The five minute CIO: Chris Walsh
Chris Walsh, head of IT at eFlow
Welcome to the latest in a series of exclusive interviews on Siliconrepublic.com, where Ireland’s IT leaders share their thoughts on technology trends and strategy. This week, we talk to Chris Walsh, head of IT at eFlow.
eFlow is one of the leading tolling providers in Ireland and its electronic tags work on all toll roads throughout the country. It operates across multiple sites and supports more than 250 desktop users. Its business operations sites are based in Dublin and Cork. The company also has a technology hosting site at the toll point on the M50 ring road.
Can you tell us a little more about the major applications behind eFlow's electronic tolling systems?
The technology is interesting, particularly at the charging point in that we have integrated multiple product sets to create a turnkey solution.
We use laser devices to detect each transaction across the full road surface – that’s 10 lanes. The software logic then combines data from other devices, such as cameras, which take pictures of the licence plate and optical character reading software, which identifies and reads the licence plate numbers. We also have a number of beacons for direct short-range communications with vehicles equipped with a tag.
In the back office, the core application is a complex set of business rules which determines how each transaction is handled. A user interface delivers the tools to the operational personnel to manage customers, transactions and accounts.
Looking outward from our core technology, we have multiple interfaces with other entities, such as payment interfaces with banking institutions and retail outlets and, of course, other toll roads, which allows our users who carry an eFlow tag to pay on account at other toll plazas in the State.
Would you describe your IT infrastructure as complex, simplified, or some point in between?
The system is complex. The logic deployed to handle, synchronise and consolidate data from multiple data sources can lead to its own challenges. The complexity of the business rules relating to customers, multiple account types, payment methods and fare types also drives complexity in the technology.
Layered on top of this compliance requirements, for PCI and data protection, also drives complexity in the technology and infrastructure.
How big is your IT team?
The team is nine strong in total and I have three direct reports in the areas of technical service and maintenance, applications support and business change management.
How much of your IT do you keep in-house and how much is outsourced?
We outsource most of the actual maintenance and software development. We deliver the management, alignment and control in-house.
Would you describe your role primarily as a technical one, or a business one?
In my opinion, the CIO, head of IT and CTO positions within organisations are changing. There is a greater expectation of these roles now more than ever before. Ask any CEO or managing director what his organisational expectations are for the next 12 months – it’s more than likely about customer retention and growth, revenue growth, and ultimately the P&L position.
We need to be asking the question: ‘What’s the value of IT?’ If the CIO/CTO can’t answer this, then the next question will be: ‘What’s the value of the CIO/CTO?’ This is definitively a business role.
Is your 2012 IT budget increased, decreased, or the same as last year, and how will that affect your priorities?
For me, it’s not about the budget number, it’s about the value that the budget number can bring to the organisation: what’s the operational and financial business case for IT spend, can it be measured, tracked and proven?
The challenge is to maintain the overall budget number but drive the mix from non-discretionary spend (and) the daily running costs, to discretionary spend, the capital budget, where you can deliver more business value.
This means that my priority this year is ensuring that, irrespective of the budget number, in Q1 2013 I can look back at 2012 and report the value of IT spend to the stakeholders with confidence.
What IT initiative are you most proud of at the company?
Building my organisation to where it is today. You won’t win a soccer game on your own. Developing organisational direction is one thing but having the appropriate personnel to execute is as important.
eFlow went through some well-documented technical problems in its early days – what role did IT play in addressing them?
IT had a pivotal role in this transformation. The key was changing the engagement with operations and the client. We implemented a number of best-practice processes from ITIL, and PM standards to support the business in engaging with IT effectively. We learned a lot and listened to operations.
These processes allowed us to ensure that we were working on the right things at the right time for the right reason to deliver to operations. Listening is not a quality that is easily obtained but you have to remember that you have two ears and one mouth – use them in that measure.
What's your view of cloud computing: vendor hype or business revolution?
Now there’s a question. I think the move to cloud is most likely inevitable given the investments made by large corporations globally. As a CIO, the concepts of cloud are great. CFOs are going to love the cloud idea, particularly in industries where IT consumption is volatile or seasonal, where IT budgets can be moved from the capex line to the opex line and can be aligned more with real-time business requirements.
However, for enterprise, there are a number of key challenges relating to compliance and data protection which need to be worked through if you're looking at cloud solutions.
Bring Your Own Device to work: a logistical nightmare or a trend to be embraced?
My four-year-old can unlock my iPhone, navigate to select the game he wants and play that game – this is the next generation of IT consumer. As IT consumers move more and more to on-demand access to media, information and communications, I think it is inevitable that these consumers will look for access to enterprise applications through their own devices, similar to accessing social media and e-mail today. If you don’t embrace it, it will become a logistical nightmare.