An in-depth interview with CDO Caroline Carruthers

In-depth with Caroline Carruthers


Part of the In-depth series of interviews

PJT Today I am talking to Caroline Carruthers, experienced data professional and famous as co-author (with Peter Jackson) of The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook. Caroline is currently Group Director of Data Management at Lowell Group. I am very pleased that she has found the time to talk to me about some of her experiences and ideas about the data space.
PJT Caroline, I mentioned your experience in the data field, can you paint a picture of this for readers?
CC Hi Peter, of course. I often describe myself as a data cheerleader or data evangelist. I love all the incredible technologies that are coming around such as AI. However, the foundation we have to build these on is a data one. Without that solid data foundation we are just building houses of cards. My experience started off in IT as a graduate for the TSB, moving into consulting for IBM and then ATOS I quickly recognised that whilst I love technology (I will always be a geek!) the root cause of a lot of the issues we are facing came down to data and our treatment of it, whether that meant we didn’t understand the risks or value associated with it is just different sides of the same pendulum. So my career has been a bit eclectic through CTO and Programme Director roles but the focus for me has always been on treating data as a valuable asset.
PJT The Chief Data Officer's Playbook
The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook has been very well-received. Equally I can imagine that it was a lot of work to pull this together with Peter. Can you tell me a bit about what motivated you to write this book?
CC The book came about as Peter and I were presenting at a conference in London and we both gave the same answer to a question about the role of a CDO; there was no manual or rule book, it was an evolving role and, until we did have something that clarified what it was, we would struggle. Very luckily for me Peter came up with the idea of writing it together. We never pretended we had all the answers, it was a way of getting our experiences down on paper so we (the data community) could have a starting point to professionalise what we all do. We both love being part of the data community and feel really passionate about helping everyone understand it a little better.
PJT As an aside, what was the experience of co-authoring like? What do you feel this approach brought to the book and were there any challenges?
CC It was a gift, writing with Peter. We’ve both been honest with each other and said that if either of us had tried to do it on their own we probably wouldn’t have finished it. We both have different and complementary strengths so we just made sure to use that when we wrote the book. Having an idea of what we wanted it to look like from the beginning helped massively and having two of us meant that when one of us had had enough the other one brought them back round. The challenges were more around time together than anything else, we both were and are full time CDOs so this was holidays and weekends. Luckily for us we didn’t know what we didn’t know; on the day of the book launch was when our editor told us it wasn’t normal to write a book as fast as we did!
PJT There is a lot of very sound and practical advice contained in The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook, is there any particular section, or a particular theme that is close to your heart, or which you feel is central to driving success in the data arena?
CC For me personally it’s the chapter about data hoarding because it came about from a Sunday morning tradition that my son and I have, where we veg in front of the tv and spend a lazy Sunday morning together. The idea is that data hoarders keep all data, which means that organisations become so crammed full of data that they don’t value it anymore. This chapter of the book is about understanding the value of data and treating it accordingly. If we truly understood the value of what we had, people would change their behaviour to look after it better.
PJT I have been speaking to other CDOs about the nature of the role and how – in many ways – this is still ill-defined and emergent [1]. How do you define the scope of the CDO role and do you see this changing in coming years?
CC In the book, we talk about different generations of CDOs, the first being risk focused, the second being value-add focused but by the third generation we will have a clearly defined, professionalised role that is clearly accepted as a key member of the C suite.
PJT I find that something which most successful data leaders have in common is a focus on the people aspects of embracing the opportunities afforded by leveraging data [2]. What are your feelings on this subject?
CC I totally agree with that, I often talk about hearts and minds being the most important aspect of data. You can have the best processes, tools and tech in the world but if you don’t convince people to come out of their comfort zone and try something different you will fail.
PJT What practical advice can you offer to data professionals seeking to up their game in influencing organisations at all levels from the Executive Suite to those engaged in day-to-day activities? How exactly do you go about driving cultural change?
CC Focus on outcomes, keep your head up and be aware of the detail but make sure you are solving problems – just have fun while you do it.
PJT Some CDOs have a focus on the risk and governance agenda, some are more involved in using data to drive growth and open new opportunities, some have blended responsibilities. Where do you sit in this spectrum and where do you feel that CDOs can add greatest value?
CC I’d say I started from the risk adverse side but with a background in tech and strategy, I do love the value add side of data and think as a CDOs you need to understand it all.
PJT The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook is a great resource to help both experienced CDOs and those new to the field. Are there other ways in which data leaders can benefit from the ideas and insights that you and Peter have?
CC Funny you should mention this… On the back of the really great feedback and reception the book got we are running a CDO summer school this summer sponsored by Collibra. We thought it would be an opportunity to engage with people more directly and help form a community that can help and learn from each other.
PJT I also hear that you are working on a sequel to your successful book, can you give readers a sneak preview of what this will be covering?
CC Of course, it’s obviously still about data but is more focused on the transformation an organisation needs to go through in order to get the best from it. It’s due out spring next year so watch this space.
PJT As well as the activities we have covered, I know that you are engaged in some other interesting and important areas. Can you first of all tell me a bit about your work to get children, and in particular girls, involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)?
CC I would love to. I’m really lucky that I get the chance to talk to girls in school about STEM subjects and to give them an insight into some of the many different careers that might interest them that they may not have been aware of. I don’t remember my careers counsellor at school telling me I could be a CDO one day! There are two key messages that I really try to get across to them. First, I genuinely believe that everyone has a talent, something that excites them and they are good at but if you don’t try different things you may never know what that is. Second, I don’t care if they do go into a STEM subject. What I care passionately about is that they don’t limit themselves based on other people’s preconceptions.
PJT Finally, I know that you are also a trustee of CILIP the information association and are working with them to develop data-specific professional qualifications. Why do you think that this is important?
CC I don’t think that data professionals necessarily get the credit they deserve and it can also be really hard to move into our field without some pretty weighty qualifications. I want to open the subject out so we can have access courses to get into data as well as recognised qualifications to continue to professionalise and value the discipline of data.
PJT Caroline, it has been a pleasure to speak. Thank you for sharing your ideas with us today.

Caroline Carruthers can be reached at caroline.carruthers@carruthersandjackson.com.


Disclosure: At the time of publication, neither peterjamesthomas.com Ltd. nor any of its Directors had any shared commercial interests with Caroline Carruthers or any entities associated with her.


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]
 
See An in-depth interview with experienced Chief Data Officer Roberto Maranca.
 
[2]
 
See:

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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