An in-depth interview with experienced Chief Data Officer Roberto Maranca

In-depth with Roberto Maranca


Part of the In-depth series of interviews

PJT Today’s interview is with Roberto Maranca. Roberto is an experienced and accomplished Chief Data Officer, having held that role in GE Capital and Lloyds Banking Group. Roberto and I are both founder members of the IRM(UK) Chief Data Officer Executive Forum and I am delighted to be able to share the benefit of his insights with readers.
PJT Roberto, you have had a long and distinguished career in the data space, would you mind starting by giving readers a brief overview of this?
RM Certainly Peter, looking back now Data has been like a river flowing through all my career. But I can definitely recall that, at a certain point in my life in GE Capital (GEC), someone who I had worked with before called me to take a special assignment as IT lead for the Basel II implementation for the Bank owned by GEC in Europe. For the readers not in the Finance industry, Basel II, for most of us and certainly for me, was our Data baptism of fire because of its requirement to collect a lot of data across the organisation in order to calculate an “enterprise wide” set of risk metrics. So the usual ETL build and report generation wasn’t good enough if not associated to a common dictionary, validation of mappings, standardised referential integrity and quality management.

When Basel went in production in 2008, I was given the leadership of the European Business Intelligence team, where I consolidated my hunch that the reason that a 6 months dashboard build project would fail pre-production tests was mainly “data is not good enough” and not our lack of zeal. Even if was probably amongst the first in GEC to adopt a Data Quality tool, you had the feeling that IT could not be the proverbial tail shaking the dog in that space. A few years went by where I became much closer to operations in a regulated business, learning about security and operational risk frameworks, and then one day at the end of 2013, I saw it! GEC was to be regulated by the Federal Reserve as one entity, and that posed a lot of emphasis on data. The first ever job description of CDO in GEC was flashed in front of my eyes and I felt like I had just fallen on the way to Damascus. All those boxes that had been empty for years in my head got ticked just looking at it. I knew this was what I wanted to do, I knew I had to leave my career in IT to do it, I knew there was not a lot beyond that piece of paper, but I went for it. Sadly, almost two years into this new role, GE decided to sell GEC; you would not believe how much data you need to divest such a large business.

I found that Lloyds Banking Group was after a CDO and I could not let that opportunity go by. It has been a very full year where I led a complete rebuild of their Data Framework, while been deeply involved in the high-profile BCBS239 and GDPR initiatives.

