The five-minute CIO: Shay Walsh, BT Ireland

11 Dec 2015

Shay Walsh, managing director, BT Ireland

“The role of CIO is changing from keeping the lights on to driving the strategic direction of the organisation from a digital perspective,” says Shay Walsh, managing director of BT in Ireland.

This week BT and Amarach put together a report revealing the strategic and career crossroads that CIOs and IT leaders in mid-to-large organisations in Ireland are grappling with in the face of digital disruption.

The survey of 100 technology leaders of firms employing more than 300 people found that CIOs are steadily having their careers eroded due to the pace of technological change.

If they don’t embrace new technologies like cloud, they risk being sidelined.

It found that while 77pc welcome new technologies such as cloud, 72pc admit they are struggling to keep up with change.

Nearly half (48pc) of IT professionals said that the changes to their career is being driven by taking on activities like digital marketing.

Nearly half reported that the change to their role is being driven by board-level decisions.

Only 38pc of those interviewed saw change opening up new opportunities for their career.

I thought digital disruption would have put CIOs in the driving seat for a change. What has gone wrong?

I think that’s where the challenge is. The IT departments tend to make the most pragmatic decisions no matter how old the legacy IT infrastructure is. But now organisations are moving away from legacy IT infrastructure.

The role of CIO is moving away from an operational role of “we look after the IT” to a role where people are looking to the CIO for strategic insight into how technology can help achieve business goals.

‘BT logged 1.2m attempted DDOS attacks during the Olympics in the UK’

Many CIOs are embracing this and are rebranding themselves as ‘chief digital officers’ but that’s just a change in name. Title doesn’t make a difference. What is happening is that under the bonnet the operational focus of just maintaining desktops and servers and protecting them in terms of cybersecurity – which is an industry in itself – is being transformed.

When cloud comes along it tends to challenge that traditional model, turn it on its head and forces the CIO to think of IT in a different way and keep up with the pace of change.

They are struggling with the right choices to make and the best ways of moving forward.

They are also unsure of who to listen to; the traditional vendors or, at the other extreme, the management consultants?

Faced with digital disruption, how do CIOs stay relevant?

To stay relevant in IT is one thing, to stay relevant in the organisation is a whole new challenge.

The traditional role of the CIO is being eroded and being replaced by something far more relevant: making the software or hardware and the delivery of IT services far more relevant to the aims and objectives of the organisation.

The role of CIO is moving from wiping an oily rag over labeled tapes and backups to sitting at the boardroom table and providing direction and figuring out the best way to support the business.

 But are CIOs having the rugs pulled under them or are they swimming with change?

It is either role erosion or role creation. Does the leader of the organisation – the CEO – value the input of the CIO or do the CIOs themselves know how relevant they are to the organisation?

Renaming the role of CIO to chief digital officer is common parlance in the US and UK and it is a way of saying that people are going to need this person.

It is about knowledge. The one mega-trend we got from this survey is that the CIO needs to step back, recalibrate and go in at the leadership level as a thought leader rather than being the last one in the queue when something new is launched.

Instead of being at the tail-end they should be at the front-end, dictating what should be launched and marrying up what’s available.

To help the CIO make that transition, it is important to appreciate where the cloud is going. In many cases, CIOs get caught up in the debate between public and private cloud but in reality it is nothing new except ensuring you get the right enabling infrastructure at a price that helps the company still make a profit.

 So CIOs are getting more and more involved in the bottom line discussion?

More than that. In fact, it is all about everything from marketing to reputation, especially when it comes to security.

I know of two organisations that have experienced DDOS attacks that came along with financial ransoms; “give us the money or we will take your network down”. This isn’t just in Ireland but it is happening across the entire BT organisation. Our cybersecurity team are dealing with threats all the time.

During the Olympics, BT and BT Sport were receiving threats on a daily basis. In fact, BT logged 1.2m attempted DDOS attacks during the Olympics in the UK.

There are nasty people all over the place and, don’t forget, it may have just been a student who breached the TalkTalk network.

For this reason, we understand why people are concerned about the public cloud. Criminal elements are taking over the cyber world and are beginning to represent a real and present danger in daily life. This prompts debates about what data you want to put in the cloud, do you want to put it in a data centre or do you want to hold it on your own premises?

In fact, the cloud is evolving and we are seeing companies adopting contact centre in the cloud. Locally, RSA and have made that leap. From a hybrid cloud perspective APW, a subsidiary of MasterCard, recently moved in that direction.

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