This week, I spoke with Erica Cawood from Openreach. Erica has been significantly involved in some multinational projects that impact our daily lives for years to come. In this interview Erica goes into great detail about her journey so far.
1) How did you get started in Analytics?
I’m lucky and get to use my Degree daily, although I originally had no idea what I wanted to study. As with most choices in my life, I decided by removing options I didn’t want to do, which means I’ve generally landed up doing things I enjoy. The biggest thing I did learn while I was at university is that I’m not keen on pure theory and I only really love what I’m doing when I can see the practical application.
When I immigrated, I didn’t have the luxury of being picky when it came to my first job, but since then I’ve been drawn to roles that incorporate both analytics and sustainable improvement. It’s always been about helping other people to make better decisions.
2) What do you enjoy most about your current role?
In general, the thing I love most about analytics is that ‘ahah!’ moment when you put a piece of analysis in front of a stakeholder and show them something they’ve never seen or considered before.
It’s been a challenge to learn how to adapt and get that same satisfaction through managing other people delivering those insights, but I still get a thrill when one of my team produce something we’ve never seen before and when they’re really proud of the work they’ve delivered. Being able to tell someone they’ve done a great job is definitely one of the best parts of my job.
3) What has been your biggest success to date?
When I worked in the Housing industry, I got the opportunity to play a key role in the development of an industry-wide data standard. It’s a collaborative industry, with a strong social purpose; and whilst every company generally follows the same processes, we were storing information in very different ways. This was preventing easy collaboration and sharing of key information, both intra-and-inter-company and with stakeholders such as Local Authorities.
When the idea was proposed by HACT, I knew that something as ‘simple’ as speaking the same language and collecting and sharing information in the same way had huge potential; and I offered my help and experience to get the most from the project. I was able to bring in a Real Estate data standards partner I’d worked with previously and offered to talk to any Housing colleagues, who were interested, but didn’t know how to sell it to their senior stakeholders.
It’s the first time I really felt I was able to lead beyond my own company and it was satisfying to be able to bring together people trying to find each other to achieve the same goals. I’m proud that the work continues today, encouraging collaboration and having a positive impact for an industry that changes the lives of so many people across the UK.
4) What has been your biggest challenge to date?
When you get to this level of leadership it’s always the people who are your biggest challenge and your greatest reward. In the last year BT announced a significant restructure across the entire company, and we were one of the first teams impacted. This was happening at the same time as a merging of two parts of Openreach, where we were having to learn new datasets, build analytics at speed and incorporate different colleagues into the team successfully.
The people who tend to work in analytics are intelligent and could easily find opportunities elsewhere, so I’m extremely proud that throughout this challenging time, the team remained motivated and delivered the insight needed to have a positive impact on the performance of Openreach. We used it as an opportunity to promote talent and share our skills wider in the organisation, alongside bringing in fresh talent – which has ultimately led to a stronger team and organisation overall.
5) How have you seen the industry change since you started?
I think there’s been a step-change in the level of awareness in how data can be used, both to help and to hinder. This is particularly true in the political arena and, as digital becomes inseparable from our daily lives, everyone is starting to get to grips with the value and risks associated with being able to collect more personal data than ever before.
I also think there is a recognition of just how scarce the skills are which are needed to exploit these growing volumes of data effectively; whether you are trying to find someone with the pure technical ability or facing the challenge of finding someone who has the balance of technical and softer skills. As companies continue to invest in this area, I think there will more focus on building a team of people who can work effectively together and cover the list of skills required. I also think we are moving towards more proactive training and development, in specialist as well as generic, data and analytical skills.
6) What do you see for the future for analytics?
With the continued growth of digital and computing power, it’s no longer all about the statistical techniques and there are now ways to reach outcomes to problems that we’ve never had available before – and we’re only at the beginning.
However, we need to get the fundamentals right to support this and ensure we use these new tools and sources of information well. Topics such as Data Ethics and Data Literacy are still very young and it’ll be exiting to see how the industry adapts and incorporates these, both at a corporate and personal level.
7) What advice would you give anyone pursuing a career in Analytics?
The best advice I was ever given was to not get too frustrated with other people not understanding the value in what you do (or what you do in general!). For me personally, this has translated into: remember that it’s about the data and it’s also about the people.
Whatever we do in Analytics, it costs a company money. The way we show our worth is through other people making better decisions and taking actions that balance (and hopefully surpass) that investment. You are always delivering for someone else and the more you can understand them and their challenges, working with them, the easier it becomes to do the right analysis at the right time. This builds trust in you, your value and your reputation.
Most importantly, I’d say it’s never too late. I have the privilege of directly managing someone 10 years younger than me and someone 10 years older than me – and neither of them studied or started in data and analytics. They’re both highly passionate about this area, so if you find you love data and analytics and learning more – go for it!