My parents were both in IT. They got their graduate degrees in computer science when I was young, so technology has always been part of my life. Growing up I remember coloring on the punch cards when my parents would go into the computer lab on weekends to use the terminals and bring me along. Although I drifted away from computer science in high school, my dad got me a job working in the computer lab at my university, so that inadvertently put me back on a technical track.

I fought the computer and data end of things at first when I found my love for business management and strategy, but over time my career has become a pretty organic left-brain/right-brain marrying of the two. 

While my formal education – primarily in business management – has helped my career, most of my data-related skills sets came from on-the-job experience and training. The strength I bring to the data world is my ability to create and drive towards a strategy by translating between customer needs and technology.

The Aha moment

When did I first feel I’d made the right career decision? It was probably when Moody’s acquired Bureau can Dijk, which owned Orbis, one of the largest firmographic databases in the world. Seeing all of the things that a large, global dataset could help solve for our customers was energizing. 

The recent focus on Data + AI in the mainstream media has also helped validate my career choice. Now people at dinner parties show a little more interest in my job. For a long time, “information services” was such a nebulous concept, they would politely change the subject. Now data leaders are almost glamorous. It’s fun to talk about what we do. In the Age of AI, people want to know.

It’s okay to fail, and other surprises

What probably surprised me most about a career in data is that in my experience, data leaders are at the heart of digital transformation efforts in most organizations. Therefore, technical skills are not enough. You have to be able to empathize with the people that you’re working with, convince them of the need to change and engage them so they’re actually part of it, rather than feeling like you could take it all on yourself. 

 You need a high degree of emotional intelligence, courage, and humility to do it well:

  • emotional intelligence to know when the organization is ready to change
  • courage to try new things
  • humility to continually engage your organization to understand what drives value, what is not working and to agree on priorities. 

In such rapidly moving markets, you also have to ask yourself what failures you’re willing to accept, because you learn most when things go wrong. It’s fine to fail in a controlled way. Your employees should be able to come back and say, “I tried this. It’s been a couple weeks. These are the things we’ve learned, but I don’t think these things are working.” To me that’s a very acceptable level of failure because it is driving new learnings. What is not acceptable is “We have been doing this for the last year in order to keep to plan and it has not been working for months.”

That’s why confidence is so important as a data leader. When things get tough you need to let people know that we can get through this. And you need to believe in yourself that you’re the right leader to do it. I have found that as long as you and your team are continuing to learn, and if you approach your job from a position of curiosity, humility, and confidence, a lot of people will engage and work with you in order to drive the change needed to be a data-driven organization.