AT&T: What Makes A Good CDO And Why You Need One

We talked with Steve Stine, AT&T’s first CDO about the challenges he faces


Businesses' relationship with data has evolved dramatically over the years. In the past, data was viewed similarly to the appendix; it was the useless result of doing business. For most enterprises, the priority when it came to data was secure and cheap storage. Today, however, many companies view their user-generated data as their most valuable resource.

This shift in mindset has been consistently reflected in the progression of the roles which have been responsible for managing company data. In the past, the Head of Data Processing/Data Processing Manager was the one responsible for determining how this data would be 'dealt' with. This responsibility was upgraded to the Chief Information Officer (CIO) in order to give the IT department a voice in the boardroom in the 90s, as the importance of computing in enterprises began to look less like a fad.

However, as mobile and the proliferation of the internet increased the amount of data collected, so too did its importance to organizations. Hence, the role of Chief Data Officer (CDO) was created to be directly and solely responsible for how company data should be managed and used.

In order to get a better idea of the role and why any company would need one, I spoke to the AT&T CDO, Steve Stine. Employed in August 2017, Steve Stine is AT&T’s first Chief Data Officer. His CDO team is composed of data supply chain, advanced data analytics, and automation solutions teams. They are responsible for bringing data-powered solutions to life and enabling self-service across the enterprise for analytics and automation. As one of the speakers at the upcoming CDO summit in San Francisco, he was the ideal person to discuss the many challenges being faced by CDOs, both internally and externally.

Do you feel like the CDO role has become more important in recent years? How important are they in optimizing an organization’s data efforts and why?

Yes, absolutely. Today, we understand data can generate valuable insights, and almost every business can improve its products and services by analyzing existing data in new ways. CDOs are critical for making our businesses & employees smarter with scalable, long-term solutions, and delighting our customers with better service.

What do you feel is the most important quality for a CDO to be effective?

To be effective, you have to focus on the priorities of the business and creating value for customers. Supporting business units so they can make improvements with data-powered insights, advanced technology, and the evolving potential of employees is critical. You have to deliver value to the enterprise, and that can come in from improving cost structure to delivering products & services for a better experience and at a better cost for our customers.

Where do you feel the CDO should be reporting to and why?

Reporting structure will vary by organization. At AT&T, I report to our President of Technology & Operations, Melissa Arnoldi, who is responsible for technology development, network deployment and operations, and AT&T’s transition to SDN and 5G. It was her vision to create the CDO by bringing together three impactful organizations under one roof – data supply chain, big data, and automation. The mission for the CDO is to democratize data, uncover data insights, and help drive self-service data capabilities across the enterprise. This combination supports delivering results on business units’ priorities and helping turn insights into real life actions and solutions. It helps improve operations and ultimately serve customers within those veins by better marketing our services. Additionally, the CDO serves as a Center of Excellence (COE) to build automation and self-service tools to scale solutions across all of AT&T.

How does an enterprise create a more data-driven culture?

At AT&T, we abide by the following principles to foster our data-driven culture:

  • Maintain integrity in and with everything we do with an aim to make a difference
  • Hold ourselves accountable for our decisions and actions, and remember that humans are at the core of everything we do
  • Encourage openness across the team for transparency and trust
  • Drive innovation by asking questions, raising our voices and taking smart risks
  • Demonstrate agility through trials, iterations, and improvements
  • Focus on continuous learning
  • Finally, of course, remain data-driven for insightful decision making

From your perspective as a CDO, do you feel it is better for teams to be centralized or decentralized?

We believe the CDO needs a centralized view to serve as a center of excellence. We combined our data supply chain, big data and automation functions under one roof. Data supply chain coordinates data movement, storage, and delivery across the company, from free-form data like customer service notes to data with columns and rows; big data turns mounds of data into a business asset; automation increases efficiency and replaces repetitive tasks. While centralization helps get quick focus, aligning to business unit priorities with an engagement model is critical to ensure we focus on the highest business priorities.

Finally, can those without a technical background effectively perform the role of CDO or is a data science background important?

A technical background is certainly beneficial but I, for example, do not have one, and I think that is in part why I was chosen for this role. For the task at hand for AT&T, I bring more than 30 years of experience in optimization and integration of platforms, building innovative solutions to deliver business results, managing large and complex organizations, and driving change. For the transformation needed within our company to become data-powered, an important culture change must be a part of it for us to be successful.


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