Part 1 of 2
Gary: Bill – tell us a bit about your career so far.
Bill: Well, by background I’m an electronics engineer. I did my degree at Queens and spent 3 years of my life in the Ashby Institute there. And then I went into the Air Force, so I was an Air Force engineering officer for quite a long time and ended up being Technical Director at one of the agencies. This was in a production plant, where I had about 250 people working for me. I brought in a big IT project to modernize the whole production process and that’s what introduced me to the IT world.
I then applied for the role of IT Director at Harland and Wolff. They’d decided they wanted a board member to help modernize the shipyard and consolidate their IT systems. That was around 1999. My wife is from Limavady and we decided we’d move back to Northern Ireland. After a few months at H&W, I soon got to grips with the fact that there was a big opportunity to turn the IT department from a cost centre into a profit centre, supplying managed services to the whole Fred Olsen Energy (FOE) Group. So we agreed with our FOE masters to spin out the IT department as a small IT company and started to grow that. One of our first external customers was W5 in the Odyssey complex, just on our doorstep at the top of Queens Road.
Unfortunately, Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries, still our main customer, self-imploded before we managed to grow sufficient external sales. Although we’d got to positive EBITD [Earnings Before Interest, Tax & Depreciation] and a positive P&L, some 3 months ahead of our business plan, we suddenly hit a cliff wall. It was at that stage that I sought pastures new and left to take on some personal consultancy work.
Gary: Well let me ask you, Bill – you’d actually spent a long time in the services, hadn’t you? So what did it feel like moving out into a private sector organization? Was the culture very different?
Bill: Yes, that was one of the reasons why I did it. I wanted to hone my commercial skills. I had a lot of management, business, technical skills, but I didn’t have the commercial skills to go along with them. When you’re in a cost centre within the business, as I was in Harland and Wolff, you’ve got to focus on operational capability and the availability of systems and so on, and I learned at that stage what I call the “thirds” rule – a third of IT is about hardware, a third is about software and a third is about people. So with all these factors – how do you manage costs, how do you manage delivery of services and the complexity of what was a big manufacturing operation?
The shipyard fixated a lot on manpower costs. But if you looked at the cost of building a ship – 60% was in materials, so material handling and supply chain management was critical. I remember working with business analysts, looking at the cost of the new drill ships, and the sheer complexity of that sort of ship. A ship has just as many parts as a 747 and yet it’s designed and built in 20% of the time it takes to design and build a new aircraft. So although the time-scale is collapsed, the complexity is all there. And managing the cost implications is a big job. To do that effectively we needed to consolidate our systems, bringing something like 200 systems down to around 30 or 40. That was a really exciting time in my career.
Following my role as MD of the IT spin out from H&W, I left that to become a private consultant. Because I knew the Queens Island site and what is now the Titanic Quarter quite well, I got involved in helping Professor Norman Apsely and Michael Graham with the Northern Ireland Science Park. So I was one of the technical design guys who helped at the early stage of the Science Park. Norman told me that they’d got this modern shell building going up, the Innovation Centre, but that they wanted to make it the most modern centre for innovation in Europe – can you help us, he said? So that was quite an interesting challenge – we wanted it to be open, in terms of wireless, so you could move from one unit to another. It was probably one of the first centres in Europe at that stage to have seamless, transit wireless – that was in the early days 802.11 A and B [a set of standards for implementing wireless local area network (WLAN)]. We had to think about how you avoid interference, separate accounts and so on. So a lot of the design went into some quite novel logon procedures that the end user doesn’t really notice but are in the background. So 2003 was quite a stunning year for me.
And then, with a colleague, I set up a business based in Lisburn. One Sunday afternoon we were sitting eating pizza and we both had the same idea, so we said, why don’t we work together and set up this heating engineering company. So that’s what we did! We took on a few members of staff & set up a small unit in the Lisburn Business Park and I did a year of that as well. I recall that during the year following my departure from H&W, I took one day off on holiday – not to be recommended to anyone!
Gary: So how does someone who has worked quite a few years in the context of rigid structures in the services and then in what is, in Northern Ireland terms, a reasonably large entity – how do you get to the point where you are being very entrepreneurial, you’ve just done a year as a self-employed consultant and now you’re starting a new business, – how does that happen?
Bill: It’s almost like being unshackled. If you’re in a military or service environment for the length of time I was, where there’s a lot of bureaucracy and process, and then you get this freedom – you go out and experiment! And I’ve never been one not to face a challenge! I do, however, look at my life in the military as being entrepreneurial in a management sense. I then was a consultant and ran this small business, both entrepreneurial in their own right – and after that I joined the civil service, and brought what I considered to be a public sector entrepreneurial spirit to the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Now there are not very many of those around in the civil service! But I believe I brought that to the Director of E-Government role in Northern Ireland and then the CIO role, when I moved across into the Department of Finance and Personnel.
Gary: You’d think that a lot of the things you’ve just mentioned there about process and bureaucracy and so on – for some people it would just stifle any entrepreneurial spirit they ever had.
Bill: Exactly. It can weigh down on you. And some people are content and comfortable with a structured environment – nothing wrong with that – but I’ve always worked on the basis that life is an adventure and I’ve been lucky enough to have career opportunities that have taken me from a degree in engineering now to being a chief technologist with a large American corporate.
Gary: When you were with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, the impression that one had from the outside was that you were always doing things a little bit differently, trying to move things along, trying to bring some change. That was the impression people had – how did that go down within the bureaucracy of the civil service?
