The Art of Big Data: Wells Fargo Chief Data Officer Says Communication is Key in Data Analysis

“I’ve never been in fear of losing a job, I’m never in fear of not getting a job, I’m always in a job, and I think I always will be,” said Charles Thomas, Chief Data Officer for Wells Fargo.

Charles A. Thomas, Chief Data Officer for Wells Fargo, speaking to SEBA“I’ve never been in fear of losing a job, I’m never in fear of not getting a job, I’m always in a job, and I think I always will be,” said Charles Thomas, Chief Data Officer for Wells Fargo.  

“It’s not just about being a scientist," he said to the audience who had gathered into Claey’s Lounge in the Soda Center for the Executive Speaker Series Event on March 10. “There was no such thing as a degree in analytics back when I got my degrees,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to really shape how the industry looks at data.”

While many people think of data analysis as an exercise in solitary number crunching, Thomas explained that data science is just as much about persuading people as it is about processing information.  “The role of today’s data scientist is to be personable,” he said, “That is, if you are looking to be a true game changer in this field.” 

Thomas, who was hired as Wells Fargo's first-ever Chief Data Officer in 2014, talked to the audience about the need not just for big data—which he eschewed as a commonly used buzzword meant to draw people in—but, more importantly, for the interpretation of all of this data pouring in by the second. 

Businesses across the board are investing in big data, from financial to government to media. Projected career growth in the field is more than promising. The International Data Corporation predicts a need for 181,000 people with deep analytical skills in the United States by 2018, with even more demand (up to five times that number of positions) for people with data management and interpretation capabilities. As of March 2 this year, there were 71,666 data and analytics jobs posted on Indeed.com. 

But what is Big Data? According to Thomas, big data is composed of the “3 V’s,”  high-volume, high-velocity, and/or high-variety information assets that demand cost-effective, innovative forms of information processing in order to enable enhanced insight, decision making, and process automation. 

Opportunities for extracting value from big data appear to be endless. The more executives see the cost rewards and competitive advantages inherent in more thoroughly interpreting their organization’s data,  the more investment in big data initiatives will continue to increase. Big Data can be used for many purposes, from fraud detection to enhancing customer experience. It can be used for risk management, compliance and regulation reporting, and operational enhancement. 

Ultimately, Thomas stressed that organizations need to learn to trust the data they have when making key business decisions:  “Then use that information to eliminate the decisions that aren’t working to improve efficiency across the board.”

Job security in his field, said Thomas, has been great. “In a recession, if your team is showing how you can get more with less, you’ll always have a job. I’ve walked into each job with two offers. There is such a demand. The premium is based on the business insight, not the technical piece.”

Storytelling matters in the world of big data, said Thomas. Companies need a story that makes sense, a story that can positively influence their outcome in many areas, including customer experience. They need a person who can not only analyze, but can also comprehend, drill down, and connect the dots inside of the massive amount of information pouring in from every which way. Every second of every day, information can be accessed and interpreted in order to weave a bigger picture that will reveal best practices for every aspect of a business’s operations. 

If you can learn the language of the audience, you have an edge in the field. “I got my degree in organizational behavior. Try explaining a degree in organizational behavior to your grandma,” he said. “’Grandma, you remember at church how Deacon Smith does this particular thing, and how Reverend Greene does this?’ Her eyes light up. Suddenly, she understands what I’m talking about.” 

“How would you use Legos to describe what you do for a living in data and analytics?” said Thomas. “If you can explain it to a kid, then you can explain it to a CEO.” When the audience laughed more heartily than expected, he apologized, “That didn’t come out quite like I expected.”