BT’s Rachel Higham: ‘We are determined to be first in the UK with 5G’

8 Feb 2019

Rachel Higham. Image: Connor McKenna

BT’s managing director of IT, Rachel Higham, on the cloud revolution, making STEM gender-neutral and the arrival of 5G.

Rachel Higham started her career as a chartered accountant before moving into IT consultancy. She spent the next 20 years in various IT programme delivery, strategy and architecture, and IT leadership roles in financial services with ABN Amro, M&S Money, HSBC and ACE Group (now Chubb).

Prior to joining BT, she was Vodafone’s head of cloud and infrastructure.

‘In the next 10 years you are going to see a much faster migration; better comfort around the security, safety and resiliency aspects of cloud; and more companies willing to make that move’

Higham joined BT in December 2015 and, as managing director for IT, she leads BT’s global IT organisation. She is responsible for the design, build, run and transformation of platforms that support all of the company’s consumer, communication provider and enterprise customer journeys, as well as providing insights.

Higham also leads BT’s TechWomen programme, helping female technologists reach their potential and building a rich female talent pipeline. She was recently awarded the Mentor of the Year at the Women of Future Awards and named one of the top 30 global champions of women in business by Financial Times for her work in this area.

We spoke with Higham at the recent BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition in Dublin, where more than 550 projects were on display from schoolchildren from all over Ireland, 56pc of whom were girls.

Are you responsible for the IT of BT, or the IT of many companies that work with BT?

All of the systems that we have that are either internally facing for our employees or externally facing for our customers are built, managed and maintained by my team. So, we work with solutions for engineers who go out into the field and fix all sorts of problems, our call centre colleagues who answer the phones, our retail store agents that help you buy a mobile phone. We have 1,200 communications providers who provide solutions that use our network to carry their mobile networks, plus the 38m home-based customers we have in the UK and the 200,000 companies we serve globally. So, it’s a whole range of personas, a whole range of different needs, and that’s what keeps the job exciting.

What are your thoughts on the cloud evolution? How is BT geared up for the cloud?

I know cloud has been around 10 or 15 years as a commonplace utility but most companies the size of BT don’t feel ready yet to move to the cloud. We have a lot of legacy platforms in companies like BT that will take a lot of rearchitecting to work in a cloud-native way. A lot of investment is required to move workloads and a lot of new skills we need in our workforce.

So, most companies of any scale are really at the start of their journey but I think we are seeing new applications and trends come out like AI, like IoT [internet of things], that are going to require access to vast amounts of data, which you simply can’t store anywhere else economically. So, that’s going to force a migration to the cloud. In the next 10 years you are going to see a much faster migration; better comfort around the security, safety and resiliency aspects of cloud (which has still not really landed); and more companies willing to make that move.

In terms of infosec, do you think the world will get a handle on security or will it be an uphill battle?

I think it is always going to be an uphill battle. It is going to be a continual race of innovation between those that hack and those that are trying to prevent being hacked. Think about the breadth of data we are collecting now – we don’t understand it that well. We have the tools and the skills [but] our organisations haven’t kept pace with the voracity of data coming at us and so it is going to be a continual race to try and solve for that. Legislation needs to appear to put a framework around that as well … We don’t have good case law yet around a lot of aspects of data and privacy, so it is going to be a continual race.

What are your thoughts on resolving the gender gap in science and technology?

I think a lot of it comes from a general bias in everyday media. They are constantly being told in the media, in photographs, in films, that science and technology is not something for women and for girls. Schools – the way we are teaching and the language and the texts we use in schools – are heavily biased towards boys and men when it comes to STEM subjects, and we’ve got to try and neutralise all of that systematically and retrain our teachers and parents, those that can influence children, to start using more gender-neutral language, start showing them that everything is possible irrespective of gender.

You look at the toy industry, it drives me mad when I walk into a toy shop and it’s pink on one aisle and blue on the other – why?

The science museum in the UK has done a great job of creating gender-neutral toys or diffusing that colour affiliation but also in the packaging they have and the way it is marketed, it is entirely gender-neutral.

Companies like BT can do a great job of putting great female role models that they have in their workforce out into schools and universities to inspire kids and show them that it is possible for people like them to have great careers in STEM topics. Show them that pathway.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

I think quantum is incredibly exciting. I think the next 18 months are going to be really interesting where we see some real use cases coming out there. [With] blockchain, we are going to start to understand just what kind of assets and transactions and collaborations should we and can we secure with blockchain.

I think AI is going to start to be more meaningful for customer interactions; consumers are going to start to ask more questions about what data a company is storing about me, how they are using that to make decisions about me.

I think 5G is going to be the big thing this year, certainly for us in BT. We are determined to be first in the UK; we’ve already got our trials out in Canary Wharf and in nine cities across the UK. We’ll start to see city-based deployments; we’ll start to see the first devices in the hands of consumers; we’ll start to see new use cases around mission-critical applications, low-latency applications; and have that start to support IoT and remote surgery, drone-flying etc.

It’s going to be quite an exciting year.

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