Gary: So a huge skill that you’ve developed over the years is this ability to work with a range of people with a range of views, some who are more risk-averse than others and so on, and manoeuvering your ideas, strategy, whatever, through that whole morass of different approaches, getting people on board or successfully moving around them – what’s the secret to be able to do that successfully?
Bill: The secret is to understand clearly what you want to achieve, know what your strategy is – what is the vision, the objectives and actions required, and from that, what teams, what resources, what barriers are you going to face. Of course it’s important not just to doggedly stick to it at all costs, because life is full of compromises (I’m not particularly good at compromises, by the way! A sentence that has often come up in my annual appraisals is “does not suffer fools gladly!”)
Gary: But you must have had some “fools” along the way who were in positions where you couldn’t just “not suffer them gladly”, where you had to deal with them in some way?
Bill: You sort of identify that as a barrier – everybody’s got their own skills, they’re in a position because of their strengths – so they’re certainly not fools! But most of the time they’re people you need to bring with you. So to influence them, you can try to convince their team , or superiors, but the thing that works best is to identify what their issues are and work with them to build some resolution points into the solution.
It’s very difficult to get a disparate group of stakeholders together who all agree the actions and “own” the outcomes. In terms of implementing the Government’s ICT strategy, we were able to build a really strong base – my Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office, my previous boss, myself and my team along with the CIO Delivery Board consisting of the six major departmental CIOs all worked together. Now I have to admit, the approach did manage to alienate a number of CIOs of smaller government organizations, because they felt they hadn’t been brought into the overall decision making – but I believe using this sort of 80/20 rule was needed in order to get immediate traction and progress..
Now that I am working for EMC my role has changed. As Chief Technologist, Public Sector, a key function of my role is to demonstrate why EMC, as a hugely successful global technology company, should be recognised as highly relevant to C [Chief] level executives during a period of radical change across the public sector. The three key themes of my role are IT Transformation through the introduction of Cloud computing, the new opportunities to exploit Big Data, and the requirement to underpin new online services within a Trust environment.
In terms of IT Transformation and cloud computing, a good example would be Vivek Kundra when he became Federal Government CIO under Obama’s first administration. He introduced the concept of “Cloud first” which meant you had to consider the use of public Cloud as your first option in any new IT project. And so in the US Federal Government if you wanted funding approval, the business case needed to demonstrate that it had considered Cloud as an option.
The UK is another excellent example and is probably leading Europe in terms of its Government Cloud program. Unfortunately I don’t see this progress mirrored in Northern Ireland. Many of my previous colleagues in Northern Ireland will remember that I was quite vocal about Northern Ireland’s opportunity with Cloud computing and the need to attract some credible data centre space, in terms of international credibility. Where you have these engines of IT you get a clustering of companies, of professional capability, of new talent and opportunities for new applications.. They are the powerhouses of the modern IT environment. They store and process the new oil of the information age – data! If you just give up on that and let others provide these engines of progress it significantly limits your scope. Cloud was a fundamental part of what I talked about very vocally in Northern Ireland, saying, this could be a real opportunity for us.
But, things have moved on very quickly and I believe Northern Ireland is close to losing any real opportunity it could have had from leading in the exploitation of Cloud computing. In terms of public sector services, it’ll now be a follower into Cloud rather than a leader. That’s OK if you are risk averse but it’s not really my style!
So what’s the next opportunity for Northern Ireland – where is the next fertile ground?
There’s a number of new areas. Probably the most talked about is ‘Big Data’ and the whole area of data analytics. I also see opportunity for Northern Ireland in the developing concept of the software defined data centres, software defined networks and software defined storage.
We’re now moving towards a new genre of IT, a new environment of an application-driven world, where platforms and applications are the direction of the future. And you can see it in the consumer market place – growing in the service provision marketplace, with the likes of Amazon, Rackspace, Google, eBay – they have access to performance and capacity that they can turn on and turn off with peaks and troughs in their business and it doesn’t cost them a fortune. We’re moving away from defining IT projects in terms of ‘cost to acquire’ into a new model based on ‘cost to consume’. That’s where the new world of IT is going. That’s what excites me!
You see I’ve picked up the whole energy in my voice at this point, when I’m talking about the new developments that are coming!
Gary: Yes, I was going to ask you – you’ve been involved for quite a long time in thinking about what’s coming down the track, where do we need to go to, what’s the new technology vision need to be – so what the secret to being a leader in the technology business and bringing people along with you? And making sure that everybody buys into that vision?
Bill: I think leadership in that environment is about understanding the “why.” Why would you do it? Why should someone bother about, say Big Data? Why is online security important? What does it do for me or my customers or users? Why should I take on the pain of doing something else in an already busy day? As a senior manager am I going to get a significant return from the investment of my time?
Well, this might just wash over you, if you’re not careful. You need to understand it and address it, even if you decide not to accept all of the new developments 100%. You do need to understand the direction of travel and how it might benefit your business.
Would you have believed 5 years ago that we would be in a totally mobile environment? I had a conversation from a car park using 3G with my daughter using Facetime on my mobile telephone to her flat in England. It’s fantastic – and that’s a totally mobile experience. And it was done by me handing my iPhone to my wife so we could both have a conversation with our daughter who showed my wife her newnail polish design she’d done that day. That’s all about experience – could we have done that 3-4 years ago? Of course not, and the pace of technology-enabled change continues to accelerate.
