Dr. Ade Awonaike, Director of Data, Analytics & Science, Turner & Townsend

Dr. Ade Awonaike is a seasoned data professional with over two decades of experience in leading data transformation initiatives across various sectors, including financial services, PropTech, utilities, and government. Currently serving as the Director of Data, Analytics, and Data Science at Turner and Townsend, he is renowned for his expertise in data strategy, machine learning, and digital transformation. Dr. Awonaike holds a Doctor of Data Science from the University of East London and has been recognised as one of DataIQ’s top 100 most influential data practitioners. He is passionate about fostering innovation, mentoring future leaders, and driving value through data-driven solutions.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with Digital First Magazine, Dr. Awonaike shared his professional trajectory, the biggest gamechangers to keep an eye on in the data and analytics industry in the coming years, significant career milestones, future plans, words of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

Hi Dr. Awonaike. Please tell us about your background and areas of expertise.

Hello, and thank you for having me. My background is rooted in the intersection of data science, analytics, and digital transformation. I hold a Doctor of Data Science from the University of East London, a Master of Science in GIS with Remote Sensing from the University of Greenwich, and a Bachelor of Science in Geology from Olabisi Onabanjo University in Nigeria.

Over the past two decades, I have amassed extensive experience across various sectors, including financial services, PropTech, utilities, transportation, renewable energy, and government. My professional journey has taken me through roles that involve leading data transformation initiatives, managing large-scale digital projects, and spearheading the adoption of innovative technologies.

My areas of expertise include data strategy, machine learning, data engineering, and digital transformation. I am skilled in a range of technologies and platforms such as Microsoft Azure, Python, R, Tableau, and various GIS tools. Moreover, I have a proven track record in team building, stakeholder engagement, and fostering a data-driven culture within organisations. My focus is always on delivering value and driving operational efficiency through data and analytics.

What do you love the most about your current role?

What I love most about my current role as Director of Data, Analytics, and Data Science at Turner and Townsend is the opportunity to lead comprehensive digital and data transformation initiatives. It is incredibly rewarding to see how our innovative digital products and strategic frameworks positively impact our clients and advance our company’s goals.

One of the aspects I enjoy the most is fostering a digital culture change within the organisation. Being able to inspire and guide a diverse team of talented professionals, promoting a culture of empowerment, collaboration, and continuous learning is deeply fulfilling. It’s exciting to see how these efforts translate into tangible improvements in our services and the overall digital capability of the organisation.

Moreover, I take great pride in our focus on leveraging AI and advanced analytics to drive operational efficiency. The ability to innovate and implement cutting-edge technologies that deliver real value to our clients and enhance our strategic offerings is what makes this role truly exhilarating.

Where do you see the industry headed within the next one to five years and what do you feel will be the biggest game changers?

In the next one to five years, I see the data and analytics industry continuing to evolve at a rapid pace, driven by advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning. These technologies will become even more integrated into business processes, enabling organisations to make more informed decisions and uncover insights that were previously inaccessible.

One of the biggest game changers will be the further development and adoption of AI-driven automation. This will not only streamline operations but also significantly reduce costs and increase efficiency. Additionally, the rise of low-code and no-code platforms will democratise data science, allowing non-technical users to create and deploy data-driven solutions without needing deep technical expertise.

Another critical area of growth will be the emphasis on data ethics and governance. As data privacy concerns become more prominent, organisations will need to adopt robust frameworks to ensure ethical data usage and compliance with regulations. This will be essential in building trust with consumers and stakeholders.

The increased focus on real-time analytics and edge computing will also revolutionise how data is processed and utilised. By bringing computation closer to the data source, organisations can achieve faster decision-making and more agile responses to changing conditions.

Lastly, the integration of advanced analytics in sectors like healthcare, finance, and renewable energy will drive significant innovations. For instance, predictive analytics in healthcare can lead to better patient outcomes, while in finance, it can enhance risk management and fraud detection.

Overall, the industry is poised for exciting developments, and those who can adapt and harness these advancements will be well-positioned to lead in this dynamic landscape.

As a leader, what approaches do you use to create a culture of experimentation and innovation within your team?

As a leader, fostering a culture of experimentation and innovation within my team is paramount. I promote a learning environment where team members are encouraged to stay curious and continuously seek out new knowledge and skills. This involves providing access to training, workshops, and conferences, as well as encouraging the exploration of new technologies and methodologies. I believe in giving my team the autonomy to experiment and make decisions, empowering them with a safety net that allows them to learn from failures without fear of repercussions. By trusting them to take ownership of their projects, they feel more motivated to innovate.

