A man from the motor trade

28 Dec 2008

Nissan Ireland CIO Rory Donnelly is tasked with driving his company’s IT strategy. To do this, he has chosen to procure much of the company’s applications from one key supplier and he maintains a policy of no outsourcing.

The IT implications of major office moves are never trivial. Nissan Ireland is in the midst of one as we go to press, and what’s more, the relocation was announced shortly after the company had embarked on a significant technology upgrade project, which is still ongoing. But if CIO Rory Donnelly is feeling the pressure when we speak, he doesn’t show it.

On the contrary, a very relaxed Donnelly says that if anything, the upgrade has actually made the move easier to manage. The company rolled out Windows Server 2008 earlier this year and has profited from many of its features to smooth the logistics of relocation. When Nissan Ireland’s 80 employees take their seats in the new offices, all desktops will have been upgraded to Windows 64-bit Vista and Office 2007. Choosing the 64-bit version of Vista was a deliberate move as it allows Nissan to prolong the lifespan of its physical desktops, and this has been part of the IT strategy for seven years.

At a management level, the Vista desktop deployment programme allows Nissan’s IT team to greatly reduce the time spent troubleshooting problems. “Historically, desktop issues could take hours to find, whether it was due to some registry corruption or software incompatibility,” Donnelly explains. “With Server 2008, Group Policy and Vista Enterprise x64, we can manage that in 30 minutes max. The rule is, ‘If it can’t be fixed in 15 minutes, re-image’. This allows us to better make use of the resources within the department for more business-oriented purposes.”

Nissan Ireland has enthusiastically embraced virtualisation, which has allowed the IT team to test critical upgrades in a virtual environment ahead of the relocation, with no disruption to live machines. A very stable beta version of Hyper-V virtualisation technology in Server 2008 has enabled this to happen. Once the upgrade project is completed, Nissan Ireland will have reduced the number of physical servers it uses from 18 down to eight. Hyper-V will be a core part of Nissan’s toolkit in the future, Donnelly confirms. “To be honest, I can’t see us upgrading any system anywhere in this organisation without first testing it out in a virtual environment. Why would you miss out on that and take the added risk of potentially running into problems on the physical box when you could mitigate all the risks in a virtual environment?”

The road less travelled

Donnelly’s path to the top table at Nissan Ireland was not a straightforward one. “I studied electronics but only 5pc of the course was related to computers. I tended to spend 95pc of my time in the computer room,” he says. His first job was as a customer service representative with Cablelink but he knew his true calling lay closer to computers than customers. “I chatted with the manager in the IT department and asked him: if there was a course out there that would make you give me a job, what is it?” Donnelly was recommended to take the Advanced Computer Programming course in Trinity College Dublin, which he duly did and qualified in 1989.

His spell at Cablelink lasted 12 years in total, and in 1997 he moved to become head of IT with the Irish Stock Exchange (ISE). “It was a very steep learning curve,” he recalls. “I knew about as much of stocks and shares as your average Joe Bloggs. At the time, the ISE had no website, no email – it was about as close to a greenfield site as you could get.” On Donnelly’s watch, the ISE moved from chalk boards to an electronic trading system hosted by the Deutsche Bourse, which went live in early 2000. During this time, Nissan Ireland approached him to take up a similar role, but he didn’t want to leave such a critical project while it was still under way. Nissan was happy to wait, and Donnelly moved once the project was fully completed.

“When I started off in Nissan Ireland, IT was very much a backroom job. Mine was a newly created position as they wanted to raise the level of IT to be at the weekly management meeting. They needed somebody who could speak computers and speak plain English, which was quite unusual at that stage,” he says. Strategically, Donnelly explains that Nissan wanted to use IT to smooth the introduction of new services and to be aware of technology developments that it could harness to improve the business. “Rather than being reactive – ring IT and fix the problem – they wanted to bring it much more to the fore, so IT was making as much of a contribution as any other department,” he says.

