almost 5 years ago by Next Generation

Can Data Scientists Become CEO?

Data Scientist To Ceo

Data scientist jobs have been rumoured to be the sexiest of the 21st century as far back as 2012.

And we can see why.

A successful data scientist is often a hybrid of a number cruncher, data hacker, analyst, investigator and trusted expert. It’s clear to see how these qualities can be useful to CEOs of large enterprises, SMEs or startups. 

Since data is the goldmine of just about any business, a data scientist could definitely be CEO-material.

But there’s more to the question than meets the eye.

Data scientists who’ve reached the C-suite

Firstly, let’s look at a list of CEOs who started off as data scientists:

Now, a list made up of six people is hardly a definitive summary of data scientists who’ve made the jump to the top position in running a business, but it does indicate that data scientists are moving into CEO roles. (VentureBeat occasionally profiles data scientists who have gone on to lead companies, such as this post here.)

However, it’s worth noting that most of the names on this list became CEOs of the companies they founded themselves. It’s more difficult to compile a list of a Fortune 500 company CEOs who started off in the data analytics team.

That said, some of the most instantly recognisable CEOs in the world today are powerhouses when it comes to understanding just how transformative data can be for a business.

Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer of Amazon, has gone on record for saying that the top data scientist in the company is Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, and Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, are no slouches in the data stakes either.

Finally, Larry Page, co-founder of Google and CEO of the tech behemoth at two separate times in its history, is considered by some to be the top data scientist in the world. 

The financial services industry and data science

The financial services industry is one example of a traditional industry where data scientists have climbed the corporate ladder. It’s worth noting that in the financial services industry data scientists are called actuaries, rather than data scientists. 

Actuaries regularly go on to lead companies and occupy seats at board level.

While nearly all industries now understand the value of data, it’s been crucial to the financial services industry (particularly insurance companies) for a long time. 

Therefore, it’s a reasonable assumption to make that we’ll begin to see more commercial, leadership roles require experience and a background in data, as business becomes more data driven.

Essential skills for a CEO

Setting the strategic vision for a company, and leading it into the future, is the primary responsibility of a CEO. That’s the theory anyway.

In reality, this involves making major business decisions, stating, and implementing, executive level rulings on how the company’s resources and operations are to be used, acting as the main point of contact for the board and being the public face of the company.

This brings us back to our earlier point that there’s more to the question than simply asking whether data scientists can become CEOs.

Of course, the answer is yes, but data scientists won’t be earmarked for the corner office purely because they’re a data scientist.

Increasingly, their data background will be a strong factor in their favour, but potential CEOs will need to demonstrate additional skills to ensure they influence all the stakeholders they need to.

Forbes recently listed the top five skills a CEO needs to develop to be successful in their job. All of them relate to effective communication.

Look 5, 10 or 20 years into the future

Strong people and organisational management skills are among the foundational attributes any board will look for in a good CEO.

Data scientists with an eye on the top job should look to build their career trajectory to include opportunities to build these skills. It may still be unusual to see data scientists moving into CEO roles now but, within a decade, it could be a more recognisable path. 

However, there’s another role at the very top ambitious data scientists, with strong commercial ambitions, may want to investigate.

Think CDO before CEO

Increasingly, another seat at the c-suite is no less impactful than the CEO role. And it’s ideal for data scientists with leadership aspirations.

The Chief Data Officer (CDO) is the new(ish) strategic role on the block.

New(ish) because the first CDO, in the world, was appointed in 2002.

Cathryne Clay Doss might not be a name many people recognise, but she is a data pioneer. Capital One Financial Corporation appointed Cathryne as the first Chief Data Officer in the world just after the turn of the millennium. 


The next company to follow suit with a similar appointment was Yahoo, three years later. By 2010, according to Gartner, only 15 major corporations had CDOs in place. 

From then on, the pace picked up in CDO placements.

While still not mainstream, a four-fold increase in CDO positions had been measured by 2016 in Fortune 1000 companies.

The CDO role adds enormous strategic benefits to an organisation. It’s also one of the most challenging roles at the top of the corporate ladder.

To state the obvious, businesses are using data like never before. The CDO’s role is to drive enable data-driven innovation and integrate varied data sources, all the while delivering insights and actionable strategies to make quick, and sustainable, wins of company KPIs. A CDO needs to adapt quickly to the “winds of change” every business experiences in cycles, while maintaining high standards of governance on how data is used.

Valerie Logan, research director and VP Analyst at Gartner, says, “early CDOs were focused on data governance, data quality and regulatory divers, but today’s data and analytics leaders are becoming impactful change agents who are spearheading data-driven transformation.”

She adds, “it’s not difficult to see how, by 2121, the office of the CDO will be a mission-critical function comparable to IT, business operations, HR and finance in 75% of large enterprises.”

The industries that report the most CDOs to date include:

  • Financial services

  • Media

  • Technology

  • Public Sector

  • Medical

  • Consumer Packaged Goods

  • Retail 

  • Entertainment

  • Sport

  • Pharmaceutical

  • Publishing

(Source: Inside Big Data)

Just like a CEO, a CDO incumbent will spend a lot less time tactically carrying out data mining and analysis, and a lot more time leading teams of people in line with the overall vision of the company they work for. A CDO could have multiple teams/people under their management:

  • Data architecture

  • Data governance

  • Data strategy

  • Data analytics

The CDO needs CEO skills

It’s easy to see how the CDO role will deliver enormous value to organisations and enterprises in an era when big data occupies the mind of every business. However, all things data are not the only concern of CDOs.

Looking back to the first CDO pioneer, Cathryne Clay Doss, it’s worth noting that her academic and professional qualifications were grounded in business. At the time of her CDO appointment, she held a business degree from James Madison University and further executive training from the University of Virginia.

Although the first CDO appointment was made in 2002, the role gained in prominence after the global financial meltdown, and then recession, in 2008. The CDO role brought in-depth technological expertise to the executive suite but was always envisioned as a business role.

Research from 2016 indicates that 68% of CDOs have business degrees, while 44% of CDO professionals hold technology-related degrees. This ratio is changing, as machine learning and AI gain more prominence. HackerMoon released a study in 2018 that highlighted twice as many CDOs were hired with a technology background in 2017.

But be under no illusion. The CDO role is as much about people and organisational management as it is about data. Just think of the eternal battle that rages in most organisations, large or small, of who owns the data... 

Being able to influence strategy and win people’s confidence is key to being a successful CDO. These are the exact same requirements for being a successful CEO.

Data scientists who want to progress to the very top echelons of the business ladder need to develop knowledge and experience in business management, AI and data technology. 

Do this, and earning the CDO (or CEO) title could be a possibility.