PJT Can you perhaps highlight a single piece of work that was important to you, added a lot of value to the organisation, or which you were very proud of for some other reason?
RM I always had a thing about building things to last, so I have always tried to achieve a sustainable solution that doesn’t fall apart after a few months (in Six Sigma terms you will call it “minimising the long term sigma shift”, but we will talk about it another time). So trying to have change process to be mindful of “Data” has been my quest since day one, in the job of CDO. For this reason, my most important piece of work was probably the the creation of the first link between the PMO process in GEC and the Data Lineage and Quality Assurance framework, I had to insist quite a bit to introduce this, design it, test it and run it. Now of course, after the completion of the GEC sale, it has gone lost “like tears in the rain”, to cite one of the best movies ever [1].
PJT What was your motivation to take on Chief Data Officer roles and what do you feel that you bring to the CDO role?
RM I touched on some reasons in my introductory comments. I believe there is a serendipitous combination of acquired skills that allows me to see things in a different way. I spent most of my working life in IT, but I have a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering and a diploma in what we in Italy call “Classical Studies”, basically I have A levels in Latin, Greek, Philosophy, History. So for example, together with my pilot’s licence achieved over weekends, I have attended a drama evening school for a year (of course in my bachelor days). Jokes apart, the “art” of being a CDO requires a very rich and versatile background because it is so pioneering, ergo if I can draw from my study of flow dynamics to come up with a different approach to lineage, or use philosophy to embed a stronger data driven culture, I feel it is a marked plus.
PJT We have spoken about the CDO role being one whose responsibilities and main areas of focus are still sometimes unclear. I have written about this recently [2]. How do you think the CDO role is changing in organisations and what changes need to happen?
RM I mentioned the role being pioneering: compared to more established roles, CFO, COO and, even, CIO, the CDO is suffering from ambiguity, differing opinions and lack of clear career path. All of us in this space have to deal with something like inserting a complete new organ in a body that has got very strong immunological response, so although the whole body is dying for the function that the new organ provides (and with the new breed of regulation about, dying for lack of good and reliable data is not an exaggeration), there is a pernickety work of linking up blood vessels and adjusting every part of the organisation so that the change is harmonious, productive and lasting. But every company starts from a different level of maturity and a different status quo, so it is left to the CDO to come up with a modus operandi that would work and bring that specific environment to a recognisable standard.
PJT The Chief Data Officer has been described as having “the toughest job in the executive C-suite within many organizations” [3]. Do you agree and – if so – what are the major challenges?
RM I agree and it simply demonstrated: pick any Company’s Annual Report, do a word search for “data quality”, “data management“, “data science” or anything else relevant to our profession, you are not going to find many. IT has been around for a while more and yet technology is barely starting now to appear in the firm’s “manifesto”, mostly for things that are a risk, like cyber security. Thus the assumption is, if it is not seen as a differentiator to communicate to the shareholders and the wider world, why should it be of interest for the Board? It is not anyone’s fault and my gut feeling is that GDPR (or perhaps Cambridge Analytica) is going to change this, but we probably need another generational turnover to have CDOs “safely” sitting in executive groups. In the meantime, there is a lot we can do, maybe sitting immediately behind someone who is sitting in that crucial room.
PJT We both believe that cultural change has a central role in the data arena, can you share some thoughts about why this is important?
RM Data can’t be like a fad diet, it can’t be a program you start and finish. Companies have to understand that you have to set yourself on a path of “permanent augmentation”. The only way to do this is to change for good the attitude of the entire company towards data. Maybe starting from the first ambiguity, data is not the bits and bytes coming out of a computer screen, but it is rather the set of concepts and nouns we use in our businesses to operate, make products, serve our customers. If you flatten your understanding of data to its physical representation, you will never solve the tough enterprise problems, henceforth if it is not a problem of centralisation of data, but it is principally a problem of centralisation of knowledge and standardisation of behaviours, it is something inherently close to people and the common set of things in a company that we can call “culture”.
PJT Accepting the importance of driving a cultural shift, what practical steps can you take to set about making this happen?
RM In my keynotes, I often quote the Swiss philosopher (don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!) Henry Amiel:

Pure truth cannot be assimilated by the crowd: it must be communicated by contagion.

This is especially the case when you are confronted with large numbers of colleagues and small data teams. Creating a simple mantra that can be inoculated in many part of the organisation helps to create a more receptive environment. So CDOs should first be keen marketeers, able to create a simple brand and pursuing relentlessly a “propaganda” campaign. Secondly, if you want to bring change, you should focus where the change happens and make sure that wherever the fabric of the company changes, i.e. big programmes or transformations, data is top priority.

