Technology Chiefs Interview with Steve Townsend

Former CIO Transport for London (TFL) and Current Director at Ashton Beeches Consulting

What are the top 3 priorities in your role?

I will answer this question in the context of my role at TFL who were faced with a backdrop of cost cutting, disruptive tech from products like Uber and also the constant threat from Security;

1. People, Leadership and Talent Management – Keeping the 2000+ technology staff interested and focused in an organisation where change was the norm. How therefore to attract and retain talent to work in a public sector organisation.

2. Adding value from a financial perspective – Keeping an eye on the TCO for projects and making sure that we were investing money rather than just spending it. This is crucial because the money IT invests can dramatically change the shape of organisations for better or worse.

3. To focus IT on being “business focused” in all that we did, through making sure that we only talked about technology within the context of a business outcome.  Always avoid the lure of being hooked on shiny things!

Which previous role had the biggest impact on your career?

I have had a few, but probably a couple are worth mentioning; the first was when I was in charge of the roll-out of Digital TV at NTL. This was a £250 million programme with huge implications for the business.  This role gave me tremendous exposure and insight to Board-level decision making.  I knew this role was either going to make me or kill me!

The other was when I was CIO for TFL and the project that particularly stood out was the delivery of Wi-Fi for the London Underground.  This role afforded me the opportunity to help turn a public sector IT organisation, that had traditionally delivered back office IT systems and analog apps on a desktop, into delivering something that changed the perception of the whole organisation.  Ultimately, the implications of this project are still being realized, with customers able to connect to their digital lives and the closure of ticket offices, contributing material savings to the organisation.

How do you see the role of the Technology Leader changing?

To a certain extent, I feel the role of the pure technology leader is dead! Gone are the days when all you needed to be an effective technology leader was the ear of the Board; you now need to be part of that Board. If you’re not, then you’re probably not a modern day CIO/CTO.

What are the 3 most important issues confronting the technology industry?

1. People & Talent – We need to look holistically at today’s digital talent, including the educational process.  Organisations need people with digital skills but also a mindset to disrupt and deliver. What can we do as an industry to create better resources/training programmes to encourage this? Could there be a global talent management body across say, the top 100 CIOs?

2. Cyber threat – Yes, traditional perimeter security for your infrastructure, but what are you doing as a leadership team to consider who you are employing?  Either directly or through 3rd party contracts, this is your greatest security threat, think social engineering attacks or even people stealing information on portable devices.

3. Focus and Pace – The belief that you have to get rid of all legacy applications. I believe you can go too fast if you try and push all legacy out the door. Yes, we all need to progress, but this has to happen on the back of genuine business benefit. Therefore you need to know how to balance the pace of change.

What 3 technology trends are you most excited about and why?

1. Visual Display – There continues to be huge advances in display options; everything from super thin TVs to projected holographic images that you can walk through.  I’m really excited to see how these types of technologies are going to be used to present and display data in a business context.

2. 3D Printing and how that will change supply chains.  The ability to print parts in remote locations if something breaks or can’t be delivered.

3. In-memory data management – The ability for an organisation to have instant answers.

What product or company is having the biggest impact?

We worked with a company called “We Are Experience”, who have created a process and tool to turn workflow into reality in a simple way. At TFL they were able to work with a section of our workforce to create a simple application that digitised elements of their day-to-day processes, making it simpler but keeping the existing process the same.

What mobile app do you use every day?

I tend to be quite task orientated and use Outlook on my mobile to drive what I am supposed to be doing next.

What 3 skills should an aspiring Technology Leader look to develop?

1. Communication – Having the ability to interface well with other human beings.  Develop the ability to become a technology Babelfish to your business.  For example, how do you take in-memory data management and turn that into conversation with the CFO about BPO’ing his organisation to save money!

2. You need to develop multiple business skills; marketing, commercial, financial skills etc.

3. Don’t build an ego, if you have one, get rid of it!

Where do you look for trusted technology information & inspiration?

For me there is no single source. I try to be active across a number of communities. I go to trade shows, I talk at events, I network when I can. I basically try and ensure I have a blend of sources. I have certainly found the Gartner CIO Symposium event in Barcelona to be a great way to meet both other CIO’s and also get briefed on a lot of what the vendors are up to. Never be afraid to ask other CTO/CIOs for advice or their thinking.

What books should someone looking to get on in their technology career read?

I am fortunate enough to do some coaching and mentoring and I tend to recommend:

Jim Collins – Good to Great – how they are going to turn themselves into leaders

Salesforce – Behind the Cloud – Mark Benioff provides an easy to follow format with his 111 step plan.

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