Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you came to be where you are now.
I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. When I left high school, my parents felt I was too naive to immediately carry on with further education and told me to travel. At seventeen, I went backpacking through Europe and ended up working at a shop called Mr. Thrifties, putting prices on tins of beans. My time with colleagues for whom their weekly paycheck was what they had to spend that week, reinforced my desire to pursue higher education. That first exposure to travel made me realize that I didn't want to stay in South Africa; I wanted to see the world. At the time, the easiest path was via London. In London, I got into banking at the entry-level. My twelve years in London were marked by change, transformation, and increasingly senior roles. I worked for Robert Fleming Asset Management and eventually for Arab Bank.
At Arab Bank, I had to learn how to operate in a new culture, a skill that became crucial for a global career. I learned so much in those years working primarily across Europe and the Middle East. Eventually, my wife and I won a green card. It came through when she was three months pregnant so moving for us was a leap of faith. We arrived in New York and had to pay our rent upfront because we had no US credit history, which depleted the savings rapidly with a Manhattan rental. I had a six-month contract, and I went into it on the theory that if you're good enough, you'll be fine. It was probably a little naive, but sometimes you just need to back yourself.
At Deutsche Bank, my career has been centered around data transformation. I have taken my existing expertise in transformation execution and then focused on applying that to data. I have continually learned and grown through internal opportunities and industry interaction.
My other passion is diversity. In large organizations, there's this disparity between junior and senior employees. You start in a graduate program with a diverse group of peers, you go on boat trips around Manhattan, and you get access to senior leaders. Then when you move beyond it, the safety net is gone. After that first year, your experience falls to how good your management team is. We created a group called Careers360, which these future junior leaders lead. It's a great space for young people to develop their leadership skills.
More recently, I have looked outside the bank for opportunities to support this mission, and through industry connections, I joined the EDM Council Women in Data initiative. My focus is leading Affinity Groups.
What kind of work are you doing now? What are the main emerging areas you see in Data from a Financial Services perspective?
I currently participate in the EDM Council's Cloud Data Management Capability working groups. It is an initiative where large banks and cloud providers collaborate to define best practices for cloud adoption. The big tech pivot is happening. A few years ago, everyone was dipping their toes in the water with pilots for cloud, whereas now everyone has a fully-fledged strategy. The real opportunity now is how do we not just migrate what we do at the moment, with our existing challenges and infrastructure, our convoluted webs of data, but how do we reimagine what the cloud could give us?
For example, effective data lineage is a tough challenge. It normally involves analyst-led work, is aided by technology, and is resource-intensive. In recent sessions, I've been asking cloud providers how we could shift this so that each piece of data has meta-data tagging wherever it goes at an atomic level in the cloud. How can we track each piece through its journey? What is fascinating is that cloud providers are taking these dialogues and adapting their offerings to meet industry needs better. The value I get from my external industry engagement is these discussions with experts help me formulate my own thoughts. The other emerging areas aside from the cloud are data privacy and security.
This last year has accelerated the adoption of Digital and Data technologies tremendously. How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed your field, and do you see this change enduring?
In Banking, as in other areas, change can be slow. There are countries around the world where people are still signing paper documents to set up a bank account. The pandemic forced a lot of change that had been resisted or put off. For example, I moved into a new apartment this year, and every part of that process was virtual. We found the apartment online, spoke to managing agents over the phone, did a video tour of the apartment, said we wanted it, the contract came through, and we signed electronically, they did their background and credit checks, and we arranged the move. We never had any physical contact with the building management or the agent.
Making those final steps virtual changed the entire industry process. Wide adaptation of electronic signatures during the past year will greatly impact banking, Insurance, and so many other industries. In so many industries, these little adjustments weren't happening before because it wasn't a habit, or maybe there was a legal barrier or a stigma that had to change. These things will stay changed because they're better. I believe the way we work, the way we do business, and other little aspects of life like apartment searching will be forever changed.
You’ve engaged regularly over the past few years with conversations around gender diversity in your field, from panels to social media. What do you think companies can do to ensure more women enter the data and data science fields and reach leadership levels?
There is a tendency to give men stretch roles in cases where women who are just as qualified are met with “are they ready?”. As an effective manager, you have to make sure that you’re giving and pushing opportunities for your people. Everyone talks about diversity, and it can become a bit performative. A few weeks ago, on International Women’s Day, there was so much buzz around gender diversity. Still, the important thing is, what do you do every day to deepen your commitment to diversity? Within industry, I find that a lot of diversity initiatives are heavily female-led and female-centered. I think it’s important for companies to award and promote people for this kind of work. Diversity groups provide leadership, experience, and committed time and energy to these initiatives benefits employees. I think building diverse and inclusive organizations comes down to what you value day to day and how you reward your employees.
What opportunities do you see growing in the Data field for non-technical individuals?
When people like me are successful, we make data more accessible to the end-user in a timely, accurate, and meaningful way. It expands the group of people who can use and consume that data. So, the piece of the puzzle that never goes away is the interpreter between the tech people and the information available to you and how you understand and support what your business requires.
I wouldn't describe myself as incredibly technical - not to a modern coding level. Understanding technology is important, but the soft skills that back it up are just as crucial. You need to build your own knowledge and experience. Read industry papers, take courses, read literature, and keep yourself informed, even if you aren't going to become a programmer or work in a highly technical role. You don't need to know Python to have meaningful conversations with data scientists about how you can make their jobs more effective. The data world needs analysts, salespeople, problem solvers, communicators, and people who can interpret business needs. You don't have to have strong technical skills to join a tech organization and thrive, but you should always be on a learning journey.
What should younger technologists in the data field focus on?
I always tell people that you need to have the appropriate degree of selfishness in investing in yourself. Investing in your organization and your work at that organization is easy. You should carry on doing that. But how are you investing in yourself? From my perspective, there wasn't ever any specific thing that I knew I wanted to do professionally. I was always jealous of people who had a dream to be a doctor or a lawyer and knew exactly what they wanted to do. But I was curious, and I was constantly learning. I learned programs, read papers and books, and followed issues I thought were interesting. I didn't necessarily utilize all these skills at work, but they helped me grow professionally and have more meaningful conversations. The ability to talk with people and meet with people across industries and functions is just as valuable as being good at a particular technical skill set. Learn as much as you can. Don't devalue your soft skills.
How do you hire?
I've made enough hiring mistakes that, at this point in my career, I hire for aptitude over experience. For entry-level employees, I look for a sense of curiosity and a drive to do something outside their comfort zone. To me, that means you can thrive in an unknown situation. Technology is rapidly changing. When you enter a job, after a year, 80% of your job will be different. The person joining a team can't just join for the specific skill they have because that will change. You need to buy into the whole organization and its culture. When you're looking for a job, keep that in mind. Do you like the organization? Can you see yourself growing there? I look for employees who can adapt to new environments and are willing to grow and change. If they can do that, they'll float. If they're too restrictive in their thinking, they'll struggle.