Chief Data Officer

Traditional vs. Modern CDO — Breaking Down the Changing State of the Chief Data Officer

In just 10 years, one C-level position has grown more than any other: the Chief Data Officer.

In 2012, only 12% of companies had a CDO. In 2021, 65% have a CDO. I’m one of them.

The rapid growth of this position tracked with the rapid growth of data itself over the past two decades. Enterprises realized they needed a person to be responsible for governing the vast quantities of data they generate every day.

But a new demand has superseded the original scope for the CDO role: gaining value from the massive amounts of enterprise data. Achieving this goal requires a set of new set of skills beyond the traditional CDO role.

Traditionally, CDOs were considered data stewards. A new role — the modern CDO — requires CDOs to be data alchemists. Beyond just managing and analyzing data, they seek to gain critical insights from it. They need to be equipped to look for insights that can feed innovation and transformation across the enterprise.

The difference in responsibilities and skillsets between traditional and modern CDO roles has become a point of contention in the industry. But I believe I can make a strong case for why the modern CDO is the clear winner.

The Traditional CDO

Most traditional CDOs are struggling to make a real business impact. They face pressure to succeed at data management. One the leading problems is that there is a lack of understanding in what it takes to succeed in this role.

Traditional CDO roles were designed around making sure the data was captured, pristine, secure, encrypted, compliant and democratized. It was not about making the data more valuable.

As a result, the skillset companies sought out for their new CDO positions were people who had been data scientists, data governors, data analysts, or had some combination of these credentials. They weren’t looking for people with backgrounds in business strategy.

What’s more, organizations tended to subdivide data management roles into small, niched areas of responsibility, such as compliance, governance and security. For example, they hired a Chief Data Officer for compliance and another Chief Data Officer for governance. Each role had responsibility for a small piece of the big picture — but not the entire data management lifecycle.

It’s hard to be strategic when you aren’t in control of the whole process. This is where the modern CDO excels.

Enter the Modern CDO

It’s time to consider whether the CDO’s role and responsibilities should be dictated by the traditional outlook, or if we should concede that it’s time for modern CDOs to step in. From my experience working in both worlds, I can tell you that CDOs will not be successful until they evolve into the modern CDO role.

Being a successful modern CDO means flying in the face of tradition to bring real change to an organization. Instead of taking the defensive role of protecting, caring for and feeding the vast stores of data, it’s time to take an offensive approach and start creating real value.

It’s time to leverage data and extract value for businesses. Instead of merely delivering data stewardship, the modern CDO role means driving innovation and transformation across the enterprise based on data analytics.

The modern CDO role blurs the lines between the traditional and modern roles. Where the traditional role has been primarily technology focused, the modern CDO needs to be part security specialist, part chief analytics officer and part data catalyst. They need to tie all these capabilities together into a single person who has responsibility for data end-to-end.

In the modern world, traditional data governance transforms from merely managing data into creating a continually updated data engine. Project planning transforms into creating business partnerships for continuous delivery of new data insights. Delivering monolithic projects transforms into delivering MVPs that accelerate time-to-value.

What to Look for When Hiring a Modern CDO

So, who is right for the role of the modern CDO role? They don’t need to be a traditional data scientist to bring value to a CDO role, because the modern CDO has different requirements.

Traditionally, businesses hire CDOs who are analysts, PhDs or data scientists. The candidates they sought grew up in the world of data quality, governance, risk, compliance and auditing. But too often this leads to a strictly technically minded candidate who is more interested in turning concepts into science projects, rather than seeking to make a noticeable impact on the organization outside of the data office.

Modern CDOs need a technical and a business background. They need the ability to view data as a business enabler, not just a reporting mechanism.

For example, I have a background in the supply chain industry. I see my role as CDO related to that industry, because it’s my job to connect all the dots in data management — from end to end. I  created a closed-loop system that goes from partnering with the leadership, to understanding the demands and requirements of the business, to planning, building and iterating strategic data systems. At the end of the process, I bring real value to the table across the enterprise.

Achieving this level of success requires a unique skillset. And hiring a CDO with the ability to extract actionable value from data in ways that benefit the enterprise requires a fundamental paradigm shift in thinking.

To hire a modern CDO, look for a person who has an equal balance of technical knowledge, business strategy experience and community-building capabilities. Here are some specific qualifications to consider when hiring for a modern CDO.

1. Ability to solve problems

CDOs need to be change agents who can use data to solve problems. They need to be able to ask: How do I use the data to create transformation within the enterprise? They need to be able to use data to find answers versus merely delivering random data sets for users to decipher.

Ideally, they understand the value of thinking end-to-end about the entire process, and know how to create a continually running data engine that operates like a supply chain.

2. Background in agile

Many people have really good ideas. They are really smart. But they can’t deliver results at pace. The right CDO will have a history of success based on agility.

Experience in transformation is critical. I’m not referring to traditional multi-year transformations. I’m talking about being able to drive value in days or weeks.

Some people run from fires. Others jump into them. The right CDO needs to be ready, willing and able to jump into fires with a degree of urgency.

3. Entrepreneurial mindset

Modern CDOs need an entrepreneurial mindset. They need to be able to hear complaints within the enterprise and see them as opportunities to proactively solve problems using data.

They need to have a mindset of curiosity and critical and constructive thinking to create new ways to tackle problems using data.

4. Being an advocate

A CDO needs to have both business intelligence and a personality that inspires trust. The person in this role must work well with his or her peers in the executive suite.

This requires the emotional intelligence required to establish rapport with the business leaders who are also making strategic decisions that impact the company’s future. The CDO will know how to contribute to this effort and possess the ability to gain the executive-level support and trust required to initiate innovation and transformation.

This list of ideal qualities for a modern CDO is by no means all-inclusive. What a mid-size company needs in a CDO may differ from what an enterprise needs. But this overview provides a starting point for understanding the role of the modern CDO — a role that is focused singularly on creating real value for the modern enterprise.

In a way, the modern CDO role itself is an indication of an organization’s readiness to compete in a modern world. When organizations are ready for a modern CDO, they are signaling they are ready for a modern enterprise — and real transformation back by real data-driven insights.


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About the Authors

Juan Riojas

Chief Information Officer

Juan Riojas

As Chief Information Officer at Rackspace Technology, Juan Riojas is responsible for enterprise-wide data strategy, management, and analytics to meet the need of the business to answer critical questions through time to insight. He has more than 20 years of industry experience successfully migrating data ecosystem across all public clouds, leading to significant business transformation outcomes. Prior to Rackspace, Juan worked for Informatica building their inaugural Data Office and has held various executive leadership roles at Gogo, Dell, Accenture, and Expeditors. A native of Texas, Juan attended Texas A&M International University, where he studied business administration and holds a post graduate degree from Said Business School, Oxford University

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