Welcome to Real People in Data, a new interview series by She Loves Data! If you’ve missed our first release, read it here.
Céline Le Cotonnec is living proof that there are many pathways to a career in tech, including by following one’s passion in Chinese culture and language. As a chief data officer, she’s helping to transform AXA Singapore to be more data-driven. As a mother to three young kids, she makes time for family and is upfront about the challenges.
Share a little about yourself. How did you come to be Chief Data Officer (CDO) of AXA Singapore?
I’ve spent the last 15 years in Asia, mainly in China. After my studies in Sinology, I started working in a Taiwanese mining company when I was 21 years old in sales and marketing. Then I was hired by the French Consulate in Shanghai to support French companies to implement their business in China. I was working in the Industry and New Technology department. This was how I got into tech pretty much in the beginning.
Following this, I worked for a car manufacturer starting as a purchasing manager as I knew a lot of actors in the automotive industry in China from my previous job. My role evolved, and I became in charge of innovation in the R&D department. Then later, I was asked to create a new business unit in marketing. This unit was in charge of developing new business models in the field of mobility.
With the arrival of autonomous vehicles, you will have more expensive but fewer cars to produce. Car manufacturers need to find new sources of revenue to support the connectivity of the vehicle. My job was to try and monetize data from car manufacturers by launching new services and value proposition for the driver. This was how I met AXA, as one of the main use cases of connected car data is for insurance. So I started some pilots in China with AXA, and there came this opportunity to move to Singapore. That’s how I became a chief data officer from a Sinologist.
When did your career choice click for you?
I’m a big believer of the word yuan fen (緣分, destiny) in Chinese. All my life has been a succession of opportunities. Extraordinary meetings with some extraordinary people, and working with giant digital players such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent. I don’t really think that anyone from the millennial generation is able to answer the “what do you want to do in five years?” question. Things are changing so fast, new technology is emerging everyday. I knew I wanted to work in innovation. What I liked was to start new things from scratch.
The term ‘Chief Data Officer’ did not exist five years back so I don’t think I would have thought that I would become one. I’m just a big believer in self learning, that you can learn everything if you just put in the right effort. Even though I’m a linguistic or business person by education, I have always loved working with tech and engineers. I’m bringing some other skills to the team even though I don’t know how to code: understanding the use of the data and how to improve the customer experience or the business model. My strength is to be creative, question the status quo, and always put the human—the customer or the employee—at the center of what we do. I guess it’s the main value I can bring to the team and the organization.
Cool, so it’s more about grabbing opportunities that come your way. What’s a workday for you like?
Rather than describing my day, which is spent a lot in meetings, stand-ups and calls as with everyone, it’s more about what we are trying to achieve here. The data team of AXA Singapore has developed a strategy to transform the company to become data-driven. Apart from data architecture and data management, one key pillar is the people and culture. Being data-driven is more about attitude than the technical skills. You need to have this culture of asking the right questions, tracking your actions, making decisions based on data, and monitoring them.
Just last week, we started a SMART® data awareness challenge, where every employee receives four questions daily about data for a week, and the first fifty to complete the challenge get a reward. This year, we’re going to train about 150 people, super users, in basic Python programming and data visualization related to insurance so they are able to produce their do their own analysis, leveraging on data, whenever they have a question. We have a partnership with LinkedIn Learning. The data team is crafting content, then pushing videos to this community on a weekly basis. To up-skill our executives and heads of department, we just started a two-day crash course in Python with Empire Code, a local NGO teaching coding to kids and disadvantaged youths. End of the year, we are planning to kickstart some ‘lunch and learn’ activity so that parents, especially mothers, can get involved too as they can’t always take classes on the weekends or after work.
Sounds like a lot is on your plate. What are your routines or hacks for staying on top of things?
It’s really a team effort. We’ve got great talent in data science, engineering, and architecture. We also have a great digital team with whom we’re working on a daily basis. We have each other and we’re always stronger together. Becoming data driven is not only my strategy. It’s an overall company strategy, so it needs to be supported by the whole organization.
We do use agile to deliver project quickly, and we have an agile coach helping to support the team. We have regular meetings among various teams, a strong governance with a regular steering committee, and a data board involving our top executives that meet every month to take the right decision on data projects, infrastructure, and policies for the company, and support our ambition of building data-driven capabilities.
