Thomas Squeo thinks a lot about data. In particular, the senior vice president of digital transformation and enterprise architecture at West Corporation thinks about other people’s data and how he can be a good steward of that data.
West Corporation is an enterprise technology company that builds communications systems, and a diverse array of data flows through its systems, including sensitive safety, commercial, education, and healthcare information. Of course, Squeo is constrained by the compliance and regulatory environments that affect each business sector, but his main concern is ethical.
“You have to respect that this is our customers’ data; this is not our data,” he says. “We are not monetizing things that are not ours.” This approach, Squeo argues, is not only moral, but it is also business-savvy. He argues it will lead to better consumer-business relations and greater customer retention.
West focuses mainly on the business of communications, i.e. operations and administration. Opportunities often arise to correlate that information with other data—for example, assessment data for a school district. Although this correlation is possible, Squeo promotes company norms that respect data boundaries. “That’s not the business that we’re in,” he says. “We need to make sure that we don’t get ourselves into a situation where somebody feels, ‘I can, so I’m going to.’”
Although Squeo encourages teams to respect data boundaries, he has seen industry norms shift in the opposite direction in the past decade—toward collecting as much data as possible and finding a use for it later—a precedent that Squeo considers dangerous. “If you don’t have a reason to get the data, what are you going to do with it?” he asks. “If you don’t know what you have, how are you going to secure it?” Organizations that do collect an unnecessary surplus of data, in Squeo’s opinion, will not last long. “They might, in the short run, make some inroads, but as soon as somebody understands that that’s what they’re about, they’re going to abandon that service pretty quickly,” he says.
While West’s clients are businesses and organizations, its customers are people, and it is these customers for which Squeo ultimately builds. He considers not only the client’s administrative operations, but also the customer’s experience. He asks, “What is their preference, what is their comfort, and how do you make sure that when you’re interacting with them it doesn’t become creepy because you have too much information?” This approach is in the customer’s best interest, but it also serves the clients. “In many cases, the clients have a business or operational need that they’re executing, and they’re buying their services from us to be able to satisfy it,” Squeo says. “If we didn’t respect and care about the end-user experience, I don’t think we would have a lot of retention.”
“All technology is built by and for
people. None of this stuff happens without understanding what motivates people to come to work every day.”
Squeo began his career when he joined the US Navy in 1992, and that experience shaped the way he thinks about systems and business development. He gained technical experience as the systems administrator on a ship stationed in Japan, and later, he had a tech support role for fleet-facing meteorology and oceanography applications at a supercomputer center in Monterey, California. The navy provided Squeo with the opportunity to understand application development, configuration, and change management, but it also taught him strategies to advance technology with few resources. He interacted heavily with the open-source community and developed creative approaches to system development that served him throughout his career. On top of that, he learned all of these skills in mission critical contexts. “It’s pretty much as high stakes as you possibly can get,” Squeo explains.
After leaving the navy, Squeo worked in the assessment division of McGraw Hill, an education publishing company. He continued to work in education technology at a consultancy, an education assessment company, and two startups before West recruited him in April 2015 to be the senior vice president of technology in its education division. In January 2016, he was invited to join the enterprise technology leadership team at the corporate level.
Over the course of his career, Squeo has seen the business landscape change as technology advances to the point where he says that every company is a technology company now. As this change continues, every facet of a company will have to become more technically sophisticated—and not just in terms of individuals learning to code. “I’m not talking about people becoming engineers,” he explains. “I’m talking about people understanding how data flows through their systems and organizations, how it’s governed, and what are good practices from an information security standpoint.”
Data stewardship requires not only understanding how systems work, but it also requires a human understanding of both the buyers and consumers who use those systems. “All technology is built by and for people,” Squeo says. “None of this stuff happens without understanding what motivates people to come to work every day.”