+1.855.360.3282 Contact Us

#ModernDataMasters: Theresa Kushner, Partner, Business Data Leadership

Kate Tickner, Reltio

Theresa Kushner is an accomplished Senior Executive with more than 30 years of success across the high tech, software, hardware, and technology services industries. Leveraging extensive experience in digital transformations and process development, she is a valuable advisor for an organization implementing AI or seeking guidance in improving internal processes through technology. Theresa has held leadership positions with Latin Business Today, Business Data Leadership, Dell, and VMware.

What was your route into technology and Information Management?

A very circuitous route. I was in high school and my Dad had his own software company. I promised myself I would never go into the computer business so I went to college and got a Master’s degree in journalism. Then I got a job and I discovered that as a reporter they really don’t pay very well so I went back to my college head of department and asked his advice. He put me in touch with Texas Instruments who happened to have been in his office the day before. I ended up going to work there in the educational merchandising division as a product manager for their consumer line and I’ve been in high tech ever since! 

“Journalism is a discipline that teaches you how to ask questions and then to listen to the answers. That’s not a skill that everybody has. I just apply that skill to IT and ask a lot of questions.”

It was later on, when I was in Marketing, that I fell in love with data because you cannot do anything in Marketing unless you understand who you are marketing to. For example, when I was in Europe, working for IBM, I could never find the names of the people I wanted to market to. It was very frustrating, so I joined forces with IT and Marketing Intelligence to try and find out where all the people data was. 

Once I got back to the US in 2003 I began setting up another marketing database and that’s when the IT team found me and said they needed to be part of it. The woman who was on the IT side ended up being the person I wrote my first book with because she knew the technology but I knew what we were doing with it. Her name is Maria Villar and our book was about “Managing Your Business Data” and how to get from chaos to confidence. 

How would you define “modern” data management and what does it /should it mean for organisations that adopt it?

This is the one thing I see in a lot of organisations. Unless you have already decided your data is an asset and you are going to treat it as an asset then doing modern data management is out of the question. Nobody is going to spend the time or resources to do things in a better way if they haven’t done it at all to begin with. I used to describe what I do to people as the “Marie Kondo” of Information Management – I am trying to tidy things up. 

“Most companies are like teenagers – “I made my bed yesterday so why do I have to make it again today?”….It’s the same kind of logic that keeps us from doing what we need to do inside corporations to fix our data.”

It’s getting worse because it used to be all static ordinary transactional data but now it’s IOT and real-time and coming at us with a velocity and variety we have never seen before. So modern data management is absolutely necessary; it’s very transitional and it is at a point of chaos for most companies.

 “AI will help people to manage their data and democratisation will help by giving more people access to data but it’s like giving a highly advanced TESLA to a newly qualified driver – if you don’t prepare them properly then they’ll get into trouble very quickly.”

There are a lot of things to do to get people ready to use information because not everybody is used to that.

A group of global data leaders to which I belong has worked to create an Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Assessment framework. If you go out and apply AI and ML to a dataset that has not been curated or managed in any way then what you get is Artificial Stupidity! 

“It has never been more important than now to manage data – with AI you are not just managing for the quality and correctness of the data but now also for the bias in the way the data was collected. That is an even more subtle difference that most people are not even considering”.

What are your top 3 tips or resources to share for someone trying to build a business case for modern master data management in their organisation? 

  1. Don’t ever take on a project where someone says they are looking for Master Data. You have to find a business problem that really needs to be fixed first and then apply the concepts associated with Master Data. 
  2. Make sure it is a problem that is either hurting revenue, hurting expense or is making for poor customer satisfaction. If it doesn’t address one of those three areas, don’t do it. 
  3. Measure everything so you can tell if what you are doing is really making a difference or not.

You have extensive experience in Marketing – how important is it that Marketers balance knowledge of data and analytics with an understanding of how their business works?

In Marketing, you have to get as close to the customer as possible, understand them and make it easy to get your product or services to that customer. The problem is that data is often one-step removed from the marketing and sales teams that are trying to do that. So you’ve constantly got to make sure that the people who are managing the data understand what is happening with the customer and what’s happening with marketing. 