What’s a common misconception about being a CDO that you would like to correct?
I have to be very honest with you. When I first got this job, I went to some panel and was pretty much the only one without a background in programming or IT. I knew some basics from working in connected cars and digital, but not that deeply. I asked my boss: “Are you sure that I’m the right person for the job?” And he told me that actually he hired me because of my energy, vision, innovation, and the fact that I cared for the people. I’m very grateful to have such a visionary boss who had the courage to hire someone with such a different profile from what was written in the template JD, coming from outside the insurance industry. I guess it was a big bet for him too.
As a chief data officer, I think that our mission is to be a change-driver in the business. With my colleague from the digital team, we are always joking that within five years, our job won’t exist anymore—everybody would be enabled in the company with analytical skills and basic programming, and data scientists would be in all the departments.
For me, being a chief data officer is not a technical job, it’s much more about trying to foresee what could be the issue of the future such as ethics in algorithm. We need to make sure that there is proper governance and a data privacy framework around the usage of data. For this, you don’t actually need to be a programmer.
What would you say are the most understated skill-sets for people looking to get into data and tech?
I would say there are several types of profiles. Some require technical skills, such as Python, SAS, hive, and so on. For super users, you need to have analytical skills. Having the data and studying it is one thing, taking the right business action to transform the company is another. Being able to use tools like Tableau, Qlikview, Power BI or Excel is a skillset that everyone needs to have if you want to be data-driven. A new position emerging now is a kind of business translator, a mix of project manager with knowledge of the business and who can help support understanding the results of models from data scientists and drive within the business the industrialization of the model. Data management is also a new job that is emerging and of paramount importance with new regulations around data protection and data privacy.
Any specific advice for working mums or anyone else who have to juggle with multiple responsibilities outside of work?
It always is a tradeoff. I’m lucky to be in a company that promotes work-life balance and remote work. I myself have a mentor, another colleague who is a single mom. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for her. She is mentoring me to make sure that I get to see my kids every evening from 6 to 8pm. I usually go back home early and work again once they’re asleep. My European colleagues are sometimes surprised when I refuse a call at 6pm and ask them to move it to 10pm, but frankly speaking I don’t mind working in the evening. I do mind coming home too late to see my kids. That’s my work-life balance.
Nothing is more important than your kids and family at the end. If there’s something urgent, it’s going to wait until 9pm or I can answer via Whatsapp or delegate it to someone. It requires strong self-training to balance having three small kids under five years old and the CDO job of transforming your company.
As part of the values we’re promoting at AXA, we’re empowered. We can work from home and don’t always need to be physically at the office as long as you deliver. I’ll give you an example: This morning, there was an event at my son’s school so I went there from 8:00 to 9:00am, then worked from the nearby cafe, and came for the interview to meet you.
We often hear that it’s important to get a mentor. But if you don’t have one yet, how should you go about it?
I’ll give you my traditional answer, yuan fen. You need to feel something and have admiration for your mentor. With my mentor, I went to her and said, I respect you so much for being a single mom and handling your job, overseeing a hundred people; how do you do it? I asked her to mentor me, and she said yes. She sent me an invitation to block my calendar the whole year from 5.30 to 8pm, time for me to see my kids. She sends me WhatsApp messages when she leaves the office, “I hope you’re not still there.” Sometimes you need to ask, but first you need to feel it.
I meet people who inspire me and I don’t even have to formally ask them to be my mentors. I’ve told them they are mentors to me and they go, “really?” But it’s true. We share a lot on a personal and professional basis. They give me advice. Sometimes I don’t agree. But discussion and debate are also part of the mentor-mentee relationship. It’s not only one way. As a mentor to other younger women and men in the organization, I find there is always something that you learn as a mentor. You reflect on what you would have done at their age if you were in their position. This is always an opportunity to grow.
What’s a passion project that you want to share?
Ten years ago, when I was in China, I set up an NGO called Shanghai Young Bakers. Every year, we’ve been helping about 30 orphans and disadvantaged youths get bakery training for one year in Shanghai and then find baker jobs in five-star hotels. It’s one of my biggest achievements. I’m not operationally involved in the project anymore but it’s something that I’m still very dedicated to.