CIO Spotlight: Darren Person, The NPD Group

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? “First and foremost, make sure that technology is something that excites you…. Be willing to continually re-evaluate your work.”

Headshot of Darren Person, Global CIO at The NPD Group
The NPD Group

Name: Darren Person

Company: The NPD Group

Job title: Global CIO

Date started current role: October 2019

Location: Port Washington, New York

As Global CIO, Darren Person leads NPD’s Technology Group, encompassing the company’s operations and technology organisations and is responsible for spearheading the development of NPD’s next generation platform addressing clients’ needs through innovations in data and analytics. Person is a Silicon Alley technology executive with more than 20 years of experience across a wide spectrum of industries. Person is an active participant in supporting his industry colleagues through the CxO Professional Network and since 2008 has been member of The New York CTO Club, an independent, not-for-profit, invitation only group of senior technologists who meet regularly to address key industry challenges. Additionally, Person has served on the BWG Strategy advisory board for senior executives across technology, media and telecom since 2015.

What was your first job? My first big role after obtaining my undergraduate degree was in the media and entertainment industry working for USA Networks, Inc. I started as a senior programmer analyst and was fortunate to have gained the support of the executive leadership team during my tenure; this enabled me to quickly advance from a career perspective as I was promoted several times including being appointed as the director of application development.  

I attribute starting my professional career in a senior role as a result of decisions I made to use my summers throughout college interning for some great companies like Anderson Consulting, Young & Rubicam, Ernst & Young and CNA Insurance, which allowed me to quickly advance past the entry level role.

Did you always want to work in IT? Actually, when I was in K-6, my ambition was to become an accountant. I really liked math, and, at that time, my teachers suggested accounting as a career. It was a clearly defined job. People knew what accountants did. Information technology was a newer field when I was growing up and there were few jobs available. Even after personal computers arrived, there weren’t a significant number of jobs and they didn’t pay as well as they do today. I started working with computers at a young age and considered it more of a hobby. But the technology field was evolving so rapidly that I soon realised. that my hobby could become a career. Then I knew what I wanted to do, and my thoughts came into focus.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I hold an MBA from Columbia Business School and a Bachelor of Science in computer information science with a minor in speech communication from Ithaca College. The focus on information systems and the minor in speech communication was important at the time because I had identified a gap in the industry where career technologists were having difficulties articulating technology in simple-to-understand business terms. I saw this as an opportunity to fill the void and took advanced classes in business as well as my minor in speech communication to hone my public speaking skills and develop my ability to translate technology through a stronger commercial acumen. Some of my certifications include:

  • Certified ScrumMaster
  • Microsoft Azure/Solution Developer
  • Applied Machine Learning

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Shortly after entering the field, I felt that my skillset and experience could lead me towards the path of becoming a future CIO/CTO in an organisation and it was this north star that influenced the various decision points on my journey. Careers are less like straight lines and more like roads. I believe that many of the bumps and turns in the road are put there to test one’s readiness and offer opportunities for ongoing self-reflection. Over the course of my career, I’ve focused on a continuous and iterative process where I re-evaluate my skills regularly, assess where my strengths are and identify opportunities to improve. By laying this out, decision-making around what the next job or role should look like became much more data driven versus purely emotional.  Every role I took was weighed against opportunities for my development, the value I could add to an organisation and the goal towards being a future CTO/CIO in an organisation. 

During the dotcom bust, there were a number of mergers and large-scale layoffs across the industry. At the time, my position was eliminated from my then employer and finding a new role was nearly impossible due to stress in the job market. After a few months of job searching, I was offered a senior project manager role. Coming from a more senior position, this felt like a step back, but at the same time, it was something that I felt I could do and there were specific skill sets that I wanted to sharpen in this area. When I think back, this was one of the best pivots I made because the experience I gained building a global PMO, managing international projects and delivering on large-scale efforts in a matrix organisation was valuable in the context of what is expected of the CIO/CTO role in companies today. 

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? The most significant investments in technology will be made based on the needs of our clients. We are a data and analytics business, and it’s our mission to help deliver insights that help our clients make better decisions. Largely, these decisions are about how our clients can bring to market better products that meet consumer needs. We focus on helping optimise “the four Ps”: price, product, promotion, and placement. We build new services and introduce new capabilities to help provide answers to our clients’ questions, and their challenges drive our initiatives. 