We are really enamoured these days with how we measure digital marketing – number of clicks, inference engines and things like that. Those are great but you can really spend a lot of time doing what I call “majoring on the minors”: 

“You can spend a lot of time managing all the minutiae and miss the big thing which is making sure that your customer is getting what they want, in a timely fashion and that they are satisfied with the product. In marketing you have got to constantly watch that.”

When I started in marketing it was all about branding and cute messages but the question that always bothered me was the Wanamaker question “I know 50% of my advertising is working, I just don’t know which 50%.” Then we got the ability to start to measure what marketing was doing – direct marketing – and you could start to look at cause and effect. 

“However, with the rise of being able to measure marketing in countless ways, marketing operations started to become more important than marketing and understanding the customer. For the first time, executives had numbers for marketing.”

How you got the message out there took on a much bigger role and we now see CMOs becoming CIOs because there is such a big operational aspect to marketing. 

I have seen some really incredible ways that things don’t work. Very often the problem is that there has not been a good walk through of the entire process to help people understand what to do with the information they have been given. I think that is one of the things that Marketing has got to do a lot more of – figure out how you use the information for the customers’ benefit before launching analytics projects. 

What trends or changes do you predict to the data management arena in the next few years?

  • I think you are going to see the rise of people called Citizen Data Analysts. They are citizen data scientists, sitting out in the business using data from a central source or from anywhere they can find it. They are different from the types of data scientists you see now. As the tools get better you will have people with the mentality of a scientific approach existing in the business – they will be out there generating information at the edges of organisations.


  • In the data world the people who are selling data records are going to go away. It has already started:  

Some of these large data companies are going to go by the wayside and the ones that survive will sell services and inference engines – they will use their data to provide value – they won’t sell data records anymore.”


  • There will be a rise in data catalogues as people try desperately to find the information that already exists in their organisations. There is going to be good and bad in that:  A catalogue will allow you to see what is out there and what you have but people need to be trained to use what you have and to use the catalogs. I don’t know what will happen first – whether people will try and start using the data without the catalogue or if the catalogue will drive the use of the data. 


  • The other thing is privacy. I recommended a panel discussion topic recently on data self-sufficiency. As an example, I recently engaged with a company called Anagog which helps its clients create applications that keep all the users’ PII data on their smart phone while enabling hyper-personalisation.  


“We will see more and more of these types of things as people take control of their own data.  Especially in an age where we think companies like Google are already listening to what we say and analysing what we do.”

Is there a question that I should have asked you that would be of interest to data professionals and what is it?

What I was going to say is that management of data, acquisition of it, how you move it around and deal with it in a company is as much a cultural issue as anything else. I think that the hierarchical structures that exist in companies today will be challenged in the next couple of decades. 

“The next generation does not believe in hierarchies – the millennials get things done in a very flat way, interacting across all kinds of networks in all kinds of ways. I am not sure information management is ready for that.”

The power structure is not spread out today and as things flatten out it will be very tough for some people to understand – especially those at the top. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

I work for myself so I work all the time! I like to write – I am working on my next book right now and I go to a writers’ group to help me with my fiction writing. I am going back to my journalistic roots I guess. By the way, did you know that about 30% of the news feeds you get these days are generated by a machine through artificial intelligence?

Which 3 people – living or dead, real or fictional – would you invite to a dinner party and what are you cooking? 

I went to a dinner party in March at the SxSW event which was hosted by Nancy Giordano and it was the best dinner party I’ve ever been to in my life. I would like to invite Nancy because she is a futurist and a fascinating person. I met a man called Byron Reese who just wrote a book called The Fourth Age on AI and all about what will happen when robots rule the world. I also would include in my dinner party Yuval Noah Harara who wrote the most interesting book I have ever read – Sapiens

“Those three people would keep me entertained for a life-time. I’m not sure what I’d cook because they are all vegetarian and I’m not, but I would go to my Ina Garten book and figure it out!”