Data and Analytics Is the Catalyst for Digital Transformation: Understood Chief Data Officer


My role is to make sure we are always valuing data, improving our understanding, supporting decision-making, and increasing efficacy. Security is a core component.

The rise of data science needs will create roughly 11.5 million job openings by 2026, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics reports. In a tête-à-tête with Haftan Eckholdt, chief data science officer, Understood, we closely examine these winds of change. We discuss if the strong demand for CDOs is a business need or trend, the booming importance of data and analytics in every industry, and tips to build high-performance data and analytics teams.

In this edition of Tech Talk, Eckholdt shares how the chief data officer’s role is recognized at the non-profit organization. As the chieftain of data, Eckholdt also talks about high value use cases for analytics and AI in 2022 and beyond. 

Key Takeaways on the Why Data and Analytics Are Key to Digital Transformation: 

  • Recognize that difference and diversity are essential to creativity and risk management
  • Build teams that can articulate opportunities and define problems. 
  • Be skeptical of the status quo and learn the value of data early on.

Here are the edited excerpts from our exclusive interview with Haftan Eckholdt: 

Haftan Eckholdt, chief data officer and chief data science officer, Understood

1. The pandemic ushered in the use of data and analytics as a core capability for business decision making. What were the key insights and learnings you gained during this catastrophe?

Analytics have always been a core capability for Understood. However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of new things to light. Data became more important than ever. You could easily see the difference between firms that used data to inform their pandemic pivots and those that didn’t. With every family switching to remote learning, we had to support them by anticipating and solving problems they would face. It was exciting to see how agile we were in accelerating our content generation to make real changes.

See more: UiPath CPO on Why RPA Projects Fail and How To Drive Efficiency

2. Given the diverse background as a developmental psychologist, biostatistician, econometrician, and a data science lead, do you think it will be easier for those who aspire to become CDOs? Also, is the integration of the chief data officer (CDO) and chief science officer (CSO) roles specific to your firm or is it a harbinger of a new trend?

Getting to the C-Level is always a serious challenge with little room for error and a lot of pressures coming from many directions. If you’re aspiring to that level, there is nothing you can do to change that.

But what you can do, and what I try to do in every new role, is bring a different perspective than others when it comes to recognizing that difference and diversity are essential to creativity and risk management. I think being gay gives me an advantage. It helps me question and critically think about many things in our society, which probably makes me a much better data scientist. I am skeptical about the status quo. And I believe deeply in simulating and implementing better futures for those who depend on us.

As it relates to titles, I think the fact that Understood combined the CDO and CSO roles is probably unique to our organization, and perhaps a few others. My academic background and industry experience provide me with a different perspective. Many other companies and organizations generally keep the roles separate.

See more: Why Analytics Warehouse Is the Answer to Big Data Analytics

3. Today, 1 in 5 people learn and think differently, which is about 70 million people in the U.S. alone. The mission at Understood is about helping people with learning and thinking differences thrive. How do data and analytics help advance this mission and play a key role?

Life is full of challenges, and we are providing access to solutions for the 20% of people who learn and think differently. 

The bottom line is that we need data, analytics, and modeling to know what the immediate challenges are for everyone. They are on very different and personal journeys, and we need to provide them with what they need when they need it. Think of it as a kind of recommender challenge or turbo challenge.

Not only do we want users to engage and trust us, but we also want them to improve and to thrive. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting them to turn in their homework on time. Other times we’re trying to find our users the most fulfilling job possible. All of this depends on being able to build a recommendation engine that requires a lot of data.

See more: The Problem With Relying on Your IT Department for Data Analytics

4. How is the CDO role recognized in your firm? Are you also responsible for data security or does the CISO hold that responsibility? Also, do you own data privacy or believe larger firms should go for a chief privacy officer?

We do not hold highly sensitive information, so our security needs do not require HIPAA or others. My role is to make sure we are always valuing data, improving our understanding, supporting decision-making, and increasing efficacy. Security is a core component. Curating, interpreting, consuming, learning, and implementing are greater challenges.

See more: Are These 5 Data Analytics Challenges Impacting Your Business?

5. How does one go about building a high-performance data and analytics organization? Any quick tips or success factors to bear in mind and pitfalls to avoid?

As we discussed earlier, differences in diversity on data teams are essential to innovation and to risk management. Common or highly similar perspectives and experiences are not going to yield new solutions or even properly recognize opportunity. Make sure you build teams where no two people are alike. We need to make sure everyone can articulate opportunities and define problems. We also must ensure everyone has the responsibility to comment on approaches and solutions. Success is all about supporting curiosity and skepticism.

See more: 3 Ways To Utilize Data Analytics To Improve Employee Benefits

6. Are you currently working on any high value use cases for analytics and AI in 2022 that you wish to talk about?

We have only just launched our first app, so we are in the early stages of case making. That said, there are some developments that will be game-changing. An early step is the valuation of data. 

Most organizations and companies focus exclusively on a financial transaction, which logically defines customer value. We don’t have that, so we can define customer value through data contributions or, more simply, rows in the event table. In other words, if we assign a value of $1 for every new row in the event table attributed to a user, we have just primed a data pump.

Nothing prevents other companies from doing this, but I have not seen it in practice, even though customer data is usually more valuable than the core transaction of the product in the business model. Perhaps it is implicit in other companies, but by making it explicit, you can turn in all kinds of other opportunities to recognize the true value of data. After all, our grand recommendation engine is going to require enormous amounts of minute information to help individuals thrive.

About Haftan EckholdtOpens a new window :

Haftan is the chief data science and chief science officer at Understood, where he leads data analytics, modeling and building of new initiatives tailored to people who learn and think differently. A self-proclaimed “Data Science Whisperer,” he lends more than 25 years of knowledge and experience to his dual role as chief data officer and chief science officer. Before joining Understood, Haftan successfully built data science teams and platforms at companies like Albertsons (Plated), Amazon (Audible), and AIG. He also previously held faculty appointments in neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he directed the biometry core at the Kennedy Center for Human Development. Haftan’s work at Understood combines his academic and industry experience in a way that fuels his passion for developmental psychology, neurology, and data science. 

About UnderstoodOpens a new window :

1 in 5 Americans have learning and thinking differences, such as ADHD and dyslexia. They are often misunderstood, undiagnosed, and dismissed, and these differences are viewed as a weakness. This leaves many on a journey that is stacked against them and costs society more than $500 billion. Understood provides a lifelong guide for those who learn and think differently. The company helps more than 20 million people each year to discover their potential, how to take control, find community, and stay on a positive path along each stage of life’s journey. 

About Tech Talk

Tech Talk is an interview series that features notable CTOs and senior technology executives from around the world. Join us as we talk to these technology and IT leaders who share their insights and research on data, analytics, and emerging technologies. If you are a tech expert and wish to share your thoughts, write to [email protected]Opens a new window

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