“You’re expected as CIO to pretty much stay in a constant state of re-education, for example, to say: ‘Don’t do that project for a few months because there’s a product coming out that will be an awful lot easier to use’,” Donnelly says. For that reason, regular training is part of the job in Nissan’s IT department. “I feel it’s incumbent on us to learn about as many technologies out there as we can. 18 months down the line, a project might come along and I will know there’s something we can use. From that point of view, this constant state of re-education is the difference between a history teacher and a CIO. If you take a one-year break from teaching, what happened in 1014 hasn’t changed when you come back. If I decided to go on a year’s holiday, I would come back to find a 15-year-old doing my job twice as well and I’d never catch up.”

The IT department consists of four people: Donnelly, a network administrator and two application developers for the company’s Unix-based ERP system from ADP (formerly Kerridge). “It’s what you might call a tight ship,” he says wryly. The department is responsible for all systems, and supports not just Nissan Ireland’s 80 employees but also the extended network of 55 dealers and 1,000 staff selling cars from Nissan and its sister company Chevrolet.

Cruise control

Another key component of Nissan’s approach to IT is in-house control. Whereas IT vendors like to push the line that managed services and outsourcing are essential parts of the CIO toolkit, Donnelly takes a very different view. Nissan manages all of its own IT with no third-party involvement and this situation won’t change any time soon, he asserts. “We keep total control over as much as we can – and that’s a lot. We used to have our web server hosted and we took it back in-house. We now have full control over it, so if there is an issue, we’re hands-on,” he says.

As with any business, there are certain times of the year when being offline just isn’t an option. In the motor trade, it’s the first quarter when half of all annual sales are registered. During those three months all application development work is halted and systems availability is paramount. All dealers are connected to Nissan’s ERP system, so what if one wanted to register a big sale but couldn’t do so because the managed service provider has decided some day in early January is an opportune moment for systems downtime and maintenance? “We can’t stop people ordering vehicles [during that time] and those excuses won’t wash,” says Donnelly.

As a regular presence at board meetings, he adds that it doesn’t look good for the CIO to blame outside parties if problems arise. “When you put something critical outside and it goes wrong, it ends in a finger-pointing exercise. If we have a catastrophic failure in the system, it’s my fault, but I can say ‘This is what caused it and it won’t happen again’. We’ve only got one mail system to focus on and it’s our own; these [managed services] companies have thousands. If we have a problem, it is my responsibility, whether or not it has been outsourced.”

The issue isn’t simply one of control but also integration, Donnelly adds. “Take email, for example: it’s a critical utility, certainly as important as water or electricity,” he reasons. With a move to Microsoft Unified Communications slated as part of the relocation, in-house management becomes vital. “Because of the integration we’re trying to get between as many systems as possible, we’re not in a position to say: ‘Our email system is standalone, let’s outsource it’,” he says. One exception to the no outsourcing rule involves Nissan’s ERP system. Although the IT team includes two developers, some application work occasionally goes to outside contractors if a new function is urgently required with a critical short-term deadline. “It’s very much on a project-by-project basis, but the more development we can do internally, the more knowledge we have,” Donnelly points out.

As CIO, his remit involves constantly looking at new systems to check their potential suitability for Nissan’s needs, but this isn’t just a case of techies getting to play with cool toys. A key group of users outside the IT department are regularly called on to take new products for a test drive, giving vital feedback about whether to proceed with a wider rollout within the business. “If you show something to them and they say ‘I don’t think it’s particularly good’, there’s no point in doing it,” Donnelly maintains. “This is a good way of finding out. We think of it as a focus group; we cherry-pick a few individual users who are PC-literate and who are interested in new technology. During the trial period, we see whether there’s value in adding a system. We can’t make a decision about what the company needs without talking to the rest of the company.” It would be hard to find a better definition of where the CIO’s role lies, meeting the needs of the business through IT.

By Gordon Smith

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic