CDO interview: Andrew Curry, manager of the Central Data Office, ExxonMobil

Andrew Curry is an experienced data leader who’s using his surfeit of knowledge to help one of the world’s biggest companies embrace digital transformation.

Curry joined oil and gas giant ExxonMobil after graduating with a degree in IT from college in 1999. Today, he’s fast approaching a quarter of a century with the company – and that period has provided the opportunity to work across a range of roles. “It’s a very long time,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have about 14 jobs.”

His latest position at ExxonMobil is manager of the firm’s Central Data Office, which was created at the start of May this year when the data team left the IT division. His office reports into the company’s Global Business Solutions department, which is itself part of a division called Transformation Enablement.

“It was a very conscious split out of IT and into more on the business side as a Central Data Office,” he says. “My role is similar to what would be called the chief data officer in many other companies.”

Learning the business

Curry might be heading up data today, but his career encompasses a broad span of roles and responsibilities, as you might expect from someone who’s spent so long with a large firm.

He points to a stint in Canada supporting offshore telecommunications, which allowed him to learn about how the business works and how a helicopter or supply boat gets sent to a drilling rig: “You see how we’re looking for gas or oil. And when you work across business, you know what this company does and how it makes money.”

Curry also spent some time based out of ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery, which is one of the largest refineries in North America. Once again, it was an experience that helped him expand his horizons: “Those have been very influential opportunities to say, ‘Hey, I have the technology background, I have the data background, but do I understand the business?’”

Of course, Curry wouldn’t have been able to rise to a data executive position without cutting his teeth in technology leadership. He points in particular to his management of a global IT procurement programme, where he negotiated contracts for ExxonMobil with big-name suppliers, such as SAP, Microsoft and Dell.

“That was a great opportunity to learn the financial side of how to deal with vendors and how to negotiate contracts,” Curry says, before outlining how he preceded this work with a spell helping the company’s upstream operation to pursue a digital transformation agenda.

“I had the opportunity there to start building one of our early cloud-based data platforms. I also owned a lot of our on-premises data platforms, so that work involved managing legacy systems and the transition. There were some interesting learnings and observations from those early days,” he says.

“Are you truly building reusable data products? Are you gathering this data effectively, so that it can be reused? We took on some of those lessons effectively, sometimes the hard way, sometimes the right way as well. That journey through the upstream digital transformation process put me in a really great position to help lead the Central Data Office.”

Building the foundations

Curry says the opportunity to build the office has been the highlight of his career so far. He was initially one of eight people who was tasked with forming the organisation two years ago.

“Now we’ve built that office out and we have a global organisation supporting this company,” he says. “The ability to build a data strategy and build the data principles for this corporation, and then enact them, has been a fantastic opportunity.”

Curry says the creation of the office was a key first step towards the execution of enterprise-wide data principles. As the office has bedded in and expanded, so has the company’s data strategy. From these nascent beginnings, a fully formed data strategy began to emerge.

“That’s when we started saying, ‘OK, we’re going to make a conscious decision to say these business capabilities will all share a common platform’. This data is going to be managed at the enterprise level, it will be shared across the organisation, and it will provide a consistent platform for use by applications and analytics.”

As part of its data strategy, ExxonMobil has a technology ecosystem that uses the cloud-based platform Snowflake as an underpinning technology. Curry says Snowflake has given the business a consolidated data foundation for the first time. Now, with a strong technology platform and ecosystem in place, the office can produce enterprise-wide data products.

“The ability to build a data strategy and build the data principles for this corporation, and then enact them, has been a fantastic opportunity”

Andrew Curry, ExxonMobil

“Knowing your customers should be a simple task,” he says. “But if your chemical division has a customer database, and your field division has a customer database, and procurement has its own database, then those opportunities are potentially missed.”

Curry says one of the key tasks during the past 18 months has been to migrate and collapse independent, siloed platforms into a single data ecosystem that works for the whole corporation. That work is now complete.

“The same data that we’re sending to applications is the same that’s being used by analytics – there’s no curation,” he says.

“There’s no differences and we’ve got that data consistency that we’ve really been striving to achieve. And the transformation we’ve had going on has been underpinned by our data ecosystem, which is structured around Snowflake.”

Delivering digital transformation

An effective data strategy is a key element of a much wider business agenda that incorporates a range of digital transformation initiatives. When it comes to using technology to create a competitive advantage, Curry says there’s lots of work taking place at the company.

“ExxonMobil has broad ambitions from a digital transformation standpoint,” he says. “There’s 10 ERPs in the business today, but there won’t be tomorrow – and making that shift is not without significant effort. Ultimately, digital transformation starts with the business – what are the business drivers that are going to push you to move forwards?”

Curry says the role of his team is to help ensure the data initiatives that are enacted are right for the business. A big part of that effort is working out where ExxonMobil can differentiate itself through the use of technology and to identify where standardised options work just fine.

“We need to be very conscious of that as an organisation,” he says. “The areas we can identify as our competitive advantage means we can say in other cases, ‘Hey, don’t do customisation, be more standard, use industry standards, make your data more easily accessible’.”

Standardised technology options should make it easy for people across the business to use data. Curry says employees will then be able to use clean, trusted information to deliver a range of initiatives.

“The business driver right now for ExxonMobil is making sure we’re achieving our full corporate scale – that we’re leveraging the scale of the company to its fullest. And so, can we do more with our supply chain? Can we do more in trading? Can we do more by combining what are today different services into a single enterprise-wide service?” he says.

“All those things require us to break down the silos. If I want to run more things at a corporate scale, I can’t have those historical silos anymore. They have to be broken down.”

Putting data at the centre

What’s clear is data plays a key role in business success across ExxonMobil. While some experts suggest senior executives at blue-chip businesses need to wake up to the game-changing power of data, Curry says his company is already well aware of the importance of information and insight, as evidenced by the launch of the Central Data Office.

“The data strategy is not just a push to the business. This isn’t a cultural change anymore. This is the business really demanding that the work we’re doing is imperative and that you have to have data at the corporate scale. There’s a real pull from business for data now,” he says.

Curry says it should be a similar tale at any modern company – data needs to be at the forefront. The value of data must be understood by the senior leadership team.

“It’s not a by-product of the business process anymore, it’s an asset,” he says. “We’re producing new data and we use it in different areas, and the business understands that role.”

The great thing for Curry is that the Central Data Office is a crucial element for ExxonMobil going forward.

“Everything we do is data driven,” he says. “All these initiatives offer transformational opportunities and they all need data. Being able to lead this strategic initiative in the corporation is what makes this an exciting opportunity.”


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