Innovation thrives in a collaborative setting, so I ensure regular opportunities for cross-functional collaboration and knowledge sharing. This includes team brainstorming sessions, hackathons, and innovation challenges where diverse perspectives come together to solve problems creatively. Setting clear, challenging yet achievable goals is also crucial, and I ensure that the team has the necessary resources—whether technology, time, or budget—to experiment and develop new ideas.

Recognising and celebrating the successes of the team, no matter how small, is essential for maintaining morale and encouraging continued innovation. Equally important is fostering an environment where failures are viewed as learning opportunities, which helps the team to iterate and improve continually. I instill a value-first approach, ensuring that all experimental efforts are aligned with broader organisational goals and deliver tangible value. This focus on value helps in prioritising projects and driving meaningful innovation.

As a mentor, I provide guidance and support to help team members navigate challenges and refine their ideas. By being accessible and approachable, I nurture their growth and development, which in turn fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. These approaches have helped create a dynamic and forward-thinking environment where experimentation and innovation are not just encouraged but are integral to our way of working.

What has been the most fulfilling part of your career?

The most fulfilling part of my career has been witnessing the growth and development of the people I’ve had the privilege to work with and mentor. There is an immense satisfaction in seeing how my guidance and leadership can inspire individuals to reach their full potential and achieve their career goals.

One of the most rewarding experiences has been mentoring young data professionals and seeing them evolve into leaders in their own right. For instance, I have had team members who started with limited experience but, through tailored coaching and development plans, have grown into skilled data scientists, engineers, and analysts. Watching them tackle complex projects, contribute innovative solutions, and eventually lead their own teams has been incredibly gratifying.

Moreover, fostering a collaborative and empowering work environment has allowed me to see the impact of a positive workplace culture on individual performance and team success. Creating a safe space where team members feel valued and encouraged to experiment and innovate has led to numerous breakthroughs and professional advancements. It’s fulfilling to know that I have played a part in creating an environment where people can thrive and do their best work.

Recognising and celebrating the achievements of my team members, whether through formal awards or simple acknowledgements, has also been a highlight. Seeing the pride and motivation that these recognitions bring reinforces the importance of appreciating and supporting one another in the workplace.

Overall, the most fulfilling aspect of my career has been the opportunity to nurture talent, support professional growth, and make a lasting impact on the careers of those I work with. It’s the success and development of people that continue to motivate and inspire me every day.

If you could have a one-hour meeting with someone famous who is alive, who would it be and why?

If I could have a one-hour meeting with someone famous who is alive, it would be with Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet Inc. and Google. Sundar Pichai’s leadership and vision in the tech industry are incredibly inspiring, and there are several reasons why I would choose to meet him.

Firstly, Pichai has been instrumental in driving Google’s transition into a leading AI and machine learning powerhouse. His insights into how to successfully lead a global organisation through significant technological transformations would be invaluable. I am particularly interested in understanding his approach to fostering innovation within such a large and diverse company, and how he balances the need for continuous technological advancement with ethical considerations and societal impact.

Secondly, Pichai’s journey from a humble background in India to becoming the CEO of one of the world’s most influential tech companies is a testament to resilience, determination, and strategic thinking. Discussing his personal and professional experiences would provide valuable lessons on leadership, career development, and overcoming challenges.

Lastly, I would love to hear his thoughts on the future of technology, especially in AI, data privacy, and digital transformation. His perspective on these issues would not only be fascinating but also highly relevant to my work in data and digital transformation.

Overall, a meeting with Sundar Pichai would offer profound insights into effective leadership, innovation, and the future of technology, all of which are areas that deeply resonate with my professional interests and aspirations.

In your words, tell us the leadership skills that everyone should learn?

Leadership skills are essential for anyone looking to make a meaningful impact in their professional and personal life. Effective communication is fundamental, as the ability to clearly convey ideas, expectations, and feedback fosters understanding, collaboration, and trust within a team. Empathy, or understanding and appreciating the perspectives and emotions of others, helps build strong, supportive relationships, enabling leaders to connect with their team members on a personal level and foster a positive and inclusive work environment.

Adaptability is crucial, as leaders must navigate change and remain flexible in the face of challenges. This means being able to pivot strategies, embrace new ideas, and respond effectively to evolving circumstances. Decision-making, which involves making informed and timely decisions, is vital. Leaders need to analyse information, weigh options, and take decisive action while considering the potential impact on all stakeholders.

