Jennifer Ippoliti: Build the right data team

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Jennifer Ippoliti, Former Chief Data Officer, Raymond James

Jennifer Ippoliti, Former Chief Data Officer, Raymond James

Not everyone could say they transitioned from studying romance languages to working with data, but it worked for Jennifer Ippoliti. She says, “There’s definitely a language in what I’m doing now. In some respects there’s not much difference between a data dictionary and a French-English dictionary. Both are about unambiguously defining terms and making meaningful translations.”

Editor’s note: Jennifer became part of the Data Governance team at J.P. Morgan Chase in June 2015, after this interview was conducted and published. This story focuses on her work for Raymond James.

What was the catalyst for establishing a CDO at Lehman and again at Raymond James?

At Lehman, data had become so siloed that no one group had oversight and control of this enterprise asset. To address those issues, our chief administrative officer established a dedicated division to lay out a firm-wide data strategy and improve data quality and governance. At Raymond James, the sponsor was our company’s head of technology and operations. But our chief technology officer and chief architect were also really pushing for the role. They wanted a business partner who could speak the languages of both IT and financial services to capture and extract the most value from our enterprise data.

How long did it take to get your office up and running?

It took about 12 months in all at Raymond James. My first three months were mostly dedicated to research, meeting with people around the firm, understanding the lay of the land, the issues, the processes and the players. About 60 days in, I had enough information to pull together a formal strategy, one that outlined where I thought our team could most deliver value against the firm’s business priorities. We then focused on creating the structure to implement that plan. A good chunk of that time was spent sourcing the right talent. For CDOs whose organizations are based in major financial services hubs with bigger resource pools, that process might move a little faster.

How do you figure out what the CDO’s strategy should be?

At Raymond James, it quickly became apparent that the massive technological renovation we had going on was the area that needed the most urgent attention. So that was where I focused. In crafting the CDO strategy, I started with the company’s strategic vision, lined that up against the business objectives of the operations and technology group, then trickled those goals down to the CDO level to figure out how my team could best help the business achieve its plan. It’s important not to be too prescriptive, though, because even with an agreed-upon strategy, there are bound to be occasions when the CDO is pulled in to assist with unplanned initiatives. Prioritize, but recognize that priorities are continually refined.

What was your first mandate and who sponsored it?

In conversations with individuals around the firm, and even during the interview process before I joined Raymond James, the need for better asset classification came up time and again. Existing classification schemas needed more consistency, transparency, flexibility and governance. We felt we could empower our advisors to have a bigger say in how securities are classified, and make the experience of portfolio allocation and risk analysis smoother for them. It’s been almost a year in the analysis stage with extensive stakeholder participation. And we’re looking at about another year for the implementation, although the main benefits will start to roll out during the next 12 months.

How does a new CDO show value?

Focus on quick wins and operational fixes or data problems that have been driving folks crazy. Anything that will promise relief to an influential stakeholder or group will help. Then balance that with more strategic, longer term work. I try to prioritize projects where I’ll get bang for the buck in multiple areas, whether it’s lowering risk, preventing fraud or generating new revenue. Don’t be afraid to think big, even when thinking about something as pedantic as a client master. We have a project called Opportunity Center that we’re using to roll out different tools and programs for advisors, offerings like predictive analytics that they can share with clients.

How does budgeting and funding work? Does money come ear-marked or do you have your own nest egg?

My budgets are entirely driven by my office, but I also sit down with technology and we talk about projects on which we’ll collaborate together. As a former consultant, I always have a budget and a calculator running in my head: How much does my team cost? How much do I make or save the firm? Is this company getting its money’s worth? For me, it’s much more about adding value and not cost. Remember, too, that cooperation doesn’t have to involve cash. Sometimes it’s as effective to share resources, such as dedicating a certain percentage of my team’s time to a joint initiative.

With so many initiatives clamoring for your attention, how do you prioritize?

As best I can, I try to stay focused on the business goals. That’s my starting point. Have a business case, but don’t spend too many cycles on it. When a new initiative is proposed, really assess the business value and understand the cost and benefits. When it comes down to a choice between two projects, I am much more likely to approve the one that will deliver on multiple fronts.

There are also some things that in some organizations fall under the scope of the CDO, but that I chose not to tackle. One example was setting policy around data privacy. We have a very effective chief privacy officer at Raymond James, so I don’t see a need to try to bring that under my control. Data classification is another.

Policies have already been put in place by our chief information security officer (CISO), who is already in the process of implementing data discovery, repository management and ongoing maintenance. We have people already in place who do a very good job dealing with those issues; I’m not going to try to take them on just because another CDO may have. I’ve learned you can get the job done with a very lean team if you focus on a smaller number of high-value activities.

How did you determine how to build your team?

With a strategy in place, I then made a master list of all the specific technical skills and domain expertise that I would need to deliver on those goals. I knew we needed many different skill sets and experiences, but I also knew that no one person was going to have all of them. When I interview, I’m looking for general domain expertise and one or two specific functional skills. Personality characteristics are also important. We need people whose natural inclination is to make order out of chaos, who are persistent and analytical, yet can engage comfortably and knowledgeably with the rest of the business. People with those personality traits can learn the rest on the job and cross-train with their peers.

CDO teams are often lean by design. I don’t think it’s a good idea to start day one and say, “I need 100 people.” It’s important to think carefully about how you can use what already exists and where you may be able to lean on other groups to form an extended team.

Where the CDO role is new, how do you succeed in carving out responsibility for areas that previously fell under the auspices of others?

The reality is there are gray areas. A big one is business analysis. I wanted to be really crisp about the boundaries between what my analysts did and what those in technology and other parts of the business did, to make the most of our respective resources. But inevitably there is going to be overlap. So you need to keep working at it, keep the level of communication open and be proactive. I’ve written multi-page role descriptions, but those roles will continue to be refined and redefined as we and the organization evolve. The key thing is to make sure everyone on your team knows what you’re trying to accomplish.

In some organizations, the CDO and CIO can butt heads. What are the best practices in forming a successful partnership?

One does hear anecdotal stories. Some IT departments will be thrilled at the arrival of a new CDO. Others will feel very proprietary. It’s one of the reasons I joke that CDO stands for chief diplomatic officer. You need to position yourself as a partner and not a threat, e.g., “I realize this project will create some extra work for you right now, but let me show you how in six months, it will free up the equivalent of two full-time employees’ worth of effort for your team going forward” or “Your department is doing a great job in this area, but you could be even better if we helped you.” The idea is that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

I’ve been very fortunate. The technology teams I worked with at Lehman really understood our business and were fantastic partners as a result. At Raymond James, IT was a strong advocate for the CDO role from the start – in fact, both the CIO and the CTO interviewed me. For me, in deciding to join Raymond James, it was a major plus that the IT buy-in for the role was already in place. It is much harder to come into an organization where IT is saying, “Thanks, but no thanks. I got this” and where there can be little natural impetus to partner. And it’s another reason why clearly defined roles are key.

Senior Writer

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