In just over a couple of years we’ve gone through 3 iterations of iPad, iPhone 5 will soon be old hat, we’ve got Android and windows mobile, we’ve highly virtualized data centre environments capable of spinning up virtual machines for application development in minutes not days or even months, we can consume service in a totally and we don’t pay extra for them. In fact we pay a quantum step less. Gone are the days when you have to think about having to engineer any of this – IT is becoming a utility and it’s there at the press of a button almost.
So it’s making that experience relevant to a business, to a customer getting them to buy into that vision and its benefit to them. For instance, do they have a big strategy? Let me give an example. You’re a retailer in the high street in Europe and your customer has signed up with you so you can push out to them vouchers on their mobile phone. So the company is now tracking your mobile phone, it knows where you are, it knows about your personal preferences, in terms of your purchasing habits, and it can link into a number of transport feeds – so it knows if you’re on a bus or a train or walking by and so it can then send you a voucher to go to its store, rather than a competitor down the street, and it says, “we know you’ve had a bad morning, your train has been late or whatever – and here’s a voucher for a coffee or some deal for something in the store to help you feel a bit better, let’s brighten your day.”
And there’s a lot of this beginning to happen, through Big Data analytics. And that’s happening in the private sector. But let’s try and put that in a public sector space. Suppose I’m coming out of work between 5 and 6 o’clock in the evening and it’s Autumn and I’ve just signed up to a public health initiative. So my GP, a local health provider, sends me a message with a voucher or something related to well-being. Let’s say my doctor’s surgery or my pharmacy has got a spare ‘flu jab slot – what stops them sending that as an offer to me coming out of work saying, “on your way home from work, why don’t you pop in and get a flu jab?” We’ve an appointment at 5.45pm and we know you pass this way anyway so why don’t you pop in because you just happen to be in the middle of a risk zone – you’re at age X or this or that factor.
Now that’s not breaching privacy – you’ve signed up to that service – so how do we move public services into a much more modern environment? A new mechanism of delivering these services which is technology empowered and suits the way we now work and live.
Getting that vision into the mind of the policy maker, the deliverer, who begins to think – mmm, we could do that, why don’t we run a pilot? Start small and scale rapidly if it works. Let a few ideas grow. Don’t waste public money. But because it’s Cloud based, you can consume the service at a price point that is radically different than building a vertical silo where you have to have all the technology in place, and spend it with a big company who has the knowledge needed. Now you can go out and get it from a Cloud store, a piece of infrastructure that you can consume for a month, two months, turn it off if it fails, expand it rapidly if it’s a success.
Technology never stops evolving and if you track it and find out what relates to a business challenge and how it can be solved, then you’re onto something real, tangible and an opportunity..
Gary: So you remain, clearly Bill, very intrigued and engaged with the development of technology and the potential ways it can be used. Looking forward and considering all you’ve done and achieved, what are the challenges remaining for you personally?
Bill: Well, at the moment, I spend a couple of days a week working from my home in Northern Ireland and the rest of the time travelling all round the UK. So, actually, at some point I’d like to be able to return to Northern Ireland and find something where I can bring value to various projects back here. I really do believe that we are in danger of squandering an opportunity with our young people to move them into a new set of careers. The skills sets that are needed for a modern, information-age economy need to continue to develop.
One of the growing opportunity areas is data science. I’m talking here about developing skills similar to way that scientists think – in a different way, an exploratory way, hypothesizing and testing those hypotheses. When you’re doing data science and big data analytics, you’re looking at different hypotheses of why these different trends in the data may be occurring. We have the opportunity to make Europe and the UK and Ireland a real powerhouse behind this new move into data analytics, be that business or public sector or advanced cyber analytics. But perhaps if we look ahead, a lot of the data analytics will be automated and done by software programmes and algorithms already built in. So should we be investing in university areas for research and development into how do you do automated big data analytics?
Gary: So you see this as an opportunity for us? What are the major opportunities for Northern Ireland?
Bill: I think the main opportunity is around the size and scale of Northern Ireland. It’s scalable but on the other hand it’s not too big. So when we look at the area of health informatics, NI is a big enough place to test new approaches and make meaningful judgment calls, but small enough to be very proactive and agile and quick. To be able to use it as a foundation to do health analytics would be fantastic. And we’ve got an education system which is one of the best in Europe; and this has got to be able to stimulate and drive future directions of a new workforce of young people equipped for a truly information powered environment.
And then of course online security is very important for us. How do we protect the individual, how do we make Northern Ireland situate itself at the forefront of cyber analytics? Do we produce enough technical brainpower? Can we make people understand that there are some really strong opportunities in mathematics, in software coding, in understanding the power of data analytics, and in the technology layer that underpins applications.. So there are lots of excellent opportunities for us and, in particular, our young people – who, after all, are our future.
The key element for us is to keep the business in Northern Ireland. Yes, we need to grow internationally, but it needs to be headquartered in Northern Ireland so we can retain the wealth and the jobs and the intellectual property.