Parexel/chief digital and data officer, EVP clinical data and digital services
July 2011-July 2021
GSK/multiple roles, including SVP, digital data and analytics and SVP, clinical operations
Jan. 2009-July 2011
Pfizer/VP, research, pharmaTx statistics
Stephen Pyke, whose title at clinical research organization Parexel includes the word “data” in two different places — he serves as chief digital and data officer, EVP clinical data and digital services — is very clear about how he sees his role and himself.
“I am not a data scientist, and I would never claim to be,” he says with a laugh, before adding, “But I’ve always had an interest in computation and the way it helps make sense of information.”
This makes him both an outlier, at least among health-adjacent chief data officers, and a poster child for the industry’s newfound willingness to deploy its best-regarded people in a slightly unconventional manner. For Pyke, who is based in the U.K., that means a role in which he is the steward of terabytes upon terabytes of data — but also one in which he serves as an orchestrator of sorts, serving as the connecting fabric between the company’s wide array of stakeholders.
“I came here for the chance to be on the ground floor and really shape something,” he explains. “I wasn’t necessarily the person brought in to be the expert, but somebody with enough of a grounding in relevant areas to be able to bring some insight and be helpful.”
Viewed in the context of his personal and professional history, Pyke’s role seems like the one he was born to fill. As a child, Pyke attended a whopping 17 schools owing to the frequent moves mandated by his father’s military career. That created redundancies in his education; he remembers learning certain concepts multiple times. But it also revealed to him that he had a talent for math.
“Moving around so much is terribly disruptive, but that was the one consistency: I was good with numbers,” Pyke recalls. “I had no idea what I was going to be when I grew up, even when I was 30 or 31, but I knew it would be mathematical or quantitative in some way.”
It was during Pyke’s first stint at GSK, then still known as Glaxo Wellcome, that the proverbial light bulb illuminated. Working in the world of respiratory statistics, Pyke found his happy place.
“My wife and I had just had our kids and I can remember going home, in the midst of all the nappy changing, and telling her, ‘I can hardly believe they pay me to do this,’” he says. “Working alongside all these smart people from all these different disciplines — you need that to find the magic of discovering medicines.”
However, Pyke says he stumbled briefly when promoted into a position that didn’t have “statistics” in the title.
“If you’re used to being the expert, becoming the person in the room who can only listen and try to make sense of what you’re hearing … that’s humbling,” he explains, noting it took a full year for him to achieve a degree of comfort in the role.
“I started to see how much fun it was to help make connections across those disciplines — genetics, computational biology, so many more — in different ways. I became a force for amplification of those voices.”
This goes against the data scientist/statistician stereotype, which generally (and unfairly) presumes that such individuals are more interested in numbers than in people. Pyke, on the other hand, is known as much for his team-building moxie as his mathematical and technical flair.
“I’m always struck by how much Steve has your back and how he both presses and supports you to do things the right way,” says Lekan Wang, head of machine learning services at Parexel. “He’s highly execution-oriented and encourages his staff to take ownership while proving very strong support. If you talk about a problem, you should be prepared to propose a solution to it.”
VP, process and quality Declan Keogh agrees, adding, “He dives straight in and wants to understand for himself, so throw your PowerPoints out the window.”
Pyke credits his mother for impressing upon him the importance of teamwork at an early age.
“She never believed in the notion of being a self-made man,” he explains. “She always said that the success we claim is in large measure achieved through the efforts of others and in the company of other capable people. So that’s probably the thing I’m proudest of: using the opportunity I have here to promote the capabilities of others.”
A year into his Parexel tenure, Pyke is similarly proud of the gains the organization has made, particularly in regard to the creativity of its thinking around patient and operational data. Given the sheer volume of data it collects and analyzes, however, he’s not about to celebrate any victories just yet.
“Like many organizations, we know what needs to be done,” Pyke says. “What we haven’t necessarily figured out is the scale that’s going to be necessary in the future. The way we’ve been managing until now is going to start looking a little bit hand-made, a little bit quaint. We need to run to stay up.”
At the same time, Pyke preaches patience with the industry’s efforts, especially in the realm of artificial intelligence. He notes that most similar organizations either have an AI department in-house or an active partnership with an AI specialist firm. He loves the transformational nature of the technology but cautions that data technologists need to keep in mind the still-small volume of individuals who possess these coveted skills.
“That’s going to be the real rate-limiter in the future: the number of people who have the knowledge to deliver the solutions everyone wants,” Pyke explains. “To get the talent you need for success, you’re competing with really big players — the Googles, the Amazons, the Apples — that can pay out salaries that most of us can only imagine.”
In order to combat this, companies such as Parexel need to play up the industry in which it operates. “The fact that we are involved in healthcare and life science is the way to attract people,” he states flatly.
Outside the office, Pyke attacks his personal interests with the same vigor and sense of joy he does his professional ones. He’s a longtime “ill-disciplined runner” who loves foreign cinema (“my mom says that if it hasn’t got subtitles, I won’t be interested”) and is pursuing a side gig as a beekeeper (“it’s not about the honey for me; it’s that they are simply fascinating creatures”).
Pyke’s math background and statistician mentality, Wang notes, manifest themselves in every activity he pursues.
“He once mentioned that, when he’s doing home remodeling or improvements, he wants to build not just to code, but far superior to code, so that they can last for 50 or 100 years,” he says.
Pyke envisions his career having a similarly long arc. “I’ve been given an opportunity to lead this organization and a mandate to do something really exciting with data and technology,” he notes. “So long as I’m enjoying getting up in the morning excited about what I have to do that day, and I am, I’m going to keep going. I’m in no hurry to hang up my boots.”