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CIO interview: Graeme McDermott, chief data officer, Addison Lee

Addison Lee’s CDO is aiming to modernise the minicab’s firm estate and create a proactive data service for the business

Graeme McDermott enjoys a challenge, and his current test, as chief data officer (CDO) at Addison Lee, is to help the private hire company make the most of the information at its disposal.

A data scientist by education, McDermott started his career as an actuary. He joined the AA in 1999 and spent almost two decades with the British motoring association, working across a series of increasingly senior management roles. After rising to the position of insight and data director, McDermott left to become CDO at Addison Lee in May 2016. 

“I’d worked at the AA for nearly 17 years and developed my career through information and insight,” he says. “Someone mentioned to me that I was in danger of becoming institutionalised and unemployable. I saw that as a challenge because I am competitive and wanted to prove any doubters wrong.” 

McDermott spoke with Computer Weekly about his work at Addison Lee at the recent Data IQ Summit 2017 in London. In a wide-ranging conversation, McDermott talks about the challenges he faces at the organisation, his achievements so far and his long-term plans for lasting data-led change. 

Last year’s approach from Addison Lee came through the firm’s chief executive Andy Boland. McDermott had worked with Boland previously when he was CFO at the AA. McDermott says the strong connection between him and his new boss made it easier to leave his long-term position and assume a new role in a new company. 

“Being brought in by the CEO is a big help when you’re being charged with sorting out a firm’s data issues,” says McDermott. He reports to the CEO on a day-to-day basis. That close working relationship, which is built on mutual trust, makes it easier to create change that sticks. 

“The CEO leaves me to get on with things and that’s how it worked when I was employed by him before,” says McDermott. “He knows I’ll only really ask for money in extreme circumstances. He knows my style when it comes to key issues, such as people and promotions, but I don’t go to him with an issue every day or even week.” 

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McDermott’s role covers both information and analytics management. The firm has a chief technology officer (CTO), rather than an in-house CIO. While the CTO deals with operational systems and underlying hardware, McDermott takes responsibility for broader business-facing concerns, including data management and relationships with trusted third-party providers. 

Interestingly, he says his role – which is broader than a conventional CIO position – even differs to a traditional data chief. The CDO position might be relatively young in terms of C-suite roles, but McDermott believes it is already maturing. He refers to stages of development and suggests his own position is closely related to an advanced executive. 

“I’m not a first-generation CDO, who tends to be more interested in banking and governance,” he says. “My role is more of a second or third-generation CDO, which is more focused on managing the collection and exploitation of data for analytics and less about the governance of disparate systems.” 

Building data capability across the business 

McDermott is enjoying the challenge of his broad role, yet he also recognises the move to Addison Lee has been far from straightforward. “It’s been a tough 12 months,” he says, looking back on key achievements during his time at the firm. He was presented with the challenge of creating a forward-looking strategy for a firm that had dabbled in analytics without great reward. 

“They wanted me to come in and help modernise the estate,” he says. “They’d previously gone straight into data science. The approach wasn’t right because the basics of the data foundation and the management information reporting didn’t work. They had some great data scientists but the approach wasn’t right for the business.” 

McDermott says his big achievement has been to ally in-house experience with external expertise. His team encompasses a broad mix of skills. While a third of his team has been with the business for ten years, the other two-thirds have joined in the past 12 months. 

“They had some people who have lived and breathed Addison Lee for 10-plus years but weren’t particularly analytics-minded,” he says. “Their strengths were in understanding our data, its history and the broader business processes. We had to bring in analytics and insight for them to develop a new level of specialism.” 

Developing an advanced approach to data science 

In terms of other priority areas, McDermott says he has directed significant attention to the data engineering department – a team that had previously worked as part of the IT organisation. On becoming CDO, McDermott was given responsibility for the data engineering team. Progress has been swift. 

“We’ve built that team up and employed more people to help the business ingest data,” he says. “In a way, it means I know have my own IT team and that makes it easier to get projects started. The people side just had to be sorted, in terms of getting the right people and skills sets into the business.” 

McDermott says his other key priority during the past 12 months has been data. Although Addison Lee is more than forty years old, he says the firm only properly started trying to make the most of its data during the past three-or-so years. After initial efforts, McDermott says he has “reset” the clock and is working hard to help manage wider expectations. 

“There’s a lot of people in our team who are learning about the power of data – and the business processes that produce it – for the first time,” he says. “That’s quite tough because the rest of the business has many questions it wants answered as soon as possible. I try to protect the team – to both explore the data and get stuff done, along with trying to help the team mature as fast as possible, is hard work.” 

Creating a proactive data service for the business 

So, is McDermott pleased with the progress made so far? He put in place an 18-month strategy 30 days after joining the firm. After a year in-situ, McDermott says his key aim during the next six months is to complete that strategic focus on people and data, as well as bring the benefits to the wider business. 

“I want to get the data department to a level of maturity so it can cope with everyday questions very quickly,” he says. “I also want to get more out of our data, both in terms of the information we already hold and in terms of enhancing that insight with other data.”

“I want us to proactively deliver the things we think the organisation needs to know”

Graeme McDermott, Addison Lee

McDermott says Addison Lee has historically avoided using external parties to enrich its data. He is keen to change that process. McDermott says his experience from working at the AA suggests matching and merging existing information with knowledge from external specialists can help build a more nuanced understanding of the business and its customers. 

“I want us to proactively deliver the things we think the organisation needs to know,” he says. “We could use our knowledge to help suggest performance improvements in certain areas. That continued maturity is all about our data team becoming a proactive service rather than just a reactive service.” 

Providing a stimulating work environment 

Data-led transformation, therefore, remains a work in progress at Addison Lee. While McDermott is already using information to help the business change for the better, he also recognises he will encounter further challenges as he moves forward. 

People issues, says McDermott, are likely to remain key. He says gaining and retaining data specialists is tough, even for a big firm in London. “Data professionals know the opportunities are such that they can quickly and easily change jobs,” says McDermott. 

“I can only do so much as a CDO. I can provide a great working environment, flexible working practices and access to the technology that people want to use. But I can’t change the sector we’re working in and I can’t afford to pander to individuals. While great data professionals are important, you have to understand that people will seek new opportunities.” 

The good news is that McDermott believes he has a strong history in retaining data talent. Some of his analytical specialists at the AA worked alongside him for 15 years. “As a CDO, you can help to create the kind of stimulating work experience that your team enjoys and it might be the type of environment they can’t find somewhere else,” says McDermott. 

Proactive data management

His plan for long-term success relates back to proactive data management. “My aim would be that our team is delivering insight and capability to the business month in, month out,” he says.

“When I arrived 12 months ago, the key daily reports didn’t always go out. If they did, they often weren’t accurate and didn’t reconcile with other reports. We’ve turned that around and now deliver consistent information to the business. The standard stuff is happening – now we want to start delivering knowledge proactively to rest of the organisation. I want my team to start taking data to executives that they think they’ll find interesting.” 

McDermott, in short, wants his team to feel comfortable engaging with their business peers. He wants his team to talk with executives, find out their problems and use any spare capacity to create analytics that help overcome business challenges. 

“It’s about being ready,” says McDermott. “When data specialists meet executives, they’ll be asked questions, so great insight is absolutely critical.”

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