data and analytics. With this comes a need to know how to deal with people that may not speak your language or understand your point of view. Today’s CDO’s need to be more than just PhD’s and brilliant mathematicians. In order to impact change they must understand the art of influence without authority or their ideas will never make it out of the barn! Leave your “I am smarter than everyone else” ego at home.
  • Swims in the Deep End: I am not sure how many CTO’s and CIO’s I have worked with that didn’t know the difference between a box of software and a physical server computer. CDO’s must know how to attract, hire, retain, and know their people. So that means that a CDO must not only swim in the deep, end but also with the sharks.
  • A Gamer! – CDO’s need to learn how to make things fun. One thing I did when assembling my team was create a game environment. I had to hire four data scientists to run innovation in data science for our largest clients at Teradata. I picked the four people I wanted and then gave them a roster of 40 clients and asked them to rank them in order of preference. We then had a draft day and went around the room and people got to pick their companies to support. We also had a two-week trading deadline to swap organizations. A point system was developed for keeping track of activities and work. Gamification was a big morale boost and am I keeping my data scientists around.

The 5 traits to avoid:

  • A Nerd For all The Wrong Reasons – If your CDO is a zealot or a non-tech then the CDO will fail. Being technologically inflexible and closed to ideas is a sure fire shot to reducing your success and crushing any hope of innovation. You can’t be a technology imposter and survive! Gone are the days that we just manage a vendor list or set of middle managers. Tomorrow’s CDO must be a potent technologist with programming skills and data management knowledge.
  • Not a DIY’er – The emperor’s new clothes: A CDO who has never mashed keys after eight cups of coffee and the energy drink of choice in the never ending pursuit of a brain busting data challenge. A CDO must know what they are doing. Your troops will know you don’t know what you are doing and will take advantage of you and won’t respect you.
  • Nepotism/Cronyism – A good CDO will hire ‘A’ players knowing very well that they might be smarter. I have always attempted to hire people better than myself. I let them crush their goals, give them all the credit, and tell my management I did the right thing hiring that person. I look for raw effort and skills. It is impossible to manage someone that does not work or doesn’t have the skills. My best friends and cronies are people that I have worked with in the past. They are better than me. My ego is completely ok with that fact!
  • A Cowardly Lion – Risk avoidance will get you nowhere. A great CDO will develop a risk assessment strategy and pursue greatness. They will develop a way to manage success and failure. A good CDO accepts the notion that they will fail and prepares for it ahead of time. To quote the hockey player Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
  • A Wet Mop – A great CDO is a master storyteller and is not afraid to hire people who are personable and passionate about data and its value. One thing I encourage all of my folks to do is get their work out to the public. They can do this by writing papers, speaking at conferences, and allowing them to go public with their work. Allow your team to blog and show off their great work. A great CDO is not boring and is passionate about their work. They love data!

So what is the path forward? Start hiring great people and look for candidates that have these desirable qualities. I am a part of, and manage, the best data science team in Teradata Corporation. I hired my people based on these qualities and I will not accept anything but people with these qualities. Everyone on my team is hands-on, including me. Everyone on my team has excellent people skills and can program a computer! I will not ask anyone to do something I myself cannot understand and assist with and accomplish. Most importantly I hire people who are programmers. Google, Uber, and Amazon are full of great leaders who are also programmers. Ensure your CDO is a darn good programmer with a great personality.


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