The five-minute CIO: Eileen Burns, Accenture

5 May 2017

Eileen Burns, managing director, CIO Operations, Accenture. Image: Accenture

“Every sense I get is that AI is going to be a big disruptive force and very pervasive,” said Eileen Burns from Accenture.

Burns is managing director, CIO Operations, at Accenture.

She has worked with Accenture for over 17 years in various IT strategy and leadership roles, and has a degree in electronic and computer engineering from the University of Limerick (UL).

Burns is a member of Accenture’s global CIO leadership team.

‘In my work and my job I have always had an attitude that the work I do and the job I do stands for itself and I just get on with it’

In February, it emerged that Accenture is to hire 300 tech and design professionals in Ireland this year, including 100 new roles at The Dock in Dublin.

The 300 new jobs will cover a variety of technology and design roles and will add to Accenture’s workforce of more than 2,200 in Ireland.

What led you to choose a career in technology?

The story is interesting in terms of back in school I had a passion for maths and sciences, but I was equally pretty good at the humanities subjects as well. But I am dyslexic and I suspect that a part of my career decision for going into something that was heavily maths and science based was probably down to the 18-year-old me playing to my strengths.

I did my first year in college nearly becoming a PE and maths teacher and I transferred and did electronic engineering in UL instead.

How did you overcome dyslexia to achieve your goals?

Quite honestly I don’t know. I just did. There is a strong trend in my family for dyslexia and I have a dyslexic son as well and he is flying. Kids who are bright can overcome anything.

I love languages, I love reading but, pre-computers and spellcheckers, things were more challenging.

I decided as a career decision to play to my strengths and I had a reasonable handle on maths and science.

One of the issues of the day is the dearth of women in tech and leadership roles. Did you encounter gender bias in your career journey?

I would probably give it more thought today than way back when I was in college. I just went to college, did my degree and had fun like every student does.

I joined Accenture’s graduate programme and I spent probably 13 years in the management consulting world with a focus on tech. I never felt I was treated differently or met hurdles, to be completely honest with you. I am just very lucky in that, but I came through a period of growth with Accenture and the focus was on retaining strong skills.

In my work and my job I have always had an attitude that the work I do and the job I do stands for itself and I just get on with it. I came up through consulting and spent a lot of time doing large-scale, digital transformation programmes in retail, banking, public services and other industries.

What were the key moments in your career that define you today?

The big opportunity was when we were setting up the shared services function in Ireland as part of the break-up between Arthur Andersen and the management consulting group that became Accenture. We set up a European tech function and I came in to lead that and set up the first tech team for shared services.

It never got boring, I continued to get a lot of strong leadership roles in the CIO function that I am in. My rule: just get on with it.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role?

I am a member of the CIO executive team at Accenture and have been for about 15 years, and in that role I have been either involved with, or leading, or playing roles on all of our significant IT programmes.

Currently, I am our Dublin CIO location lead and focus on growth in a number of areas – in particular, big data and analytics – and I am setting up a new next-generation engineering group.

I am leading a programme at the moment to transform and digitise our global CIO operations and I am also responsible for operations for our client team technology. So, my role is very much global. I lead people and teams in the US, Argentina, India, Manila and Dublin, to name a few.

Do you have a large in-house IT team?

I am responsible for probably around 400 people. We are unusual in that, for our scale.

We run a very centralised CIO function. We don’t have region or country CIOs. All the decisions, direction and strategy are driven out of the central executive team. We run a very consolidated, centrally governed, managed IT function.

I would have very strong leads working for me and with me and it is all very structured. Their areas of responsibility are very structured underneath.

I have been on the phone this morning with India and Manila and I will be talking with Argentina later. I live my life with a headset and a video cam.

How complex is the infrastructure you manage?

Our remit is we run all internal IT for Accenture including the infrastructure, the networks and the business applications and services delivered. That’s core remit.

We have more than 400,000 employees. This involves running more than 420,0000 email accounts in the cloud. We have enabled 430,000 OneDrive for Business users and we have a large mobile workforce.

We are very heavy users of Skype for Business. We have more than 260m Skype business minutes per month with, on average, 40 video minutes per account per month. We have about 100,000 mobile devices including tablets, smartphones enabled in our mobile device programme. We have 300 global apps.

It’s the core central team that, as a cohesive team, manages all of this.

We have about 14,000 servers and 9,000 network devices, so that’s the footprint we manage.

When we show them the context of what we do, how do we run our own IT, our clients’ jaws drop when they see the hyper-scale that we are dealing with.

What is the key to how you manage such scale and how pivotal is cloud?

We would take a very programmatic approach to things. For example, a theme would be cloud and we are in the middle of a three-month journey to transition practically everything into the cloud. We went from zero to 50pc in the cloud in the first year and 90pc of all new environments are created in the cloud quite quickly.

That’s a three-year journey for a company of our scale. And while there are a lot of smart companies born on the cloud, they don’t have the legacy to deal with. Many large corporates are not there yet and are only beginning to do it. I have talked to a lot of CIOs in the last six months on that.

Will technologies like cloud help big companies with legacy to be more agile?

We took the decision to go on a quick journey into the cloud. We could have argued for a slow roll-out, but decided to lift and ship up into the cloud. Everything new would be cloud-built, cloud-first and cloud-only.

We would approach things in a very programmatic, structured way. We mobilise our teams, we measure the hell out of it and we start driving for it and we don’t look back.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

It is in our DNA that we are always asking ourselves: are we a high-performing IT function?

We have a scorecard and look at it from a financial perspective, a customer perception perspective and a quality of service perspective. Those three key dimensions are key. From a financial perspective, the kinds of things we benchmark ourselves annually against are similar companies, and we want to see how we fare against competitors.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve? What are they?

IT spend as a percentage of revenue, cost per employee; we trend all of this for new developments and measure how we operate. We look at what we call our average daily rate (ADR) and we would always be looking at things like why ADR in HR is costing us more than in finance, for example, and we constantly look at what we can do better. We have closed loops with all of our key stakeholders and customer groups.

We do focus reviews in customer perception management and quality of service delivery all of the time, and we track error rates, usage metrics – we track and trend everything.

If we are doing a particular project, we look at how client teams run their business. We are looking at stickiness and usage of the tools. Is growth happening fast enough? What is getting used or not, and why not? We measure and monitor everything.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

From a trends perspective, the pace of change is extraordinary and keeping pace is a challenge. My own take is I think you have got to envisage trends you are en route with now like big data, analytics and cloud and where they will evolve to.

I think artificial intelligence (AI) is at an inflection point in terms of everything I am reading and thinking about. The next three, five or 10 years are going to be extraordinarily interesting. Every sense I get is that AI is going to be a big disruptive force and very pervasive.

If I think about how we are dealing with that, some of the things we are dealing with and preparing for is cloud strategy because all CIOs have a foot in this camp today. And for the next several years, cloud is going to be massive.

Big data and analytics are very important and we are doing a lot of work in this area.

AI is one foot in tomorrow and we are assessing how is it going to impact us – how we can apply AI to run our finance processes better, for example, and customer services. With more than 1m tickets a year, my team is focused on how AI will disrupt what we do for the better.

Our consulting business is constantly thinking about it in terms of its impact on the various industries we support.

I think those are the big trends and you have got to try and be ready.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years