PJT What are the potential pitfalls that you think people need to be aware of when embarking on a data-centric cultural transformation programme?
RM First is definitely failing to manage your own expectations on speed and acceptance; it takes time and patience. Long-established organisations cannot leap into a brighter future just because an enlightened CDO shows them how. Second, and sort of related, it is a problem thinking that things can happen by management edicts and CDO policy compliance, there is a lot niftier psychology and sociology to weave into this.
PJT A two-part question. What do you see as the role of Data Governance in the type of cultural change you are recommending? Also, do you think that the nature of Data Governance has either changed or possibly needs to change in order to be more effective?
RM The CDO’s arrival at a discussion table is very often followed by statements like “…but we haven’t got resources for the Governance” or “We would like to, but Data Governance is such an aggro”. My simple definition for Data Governance is a process that allows Approved Data Consumers to obtain data that satisfies their consumption requirements, in accordance with Company’s approved standards of traceability, meaning, integrity and quality. Under this definition there is no implied intention of subjecting colleagues to gruelling bureaucratic processes, the issue is the status quo. Today, in the majority of firms, without a cumbersome process of checks and balances, it is almost impossible to fulfil such definition. The best Data Governance is the one you don’t see, it is the one you experience when you to get the data you need for your job without asking, this is the true essence of Data Democratisation, but few appreciate that this is achieved with a very strict and controlled in-line Data Governance framework sitting on three solid bastions of Metadata, User Access Controls and Data Classification.
PJT Can you comment on the relationship between the control of data and its exploitation; between Analytics and Governance if you will?Do these areas need to both be part of the CDO’s remit?
RM Oh… this is about the tale of the two tribes isn’t it? The Governors vs. the Experimenters, the dull CDOs vs the funky CAOs. Of course they are the yin and the yang of Data, you can’t have proper insight delivered to your customer or management if you have a proper Data Governance process, or should we call it “Data Enablement” process from the previous answer. I do believe that the next incarnation of the CDO is more a “Head of Data”, who has got three main pillars underneath, one is the previous CDOs all about governance, control and direction, the second is your R&D of data, but the third one that getting amassed and so far forgotten is the Operational side, the Head of Data should have business operational ownership of the critical Data Assets of the Company.
PJT The cultural aspects segues into thinking about people. How important is managing the people dimension to a CDO’s success?
RM Immensely. Ours is a pastoral job, we need to walk around, interact on internal social media, animate communities, know almost everyone and be known by everyone. People are very anxious about what we do, because all the wonderful things we are trying to achieve, they believe, will generate “productivity” and that in layman’s terms mean layoffs. We can however shift that anxiety to curiosity, reaching out, spreading the above-mentioned mantra but also rethinking completely training and reskilling, and subsequently that curiosity should transform in engagement which will deliver sustainable cultural change.
PJT I have heard you speak about “intelligent data management” can you tell me some more about what you mean by this? Does this relate to automation at all?
RM My thesis at Uni in 1993 was using AI algorithms and we all have been playing with MDM, DQM, RDM, Metadata for ages, but it doesn’t feel we cracked yet a Science of Data (NB this is different Data Science!) that could show us how to resolve our problems of managing data with 21st century techniques. I think our evolutionary path should move us from “last month you had 30k wrong postcodes in your database” to “next month we are predicting 20% fewer wrong address complaints”, in doing so there is an absolute need to move from fragmented knowledge around data to centralised harnessing of the data ecosystem, and that can only be achieved tuning in on the V.O.M. (Voice of the Machines), listening, deriving insight on how that ecosystem is changing, simulating response to external or internal factors and designing changes with data by design (or even better with everything by design). I yet have to see automated tools that do all of that without requiring man years to decide what is what, but one can only stay hopeful.
PJT Finally, how do you see the CDO role changing in coming years?
RM To the ones that think we are a transient role, I respond that Compliance should be everyone’s business, and yet we have Compliance Officers. I think that overtime the Pioneers will give way to the Strategists, who will oversee the making of “Data Products” that best suit the Business Strategist, and maybe one day being CEO will be the epitome of our career ladders one day, but I am not rushing to it, I love too much having some spare time to spend with my family and sailing.
PJT Roberto, it is always a pleasure to speak. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us today.

Roberto Maranca can be reached at r.maranca@outlook.com and has social media presence on LinkedIn and Twitter (@RobertoMaranca).


Disclosure: At the time of publication, neither peterjamesthomas.com Ltd. nor any of its Directors had any shared commercial interests with Roberto Maranca.


If you are a Chief Data Officer, a Chief Analytics Officer, a Director of Data, or hold some other “Top Data Job” and would like to share your thoughts with the readers of this site in an interview like this one, please get in contact.

 
Notes

 
[1]
 
 
[2]
 
The CDO – A Dilemma or The Next Big Thing?
 
[3]
 
Randy Bean of New Vantage Partners quoted in The CDO – A Dilemma or The Next Big Thing?

From: peterjamesthomas.com, home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary, The Anatomy of a Data Function and A Brief History of Databases

 

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