What is the role of the data manager?

What is the role of a data manager today, what skills does the job require and what challenges do data managers face?

Data is continuing to explode. According to predictions, the amount of data created globally will surge to more than 180 zettabytes by 2025. This is a double-edged sword for businesses. While data helps to gain insights to serve customers better, ever-expanding amounts of information need to be properly managed and protected.

Enter the data manager, whose job is to oversee the organisation’s data strategy, as well as ensuring it is compliant with regulation such as the EU general update to data protection regulation (GDPR) and UK data protection act.

>See also: Information Age guide to data + privacy

Overarching this, data managers have the pivotal role of breaking down silos across the business to ensure information is used optimally.

With digital transformation seeing companies collect growing amounts of data, there is an increasing need to have management processes in place, says Caroline Carruthers, CEO of global data consultancy firm Carruthers & Jackson.

Over the last five years, organisations have started to “wake up” to the importance of data, she says. “Now that companies are placing an emphasis on data, the volume of information they’re collecting is getting bigger and bigger – so they suddenly need people to help them look after it.”

What is the role of a data manager today, what skills does the job require and what challenges do data managers face?

‘Investing in a data strategy, team and ongoing programme maintenance can be expensive – it’s not a one-time, quick fix and requires time and money’

Data manager role

Ultimately, the data manager is responsible for the design and management of a company’s data systems, says Jez Clark, CEO at Eden Smith, a data staffing, consulting and education company. This includes ensuring data is stored correctly and is secure, governed and meets regulatory standards.

The role includes tasks such as data modelling and analysis, as well as applying best practice for storing, cleansing and mining data, says Clark.

The data manager’s function is essentially to oversee the value chain and ensure data is delivered effectively, says Carruthers. “This means helping create data which is accessible, usable and safe. Information can then be delivered to the right place and in a good condition so it can be used in the most effective way possible.”

Carruthers compares the role of data manager to the conductor in an orchestra. “The manager is there to oversee the whole data team, rather than frantically trying to play every instrument themselves. As the orchestra analogy suggests, it is a data manager’s role to ensure the song sheet is followed by every team member. This means managing the use of data to ensure it goes through the correct value chain.”

>See also: Data privacy audit checklist – how to compile one

Skills to be a data manager

The data manager role is not just about being “good with data”. It involves a combination of technical and interpersonal skills, says Andy Bell, vice president global data product management at data integrity specialist Precisely.

As well as technical skills, he says data managers need to have “a thorough understanding about the application of technology”. In addition, they need to understand “how data is moved, managed and processed across organisations, what capabilities it does and doesn’t provide, and how data science teams can use information in the best way possible”.

At the same time, data managers must be good critical thinkers, according to Bell. “They need to keep up to date with wider technology industry trends, as well as how legislation and data privacy regulations impact tools – which may need to be adapted to ensure they are compliant.”

>See also: Best GDPR compliance software for CTOs

Good communication skills are essential for data managers because the role requires explaining complex concepts in a simple way. “Increasingly, data managers are involved in influencing the company in how they should be using and managing data, which involves great communication skills as well as commercial awareness,” Bell adds.

Logic, critical thinking and problem solving are key skills to have, says Carruthers. She says “being able to follow a step-by-step process effectively and to a high standard” is key.

In an ideal world, potential data managers would have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, computer engineering or a related field, as well as experience in data management or analysis.

>See also: How AI could be a game-changer for data privacy

In addition, says Clark, they need “The ability to organise and decipher large data sets, an analytical mindset, strong communication and story-telling skills, and problem-solving abilities”.

Switching from other industries is an option: data managers can come from “all walks of life”, says Ross Henderson, director at data analytics recruitment firm Harnham. He says candidates need to have strong SQL capabilities, understand relational databases, and possess commercial acumen around data.

Clark says his firm works with data managers from a variety of backgrounds including those who previously held the position of data analyst, senior administrator, or business analyst. Others previously worked in more technical focused roles such as database administration or development. 

The data manager role can also open the door to exciting future job opportunities. Once you have experience as a data manager, you can easily walk into different roles within the sector, such as a chief digital officer or a data architect, Carruthers says.

Data manager challenges

The opportunities for budding data managers are vast. Yet as the information explosion continues at rapid speed, there are a number of challenges to consider.

For example, the role of data in an organisation has evolved over the last five years.

“Organisations have gone from using simple customer and marketing lists to having huge amounts of unstructured data from multiples sources, such as social media platforms and third parties,” Bell points out.

Another challenge is communicating the importance of data to the wider business. While there is a growing understanding of the value of effective data management, many business leaders still see it as a cost rather than an enabler, says Jason Foster, CEO and founder of data consultancy Cynozure. “Investing in a data strategy, team and ongoing programme maintenance can be expensive – it’s not a one-time, quick fix and requires time and money.”

Communication issues are not helped by the fact that data teams are often seen as separate to the core business. “This is a mistake,” Foster says. “To truly reap the benefits of successful data management, the team must be embedded in the wider business, working directly with senior leaders across different departments to help them understand and use information to their benefit.”


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