Guiding data protection at TikTok: ‘It’s a complex, challenging role’


27 Jan 2022

Caroline Goulding. Image: TikTok

TikTok’s Caroline Goulding discusses navigating the evolving privacy landscape, how the tech sector needs to lead on cybersecurity, and the importance of ‘peeling back the layers’ at work.

Caroline Goulding is TikTok’s data protection officer, based at the social media company’s growing hub in Dublin.

She was previously LinkedIn’s first data protection officer and prior to that held a variety of trust and safety roles at LinkedIn and eBay.

‘Privacy and compliance is an ever-evolving challenge’
– CAROLINE GOULDING

What does your role involve?

Future Human

I joined TikTok in early 2020 as the first in-house data protection officer. As well as being a member of the senior leadership team in Ireland, I also worked with colleagues to establish the office of the data protection officer for TikTok.

It is a complex and challenging role, but I am excited to be guiding our efforts in this space. Part of the responsibility of my role is supporting the company to navigate the ever-evolving privacy and compliance landscape.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I apply ruthless prioritisation when it comes to my working life. Ultimately, I am hyper aware that every single day something unpredictable can crop up, so at the start of each day I sit down and outline my top three essential priorities for that day.

Like so many, my schedule can be quite demanding. But every day I make sure that I get away from my desk for a few minutes and I pick one meeting to do over the phone while I am walking. This is typically a one-to-one call, so as well as getting away from the desk and reenergising with some fresh air, it also means the person I am speaking to has my full attention and I am not distracted by any other screens or incoming emails and messages.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

TikTok, like so many others in the tech sector, is always looking to attract the best talent. There is intense competition in the data protection arena as well as in many other areas of our business, such as online safety, which will see a raft of new laws come into effect, including the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

Cybersecurity, of course, remains a challenge for all sectors, evidenced by the ransomware attack on the HSE here in Ireland in the middle of a pandemic. The tech sector has an important role to lead out in this area and TikTok takes that very seriously.

We are mindful that over a billion people come to TikTok every month to express themselves creatively and to be entertained. Keeping our community safe and allowing them to enjoy this in a welcome environment is our overarching priority. In order to ensure we do this to the best possible standard, our dedicated Fusion Centres, located in the US and Ireland, allow us to detect and respond to critical incidents in real time.

Privacy and compliance is an ever-evolving challenge and something which is of the utmost importance to TikTok. To me, education is key to ensure we tackle this issue appropriately.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Our global community continues to grow every day, and we feel privileged to provide such a diverse platform for Irish creators, NGOs and businesses to interact and engage in a meaningful way with new and existing audiences.

Recognising the vital role that community organisations, their workers and volunteers play in Irish creativity, TikTok recently announced details of the St Patrick’s Festival x TikTok Creative Fund, which has seen €100,000 allocated to 10 groups around the country for a creative project.

We also launched a SMB Hub for Irish small businesses, which is something I’m particularly proud of being Irish and given the important role SMBs play at the heart of the Irish economy. It has been specifically designed to enable businesses of all sizes in Ireland to start activating on the platform at scale. Irish SMBs have the opportunity to use TikTok Ads Manager, joining thousands of small businesses in Europe reaching engaged audiences, growing their sales on TikTok and potentially even going viral!

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My journey started in risk and fraud and has evolved towards privacy and compliance, so I’ve worn multiple hats and have been privileged to see it from a variety of angles.

Prior to joining TikTok, I spent nine years at LinkedIn and before that I worked at eBay. I had a variety of roles – from leading global teams handling a wide array of member and customer legal privacy and intellectual property issues, to sitting on the trust and safety leadership team with exposure to a range of security matters including risk, fraud and content issues.

The mix of legal-related knowledge, ability to operationalise at scale and experience in interfacing with both users and regulators has put me in a unique position. Looking back, I’m able to connect the dots, even though the path was much less clear at the time.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Not showing up authentically. In the past I used to think one had to act, speak, dress and ultimately manage things in a certain way. But I learned that this meant connecting with people on a surface level. Through learning to peel back the layers and be more vulnerable on a daily basis, it has led to a much more enriching work life with deep relationships and a much stronger foundation from which to achieve work objectives together.

Working during the global pandemic definitely helped solidify this and was a learning curve for me. Everyone was impacted in some shape or form. I learned that by being honest if I was having a bad day meant it was more likely someone else would open up and tell me when they were too, and work priorities could be shifted around to accommodate and support each other.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I have always admired the astute advice of Simon Sinek and in particular his wisdom on the role of the leader to serve those around them. He said: “The responsibility of a company is to serve the customer. The responsibility of leadership is to serve their people so that their people may better serve the customer.” I take those words to heart in all of my different roles.

Trust and empathy are also vitally important to me. I invest a lot of time in getting to know my team and colleagues on a personal level. To me, empathy can also mean not shying away from uncomfortable or awkward conversations and instead having the courage to engage on the meatier topics, which ultimately benefits the individual and the team as a whole.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

I am passionate about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and continually look for opportunities to progress this important and defining topic whenever I can. I founded the Women at TikTok Europe Committee to work alongside our business’s D&I leadership. As part of this role, I helped drive and promote the company’s International Women’s Day efforts.

However, I am acutely conscious that on International Women’s Day in March each year, a host of stats are released and it can be disheartening to read that it will still take X number of years to achieve equity in the boardroom or at the C-suite level. Even worse is that the 2021 Women in the Workplace report found that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women leaders who took on more mission-critical, though often ‘invisible’, work in addition to their day-to-day roles.

Diversity encompasses a lot of different areas beyond gender, from race to sexuality, age and nationality. When it comes to the latter, this is an area where Ireland’s tech companies are thriving with an incredible array of international talent.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I consider The Culture Map by Erin Meyer essential reading for everyone working in a multinational environment where progress and success is highly dependent on the skills to navigate through cultural differences.

How to Own the Room by Viv Groskop is my go-to for whenever I need a lift before an important speaking engagement.

Contagious You by Anese Cavanaugh crystallises how a leader’s intentions, energy and presence sets the tone and regardless of where we are in our careers, how we show up matters.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I start every morning listening to the business news on Newstalk. Having recently had the opportunity for business travel after a long pandemic hiatus, it reminded me how indispensable noise-cancelling headphones are.

Now that the days are so much darker and the work-from-home video calls are here for the foreseeable future, I have joined the ring light fan club. And of course, TikTok provides me with some light entertainment as I end the working day.

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