The rise and rise of the Chief Data Officer

Only a few years ago, calling for the appointment of a Chief Data Officer (CDO) would have solicited raised eyebrows. But fast forward to the cusp of 2014 and the role is now increasingly seen as fundamental for success in the new economic model where data is recognised as a strategic asset.

In 2011, Mario Faria became the first ever CDO in Latin America, driving the governance and utilisation of data across Equifax-owned Boa Vista Serviços, a credit information services provider in Brazil.

His weighty CV lists IBM, Accenture and Microsoft among those who have drawn from his considerable expertise around big data, alongside stints in academic research and teaching in digital marketing and social media at top name universities in Brazil.

Faria is a top advisor to MIT’s Data Science Initiative and to global philanthropy organisation the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In his latest role he serves as CDO of ServiceSource, a San Francisco-based SaaS firm specialising around renewal sales and recurring revenue.

So tell me about your path to becoming CDO of ServiceSource.

Studying computer science, the subjects I found I liked best were mostly around business. Then I had the chance to go to the US for a master’s degree and have moved back and forth between the US and Brazil since then on various global projects for major US tech companies.

Having moved to the US last year to work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, six weeks ago ServiceSource approached me and I was drawn by the opportunity to travel around the world working for a very fast-growing company and really throw myself into the challenge, which I knew would be a 7-day-a-week job.

When ServiceSource approached me they weren’t looking to hire me as CDO – they were looking for a VP of data services, but I said ‘you don’t need a VP of data services! You need a CDO. This is what will drive your business model.’

ServiceSource had been a data-driven company from the early days, but now they’re taking data to the next level. Our customers are some of the big tech providers of the world, so they’re demanding we do more and more innovative things around data. They know analytics, so they’re relying on us to be even more expert than them.

> See also: Do you really need a chief data officer?

What does your role at ServiceSource encompass and what have you set out to achieve?

At the moment I’m building ServiceSource’s data strategy for the next two or three years, and at this stage this mainly involves a lot of listening – talking to the team to understand their roles and skills, what training they need to become the next level, and talking to  people across all aspects of the business from sales and marketing to finance departments, and also with our global customers, to really understand what their problems are and how they see the company moving forward.

I’m planning on some big structural changes. I’ll be creating a dedicated team responsible for data quality and governance, working very closely with the CSO (Chief Security Officer) to ensure we meet regulations. We will have a team of data scientists as well as a team dedicated to data management and architecture.

Also one of the main things I’m working on next year will be the implementation of the DMBOK operational methodology.

What is the DMBOK operational methodology and why have you chosen it?

There are a lot of data management methodologies out there in the market, but I like this one the best because it’s not just about the data. It is a broader framework for managing data as an asset that encompasses elements such as the roles of people inside a data-driven organisaton, governance, data quality, processes and architecture, built on top of data management.

It was created in 2006 by the Data Management International association, and they are really driving it globally as a standard throughout the world. I was a member of the DAMA chapter in San Paulo and I truly believe it can help companies to cross the big data chasm.

Next year I’ll have someone in my team dedicated to driving this methodology, which will be a full time job. It’s a very bold initiative and you can’t just plug it into an existing model, decoupled from business strategy. It will take around two years to implement and it will alter everything for the better, but it is a process of maturation and involves a complete change of mentality.

In your experience, how do you think the UK big data market compares to Brazil?

You’ve got the powerful financial centres in the City of London, so the data industry basically started here. The market is very mature and sophisticated, with a lot of companies already doing great things with analytics here in the UK. There are some awesome computer science schools. In Brazil I was taught by professors from Cambridge, Manchester and Lancaster. In Brazil we are mainly a commodities market, and we are just starting to develop technology innovations.

Research released recently by SAS and e-skills UK said that by 2017 UK will be needing 69,000 data professionals. This shows they are really embracing bid data and analytics. I’m very excited about the transformation taking place in the UK, how it’s embracing the tech and embracing the service industry as a whole.

Every country is experiencing a skills gap and it’s a problem for all of us, but what will need to happen is you need to cast your net wider and bring in individuals from other areas and train them. People skilled in physics, chemistry or mathematics for instance – the skills will cross over into computer science. We should be focusing on investing in training by hiring for talent and training for skills.

> See also: Big data opportunity remains untapped as skills gap continues

Do you think we’ll start to see the CDO role take off outside of just technology companies, and if so, when?

It was the tech-related companies who caught on in the very beginning (eBay comes to mind) but it is rapidly becoming mainstream. I have friends and peers in data management now working for the most traditional organisations such as the government and the British Army.

About five years ago the role of CDO started appearing as companies began to realise that if you want to treat data as the strategic asset it is, you had better put someone accountable for that.

They are realising they need to make more of their data, but a large part of it is increasing efficiency around data. A lot of organisations have realised they’re losing money and have to implement data governance.

There’ll always be a place for the CIO, but as big data projects become the norm in enterprise, you’ll see CDOs brought in as facilitators that will increasingly free up the CIO to concentrate on  technology and applications.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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