What Makes a Good Chief Data Officer Candidate?

Loraine Lawson
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The Commerce Department’s first Chief Data Officer has worked with open data about as long as it’s been around — which isn’t actually that long, if you think about it. Ian Kalin’s resume shows that he started working with open data in 2012 as a Presidential Innovation Fellow for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Since then, he briefly (2 months) worked as an Adecco contractor with Google, followed by not quite two years as the director of open data at Socrata, which helps businesses leverage open data. Previously, he worked about five years with supply chain data. I’m sure his time as a Navy counter-terrorism officer and his numerous other acclaims didn’t hurt either. His background is a good fit for what the Commerce Department needs as it pushes forward with open data. He also has spent his career as a leader, so he’s fully qualified for that “chief” part.

Still, I admit I was surprised simply because of what’s missing: a strong IT background. Somehow I expected a CDO would have some traditional tech experience, such as a DBA or a programmer.

It made me wonder: What are organizations looking for in a chief data officer? It’s a difficult question, because in reality, that’s being defined right now. For 2017, Gartner foresees that half of all companies in regulated industries will actually have a CDO.

IBM’s research found that the “ideal chief data officer” would have 10+ years of business experience combined with 10+ years of data experience. To me, that implies working in data technology, since business experience is mentioned separately. In the UK, Experian Data Quality found that 35 percent of CDOs began in data and 29 percent came from IT. Certainly, the UK’s first Chief Data Officer, Mike Bracken, brings together both business and technical experience, which Information Management says shows that “Chief Data Officers Aren't Created Overnight.”

Dan Woods, CTO and editor of CITO Research, contends that marketing and PR professionals are moving into the role, which he argues represents a power grab from CIOs and CTOs. He doesn’t offer data to back that up, but points to his observations from the CDO Summit. There’s “a far higher percentage of women than the CIO and CTO population,” he writes. He then adds, “the people who attend are older in general than the general tech crowd.”

Uhm. Ouch?

From those observations, he draws this conclusion about the CDO role, and I’m just going to quote his exact words here:

What has happened is that the weakness of CIOs and CTOs in defining their role as creating business value, combined with the reduction in cost and difficulty of creating applications and adapting technology, has left the door wide open for a group of people who had not been making the power of technology work for them.

But go beyond work experience, and the qualifications for a CDO become much clearer. IBM’s Infograph notes that a CDO must have:

  • Communication skills, with the ability to communicate the value of data to executives, middle managers and business workers at the implementation level.
  • Strategic thinking capabilities, meaning the CDO can appreciate the value of data to the business.
  • A high-level understanding of technology.

Kalin certainly exemplifies those skills in his interview, starting with his “listening tour,” where he can learn who owns the data, how data is used and identify the organization’s data pain points. These are all good takeaways for other CDOs: Know who really owns the data, listen and find the pain points.

That last one is a key reason why data initiatives falter, according to SAS Best Practices Vice President Jill Dyché.

“Managers need to start data initiatives not with big meetings, but with the question, ‘What’s the need, pain or problem we’re trying to solve with data?’” Dyché’s writes in “Tracking the Rise of the Data Executive.” “If you’re lucky, there will be multiple answers to that question, from which you can distill your starting point. The trouble is, too few companies ask that question at the beginning.”

Loraine Lawson is a veteran technology reporter and blogger. She currently writes the Integration blog for IT Business Edge, which covers all aspects of integration technology, including data governance and best practices. She has also covered IT/Business Alignment and IT Security for IT Business Edge. Before becoming a freelance writer, Lawson worked at TechRepublic as a site editor and writer, covering mobile, IT management, IT security and other technology trends. Previously, she was a webmaster at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and a newspaper journalist. Follow Lawson at Google+ and on Twitter.

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