The five minute CIO: Catherine Doran

11 May 2012

Catherine Doran, CIO, Royal Mail

Welcome to the latest in a series of exclusive interviews on, where IT leaders share their thoughts on technology trends and strategy. This week, we talk to Catherine Doran, CIO at the Royal Mail in the UK.

Appointed to her current post last September, Doran has held IT leadership roles in a number of blue chip companies – BT, NatWest, Capital One, Logica and Altergo. Last year, she was voted one of the 50 most influential people in IT in the UK by Computer Weekly magazine. She will be speaking at the inaugural CIO & IT Leaders summit next Thursday, 17 May, in Croke Park.

Royal Mail appointed you to oversee its stg£2bn technology transformation project. What’s your priority for this year?

The first thing we’re doing is a contract extension with our major supplier and as part of that we’re agreeing a programme of work for infrastructure and operating system updates … Basically, we want to modernise the infrastructure. Royal Mail is getting ready to go into privatisation, so there’s an awful lot of change planned and we need to make sure our IT systems are up to the game.

Your presentation in Dublin next week is all about how CIOs will have to behave more like a head of marketing than an introverted IT manager – can you elaborate?

I think historically people go into technology because they love technology and the things it can do, so they probably have a tendency in some instances to be motivated by the technology rather than what the business needs. I’ve always been fortunate to find the latter more interesting. What it needs for people is to make it crystal clear, not to talk in acronyms and to talk about business issues.

How can IT people adapt to do this?

When you start out on that road it’s quite tough but as you do it, it gets easier. Sometimes you have to get complex problems across, so I try and find analogies that everyone will be able to identify with. Years ago when I was in NatWest we had a major programme of reinventing the legacy systems … Now, I could have made that absolutely incomprehensible to anyone not wedded in technology; in fact, I used the analogy of sorting out your sock drawer. It’s a very simple analogy but immediately people got it.

What point in your own career can you look back on as being a key moment in helping you to move beyond the technology to taking a business focus?

I think it was when I was in NatWest and it was the first time that I was running a department of several hundred people and as a matter of routine I spent a reasonable proportion of my time with business folk at executive meetings. I realised that if I didn’t talk to them in their language, they weren’t going to talk to me.

Why do IT departments still suffer from an inability to speak the same language as the business?

I had a very interesting observation made to me by CEO of Network Rail when I worked there. He worked for EDS so he’s a man who understands technology. One thing he observed in his career was when you say to people ‘what do you do’? Most people say ‘I work for Network Rail in the accounts department. When you say it to someone in IT, they say ‘I work in IT’. They don’t talk about the company, they talk about the profession. For my money personally, I fell out of love with that view of the world a very long time ago.

The interesting thing is, one of the joys that IT people have is that our skills are so transferable. If you’re good at your job in one company, then you can easily change sectors with very little bother.

One of my projects at BT was ‘family and friends’ – a product launched to retain customer loyalty. It was quite innovative at the time so it was a bit of a secret. Somebody leaked it to the market ahead of launch and when the word got out it put 8p onto BT’s share price that day. They couldn’t have done it without technology, but I thought ‘My God’… it was the business.

What IT or business initiative are you most proud of in your career, and why?

When I joined BT in 2003, at that point it had no consumer mobile offering because they had sold Cellnet some years previously but at that time they had to get back into the market. The chief executive, in my first week, said: ‘if you do only one thing this year, can you pull together all the necessary parties to build the technology stack that will allow us to get into the consumer mobile market by Christmas?’ This was what the business wanted to do. We built everything: order handling, query handling, ordering through call centre and website, and selling phones through shops like Carphone Warehouse, and including an interactive link to our logistics suppliers. We did the whole lot in less than nine months. I used to describe it as a bumblebee; according to the laws of physics it shouldn’t be able to fly, but it does. Well, this did. We pulled it off, so that was really something.

What steps can IT take to change its perception within the business and be seen as a contributor rather than a cost?

I think it comes in two flavours. There’s a bit which is about taking the time – and you have to have gained credibility before people will grant you the time – to devise the language and stories. Human beings learn through stories, so we have to develop the narrative so we can explain what it is we’re doing. It has to be done in business-relevant language. Thinking about things in terms of the P&L is important.

The second thing is, because technology is changing so much we do have a responsibility to keep up with the trends and how they can help business. If the only time people see you is when you’re talking about problems, that’s how they will perceive you. But if you approach the marketing department about a technology trend you’ve seen or read about, and ask how you might work on that, it changes the conversation.

What technology trends are of most interest to you right now, from a business perspective, and are there any where you just say ‘yes it’s great technology but it’s missing the point’?

I do genuinely think it’s cloud computing, and in Royal Mail we are using it in some parts of our business. I think you have to be clear when, where and why you’re using it, but if you’ve got it for certain kinds of applications – such as a particular campaign with variable volumes – then being able to have on-demand availability or resources is very interesting, and to pay for what you use. I genuinely think it’s changing how we think about some parts of the infrastructure.

I think social media is hugely relevant depending on your industry. If you’ve got a big consumer play then it’s definitely one to watch. The ‘bring your own device (BYOD) to work’ trend is one I’ve had a look at and I think ‘come on’. You’ve got loads of security issues to think about and in terms of the scale of saving, I’m yet to be convinced.

So do you think we’re moving towards a very different future where users, not the IT department, decide what devices and apps they are going use? If so, what’s your view on this?

It’ll be interesting to see how it develops, candidly. Would I advocate going into (BYOD) in a big way right now? No; it’s a distraction. But again with all these things it probably depends on your business.

At Royal Mail, we have bigger fish to fry.

How do you think the CIO role will evolve in years to come, and what do current incumbents need to be thinking about now to prepare?

There has been a rash of articles and speculation over the last couple of years talking about the demise of the CIO. I have never worried about that for any time at all. Even with the ubiquity of technology for corporations, never has the role of the CIO been more important. With all the different techs around the place, that IT stuff is quite complex, needs to be fed and watered and looked after by professionals who understand it. Don’t worry about the future. For as long as you are the go to person and you can add value to your organisation. Become irrelevant at your peril!

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic