Throwback Thursday  |  June 16th, 2016

Editor’s note: Welcome to Throwback Thursdays! Every third Thursday of the month, we feature a classic post from the earlier days of our company, gently updated as appropriate. We still find them helpful, and we think you will, too! The original version of this post can be found here.

At Silicon Valley Data Science, our focus on data strategy has given us a window into how various organizations are thinking about data at the executive level. Many large companies have been hiring Chief Data Officers (CDOs) to oversee the process of creating a data strategy, or to oversee compliance efforts in highly regulated industries.

The CDO is still a relatively new position and consensus is still gathering about the exact job description, reporting structure, or qualification set. Last year, I wrote a report examining some themes and trends I noticed after speaking with a dozen current and former CDOs across multiple industries. I’m currently working on a second edition of this report, which will be published by O’Reilly Media this September.

In the meantime, as I’ve given a handful of talks about the role of the CDO at various tech conferences, I have been impressed by the resonance of the topic and the consistency of the questions people ask about it. I thought it would be useful to compile a list of the most frequently asked questions and major discussion points. The second edition of my report will directly address the questions below—and others—in much more detail, so stay tuned. But this post aims to point you in the right direction right away.

If you have other questions or observations to add, please leave them in the comments below!

What should I look for in hiring a Chief Data Officer?

The ideal CDO exists to drive business value, so business skills and the ability to ask well-formed and relevant business questions is the first key skillset. Of course, the CDO should also be aware of the tools, techniques, and challenges involved in working with data, so sound technological experience is also key. Third, the CDO needs to be able to work well with others in all parts of the organization—above them as well as below them—so diplomacy and other soft skills are essential. Finally, remembering that this is an executive-level position, the CDO should have executive-level experience.

If finding someone like this sounds to you about like finding a purple unicorn with glittery silver wings, you’re not wrong. So start by identifying the key business objectives that are driving you to hire a CDO, match them to the most important skills required, and look for those first. Any missing skills can either be picked up on the job, or added in the form of other people on the CDO’s team. Remember, working with data is almost always a team sport!

How can I become a Chief Data Officer?

Work the process above in reverse. Start by identifying your own skillsets—are they more business-oriented or technology based? Work on your political skills. Identify your relevant project experience. Then look for companies whose business problems most likely match your expertise. Think through the challenges and opportunities they face with data, and look at what their competitors are doing. Find out as much as you can about how they’re already using analytics, and how the relevant teams are structured. Then, tell the company about the business value you would be able to deliver as CDO and describe some potential use cases so that when they bring you in, you’ll be prepared to hit the ground running.

What is the ideal reporting structure for the CDO?

The organizations that already have CDOs use myriad reporting structures: the CDO may report to the CIO, CTO, CEO, COO, or even the CFO. Some large enterprises have more than one CDO—perhaps one per division or one per country or region, reporting up to an executive CDO. In terms of a prescriptive recommendation, however, it seems to me that having the CDO report directly to the CEO is the best overall plan.

The Chief Data Officer forms a critical bridge between the business side and the technical side of the organization. Embedding the position in one side or the other inevitably skews the focus of the role. Also, it is critical for the CDO to have a real seat at the table when important strategic decisions are being made. Making this a true C-suite position with direct reporting to the CEO is the best way to ensure that the CDO’s voice is heard clearly.

What is the difference between the CDO and the CIO?

The title of Chief Data Officer sounds in some ways exactly like the title of Chief Information Officer—it sounds like they should be about very similar goals. Aren’t “data” and “information” the same thing? Indeed, the CDO is in some ways like a second take on the role of the CIO: somehow the CIO role took a left turn 20 years ago and ended up doing something else. But think of the CIO as short for the C-IT-O, and all of a sudden it becomes more clear. Most CIOs now are really about information technology, and the computer systems and hardware used by the organization.

The CDO, by contrast, is focused on the data itself, and, most importantly, how it can be used to drive real value for the business. The CDO is not so much about procurement and vendor contracts as about asking the right questions, making sure the data to answer them is accessible, and turning the resulting insights into actions. The CDO and CIO should work closely together, to be sure. But the CDO also has a strong business focus and works just as closely with other parts of the organization.


For more background on the role of the Chief Data Officer and more trends and observations, download the free report here.