Having a clear and compelling vision provides direction and motivation. Leaders should articulate a future state that inspires and guides their team towards common goals. Integrity, or leading with honesty and ethical principles, builds trust and credibility. This involves being transparent, accountable, and consistent in actions and decisions.

Resilience, the ability to recover from setbacks and remain steadfast in the face of adversity, is essential for sustained leadership. Resilient leaders maintain a positive outlook and inspire their teams to persevere through challenges. Empowerment is another key skill, as great leaders provide the resources, support, and autonomy their team members need to succeed. This involves trusting others, delegating effectively, and encouraging personal and professional growth.

Collaboration is important, as effective leaders know how to foster teamwork and create an environment where diverse ideas are valued, and everyone works together towards a common goal. Lastly, continuous learning is a crucial aspect of leadership. Embracing a mindset of continuous learning and self-improvement ensures that leaders stay relevant and capable of guiding their teams through an ever-changing landscape.

By developing these skills, individuals can become more effective leaders who inspire, motivate, and drive positive change within their organisations and beyond.

What is that one thing which motivates you to become better and better every day? 

The one thing that motivates me to become better every day is the desire to make a meaningful impact through my work. Knowing that the efforts I put into developing data-driven solutions, leading transformative projects, and mentoring others can significantly improve processes, drive innovation, and contribute to the success of individuals and organisations is incredibly fulfilling.

This motivation is deeply rooted in my passion for continuous learning and growth. The rapidly evolving fields of data science, AI, and digital transformation offer endless opportunities for exploration and advancement. Staying abreast of the latest developments and pushing the boundaries of what is possible keeps me engaged and eager to improve my skills and knowledge.

Moreover, the success and growth of my team members serve as a constant source of inspiration. Seeing them achieve their goals, overcome challenges, and grow into confident, capable professionals reminds me of the importance of leadership and the positive influence I can have on others. Their achievements fuel my commitment to being a better mentor and leader.

Ultimately, it’s the combination of making a tangible difference, the excitement of continual learning, and the inspiration drawn from the success of those around me that drives me to strive for excellence every day.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

In the next five years, I envision myself continuing to drive significant advancements in the field of data and digital transformation. I aim to be at the forefront of leveraging cutting-edge technologies, such as AI and machine learning, to create innovative solutions that address complex business challenges and generate substantial value for organisations.

I see myself taking on a more strategic leadership role, potentially as a Chief Data Officer or an equivalent executive position, where I can influence the broader data strategy and digital initiatives of a forward-thinking company. This role would allow me to shape the future direction of the organisation, ensuring that data-driven decision-making and digital innovation are deeply embedded in its core operations.

Additionally, I aspire to further expand my impact by contributing to industry thought leadership. This could involve speaking at conferences, publishing research and insights, and participating in forums that drive the discourse on data science, AI, and digital transformation. I am passionate about sharing knowledge and experiences to help shape the future of the industry.

Mentoring and developing the next generation of data professionals will remain a key focus. I aim to create and nurture talent pipelines, fostering an environment where emerging leaders can thrive and contribute to the field’s evolution.

Ultimately, in the next five years, I hope to be recognised as a key influencer and thought leader in the data and digital space, driving transformative change and inspiring others to harness the power of data for positive impact.

What is a piece of career advice you have been given that you would pass on to others?

One piece of career advice that has profoundly impacted me and that I would pass on to others is to embrace a mindset of continuous learning and adaptability. In a rapidly evolving field like data science and digital transformation, staying curious and open to new ideas is essential for long-term success.

Early in my career, a mentor advised me to never stop learning and to view every challenge as an opportunity for growth. This perspective has been invaluable, as it encouraged me to pursue further education, seek out new experiences, and continuously expand my skill set. It taught me the importance of resilience and adaptability in the face of change, which are crucial traits in today’s dynamic job market.

By constantly seeking knowledge and being willing to adapt, you not only stay relevant in your field but also position yourself as a valuable asset to any organisation. Embrace new technologies, methodologies, and perspectives. Take the initiative to learn from diverse experiences and be proactive in your professional development. This approach not only enhances your expertise but also opens up new opportunities and pathways in your career.

In essence, the best advice I can pass on is to commit to lifelong learning and remain adaptable. These qualities will empower you to navigate the complexities of your career, drive innovation, and achieve sustained success.

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