As for specific technology initiatives, I see continuous investment in three core areas: big data, machine learning, and analytics. We’ll focus on investing in machine learning, AI and visualisation capabilities to bring life to the data and to tell a clear story, to support the visualisation of data and be able to identify insights and trends from what the data is telling us.  When you step back and think about it, data tells a story, but many of the tools that exist in the market today struggle to capture the deeper insights to enable the “so what” and “now what” factors. The future of our business is to leverage machine learning and artificial intelligence to enable better storytelling experiences from the vast amount of data we collect so our clients can make the best decisions for the consumer. 

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The CEO’s top priorities are to develop products and solutions our clients love while delivering outcomes that help enable growth that can be measured against the insights we bring to the table. We’ll support that vision with the aforementioned initiatives from the prior question.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The CIO role has been evolving for the past three decades and nearly every company defines the role differently. In some cases, CIOs are traditionally more aligned with back-office systems that run the day-to-day business while others focus the CIO on commercial value creation, client engagement and revenue enablement. I think it’s the CIO’s responsibility to help define the role beyond the job description and help articulate where they can add value to the business. Specific to the question at hand, in some companies, areas like facilities management reports into IT; in other companies, it reports to HR. In some companies, security reports to technology leadership while in others it reports to legal counsel. These variances seem to be based on the specific backgrounds of the CIO and/or the CTO. Technology has grown so vast over the past decade and permeated so many functional areas that it can feel like the CIO should be responsible for a number of areas that may not have been in the CIO’s remit in the past. The challenge is that no one person can be an expert in all areas, so CIOs need to make sure they stay focused on the areas where their expertise can be best leveraged and partner with the right colleagues to drive the best outcomes for those other domains. 

I believe that there are three aspects of the CIO role: internal, external, and commercial. The internal role focuses on innovation in areas such as back-office systems and the evolution of systems to enable cost efficiencies; the external role is involved with developing new products for clients using proven UX/CX techniques and new technologies that can bring products to market faster; the commercial role is about participating as a member of the executive leadership team and leveraging their background and experience to help the company and their respective clients drive more innovation, opportunities and deeper partnerships.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? I’m not sure I know a single CIO who would say they aren’t driving some degree of a “digital transformation” given the past few years of technology enablement. In the traditional sense, we do not have a non-digital business that we're transforming to a digital business. However, we are leveraging what I think is the essence of a digital transformation, which is about making our organisation more digitally savvy and using technology to solve real business challenges. 

During the core of the pandemic many of my colleagues went through their own version of a digital transformation to varying degrees. From accelerating their deployment of new tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and cloud capabilities to driving change programs ensuring our staff and teams knew how to be successful with these new capabilities. The transformation wasn’t only about the deployment of the tools, it was about changing the behaviour of people to make them more efficient in the organisation all while working in a new norm. For example, with collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, instead of having shared drives with disconnected comments and shipping Word documents around in email, we can simply send someone or a group of people a link to a Word or Google document and have everyone collaborate in that document, in real-time. When they are done, it's ready to go, rather than each person making edits while everyone waits, and then passing the document to the next person without any form of version control. This is one simple example of an inefficiency that we addressed as part of our digital transformation.

Another aspect of our digital transformation is a big investment in client experience. My favourite  example is the transformation we took for our product BookScan, which provides point-of-sale tracking for the publishing market. We directly engaged with clients from different publishers, worked side-by-side with them, stood up an agile team, iterated on new concepts with the clients, and launched a product that all of them helped us create. We reimagined BookScan as part of a "digital transformation." Even though the product was already delivered digitally, we applied new, modern methodologies in user experience in partnership with our clients, leveraged new technologies and dramatically increased our Net Promoter Score and overall client satisfaction scores.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? I would say that we are a fairly mature digital business. We have many KPIs in various areas of both the business and in technology that we use to measure and manage our success, and the success of our clients. 

What does a good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? This is a great question and it’s one that everyone should be thinking about when joining a company. At NPD and specifically in global technology, we value honesty, transparency, safety, and innovative thinking. We cultivate this through our interview process, making sure our candidates understand the importance of these values and then follow that up in our everyday working. We encourage people to take ownership, responsibility, and accountability, and to feel safe doing that.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? It’s no secret that the current market conditions have made finding skilled workers a real challenge. It’s hard to pinpoint any specific skill we're finding hard to fill; it’s more about finding people who have hands-on experience working with data and analytics at a size and scale as large as NPD. For example, there are many people who have completed courses on machine learning, but there aren’t as many who have applied those techniques against 5 billion data points of point-of-sale transactions each month. There's a big difference between knowing “how” to do something versus having done it at a certain level, a certain pace, and with a certain proficiency. That is more of a unique challenge since there are only a handful of companies in the world that do what we do at our volume and scale.

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