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Suze Howse, Head of Enterprise Data, M&S

What has been your path to power?

I haven’t had a very traditional route into data, starting my career in M&S as a customer assistant in stores while studying for a degree in creative writing and film. But I fell in love with all things data when I moved into the support centre in a foods operations role and realised how critical data was to running the business and making decisions.


I wanted to learn more and progress a career focused on the data space and was fortunate to have an amazing line manager who supported me as we built our analytical and data science capability, which was an incredible journey. During my 10-plus years in foods, I was also very involved in leading the data community across M&S – starting an annual charity datathon, a business-wide 24-hour hackathon, data conferences and learning events, all of which continue today.


Creating the broader data connections outside of food led me to the digital and data team two years ago, a new function lead by our chief digital and data officer, Jeremy Pee, where I now have my dream job of heading up data for the organisation with a phenomenal and super-talented team.

What impact has the pandemic had on the role of data in your company/organisation?

We launched our digital strategy in 2019 which focuses on omni-channel growth, personalisation and driving value and decision-making through data. So as the pandemic hit, we were already on our journey to building a centralised cloud data platform and bringing in capability such as data science and engineering.


But what we have seen is more of a need for our colleagues to be self-sufficient with data so they can access the data they need to do their jobs as we moved to virtual working. As a result, we have seen a massive uptake in tools such as Power BI, and therefore need to up-skill our colleagues to work confidently in a more digital and virtual environment.


To support with this, we launched our first-ever digital and data-focused learning academy which we call BEAM Academy. Through the academy, we ran virtual training sessions on Power BI for our stores and support centre colleagues during the first lockdown. The academy has grown rapidly during the pandemic and we now have three data apprenticeship programmes, quarterly live training sessions, self-guided learning pathways, and Microsoft certifications.

Does data now have a seat at the table during strategic discussions? If not, what will it take to get it there?

It definitely has a seat at the table, with data being one of the four pillars of our corporate digital strategy. We’ve come an incredibly long way since first starting our data journey back in 2018, however we can always do more and I think the key to truly unlocking this is ensuring that everyone else at the table knows why data is sitting there.


We want everyone to evangelise that data is key to decision-making, that data is a core enabler in delivering our business goals, and that analytics and data science can deliver real value. Part of my role is to work with our senior stakeholders to bring the importance of data to life for them and their business area.


What are your key areas of focus for data and analytics in 2022?

We are so excited about what’s coming up in 2022 and to quote our very awesome COO, Katie Bickerstaffe, “it’s time to turbo-charge our operations”. For us in digital and data, we have three key areas of focus this year: firstly, continuing to grow our cloud data platform, BEAM, and having 100% of our data ingested and accessible; secondly, scaling data science to deliver £100 million-plus benefit over the next three years; and thirdly, up-skilling every colleague in the business to use digital and data tools and behaviours to be successful in their role, through our BEAM Academy. It’s going to be a busy, but incredible, 2022.


Tell us what leadership means to you in the context of your role as a senior data leader.


The first thing that immediately comes to mind is my team. I am very privileged to be working with such a talented, experienced and passionate group of people and being a leader, to me, means ensuring they have my support, guidance and time to do their jobs successfully. And even more importantly, ensuring that they are happy and motivated doing their jobs!!


In addition to that, if you are fortunate to be in a leadership position, it is such a huge opportunity to role model the change you have always wanted to see, which for me is driving the inclusion and diversity (I&D) agenda. Within the digital and data space, we support organisations and movements such as Women in Data  and Girls who Code and we now have women making up more than 40% of our data roles. We still have a more work to do in this space, but as a business, I&D is core to our strategy and future success.


What key skills or attributes do you consider have contributed to your success in this role?

Something I have always done, and I encourage everyone to do, is bring your unique, authentic self to work. Stop using your energy trying to fit a certain mould, but spend that energy being the best version of your authentic self instead. It’s pretty remarkable the change you see in people when they start to do that!


On the flip side to that, I like to think that I’m inclusive with other people’s unique selves – I’m mindful of how other people like to work and interact which may be opposite to me, I make space and time for those who think differently and have different approaches and personalities, and ultimately, I care about the people around me. I hope my team would agree! The best advice I can give, is to be kind to yourself and to those around you.


How did you develop – and continue to develop – these skills or attributes?

There have been two awesome managers that stand out in my career (thank you, Syd and Jeremy, if you’re reading this), who supported me and made me feel that I can be Suze and be successful, and that I can start a career in data without a technical degree or experience.


Find your cheerleaders and sponsors as they will help you develop and grow. I also love to learn – I learn from my team, from my peers, from my manager. I read a lot of books and always alternate between fiction and non-fiction, challenging myself to pick books or take recommendations for things maybe outside of my comfort zone. For example, I’m currently reading a book about the immune system. M&S also do amazing external speaker events which are incredibly inspiring.

Is the data tech you have keeping pace with your goals and requirements? Are your providers leading or lagging behind your demands?

We have some pretty amazing strategic partners in the data space, such as Microsoft and DataBricks. We have invested in our Microsoft cloud data platform, BEAM, as well as market-leading tooling, such as a data catalogue and data quality tool. This is a really exciting space to be working in right now, with the tech moving at a faster pace and some really innovative tools coming out.

Suze Howse
has been included in:
  • 100 Brands 2022 (EMEA)