Bill: There are certainly many tradionally risk averse people in a civil service environment. But many of the people I worked with were the type of person who joins the civil service with a public service ethos, who wanted to deliver very good services, the best they can deliver because they’ve got a social conscience. The teams that I worked with were superb. I worked in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister with a small team and then moved out into DFP where we set up the Delivery and Innovation Division and that grew with the shared services agenda to just over 250. The key element I found was that the great bunch of people who worked with me in a team environment, pretty much all wanted their spirits to be opened, to have the opportunity to be able to flourish in their work environment. I call it sprinkling fairy dust! You sprinkle some fairy dust and give people the authority to go out and accomplish things.
The problem is, the thing you can’t do in the public sector is fail. So how do you manage when things don’t go right? Because if you’re taking some risks, then there will be times when things don’t work out. I used to call it skating along the edge of the precipice. When you’re introducing innovation in the public sector, you’ve got to be aware that the system is out to get you. It will try and reign you in – and quite rightly, in many ways, because we’re talking about spending public money.
But there is always a need to try and modernize, to try and challenge the status quo. When you do that, you’re skating along the edge of the precipice. But I always had good staff around me. Whenever I went out into thin air – they were able to pull me back! So sometimes the people that you knew and trusted would send you signals and say, oh maybe that’s going a bit too far, Bill. Come back to safer ground!
So you’re constantly striving to challenge, to maybe come up with some novel idea that really makes a difference. I remember doing one project when I was the Director for eGovernment and we were looking at whether we could help people more readily get online terms of digital inclusion – as I recall, this was in the Carrickfergus area – by giving them laptops with WI-FI (this was before widespread broadband). We wanted to help people start to experiment with this new online environment. So we put a small pilot project together, but the group we were dealing with were scared that the laptops would end up at Nutts Corner market or something! The alternative suggestion was a community garden and my response was ‘you’ve lost the plot here’ – no pun intended!
Sadly that digital inclusion project never went ahead. That was one example where I believe we failed, not only from a project perspective but also delivery of an improved citizen outcome. Your failures are probably the harshest points in your life, but you can learn from those. Your successes are great, but you learn more from your failures.
Gary: So that was an occasion when the risk averse element won the day?
Bill: Yes, and there’s another one to mention. We put in a kiosk project across Northern Ireland as a pilot. A lot of people were saying at the time that kiosks had had their day, but actually inside the kiosk was a PC and WiFi and we knew that people could use the platform to realize benefit across the whole of Northern Ireland. And it was working exceptionally well, but the failure occurred because we ran into a financial wall because there was no money to carry the thing from pilot into full implementation.
Gary: So when you moved to the Cabinet Office, how did that public sector environment compare to that in Northern Ireland?
Bill: Let me give you the rationale for why I left Northern Ireland. I worked in the Northern Ireland Civil Service from 2003 until 2009 when the whole of the dark side of the Civil Service began to close in on me. The risk aversion was growing, there was no money, some of the other innovators I worked with were moving on to other roles and the system was very risk averse. And that stifled my spirit. As it happened, I then saw the job come up in the Cabinet Office, the Director of IT Strategy & Policy and Deputy Government CIO, which is all around new strategies, development, looking after UK government IT strategies. So I put my hat in the ring and eventually was successful, and started the job in September 2009. So it was quite a jolt to go into a national level job, interacting with ministers at a very senior level. We got the new strategy published by January and once again, it was the calibre of the team that worked with me that I would always applaud. They were fantastic. The key to working in Whitehall is to make sure that nobody says no, because you can’t get everybody to say yes!
So whenever you want to make progress, you plan out where you want to go, you get some supporters, you convince a few people to champion it and then you make sure the people who might say no, don’t!
Gary: It sounds like that people element of the “thirds” is becoming more like 70%!
Bill: Yes. Central government is not homogeneous and all the departments are different, have different drivers – and you have to work with people to understand what will be beneficial for them individually and departmentally.
There are a lot of constraints that you work with. We were at the cusp of the new iteration of services in government, so Cloud was on the horizon. This was 2009 – but it’s taken 3, 4 years for the idea of Cloud to be consumed by the public sector, mainly because, with long contracts, there is no commercial incentive for the incumbent supplier to change anything post the half way mark in a programme or contract. After that the suppliers are thinking about re-engineering and re-competing, so why would you plan for an in-contract design change that drastically reduces revenue flow and suddenly cut your throat so to speak, and go into a Cloud environment? These are some of the things you have to contend with.
Gary: You were involved in developing two strategies, one for the final stages of the Labour government and then one for the new Coalition government. What did the change feel like? Was there a different attitude?
Bill: It felt like a liberating experience. The end of the Labour administration was largely a “more of the same” feeling. The earlier previous strategy, launched in the 2005 timeframe, had three strands – citizen centricity, shared services and professionalization of IT – and the new strategy became much more of a technology-led approach. It was all about Cloud, where we were going with end-user devices, how we would do public network services and so on. And the strategy that came out of the coalition was an evolution of that – if you know where technology is going, then how can you ensure that what you do helps tackle the deficit? So that all comes down to re-use, to the fact that you have millions of pieces of technology sitting around central and local government – how do you make sure you re-use them, how do you make sure you have a common infrastructure in place, how do you exploit Cloud and provide a platform that underpins the delivery of new, more modern digital services?
Now my Northern Ireland experience was pivotal in all this – because when you look at what we did in the mid-2000s – Network NI, HR Connect, Account NI, Records NI – those were all common infrastructure services that do back-office support services and now are being consolidated under the Enterprise Shared Services Environment. I can trace a lot of the thought processes I went through in Northern Ireland in the 2000s to the current IT strategy for the UK government because a central part of that is about common infrastructure, it’s a public services network. It’s just Network NI/RecordsNI/IT Assist on a far bigger scale!