The five minute CIO: Francis O’Haire

18 Oct 2013

Francis O'Haire, director of technology and strategy at IT distributor DataSolutions

Francis O’Haire, director of technology and strategy at IT distributor DataSolutions, explains the process involved in stepping back from technical roles to take a broader view of the business.

Given that you’re in the technology distribution business, what early trends are you seeing from manufacturers that will start to become mainstream next year and beyond?

We’re seeing a lot of our vendors react and address issues around BYOD [bring your own device], whatever you want to call it, and also areas like optimising some trends like desktop virtualisation, such as fully secure alternatives to the likes of Dropbox that have come along.

A lot of end-user businesses see their users adopting consumer-class technologies and aren’t aware that there are fully secure alternatives that would take away the security concern.

Around the whole area of desktop virtualisation, we’re getting a lot of feedback that some types can be expensive in terms of infrastructure – anyone we can get the message to, they’re surprised they can reduce costs dramatically. For instance, Atlantis Computing will lower the cost of desktop storage – it’s a very important element in a desktop virtualisation project and it can sometimes be a deal breaker … Desktop virtualisation as a whole is happening now, but people need to be aware that there are ways to take some of the cost out of it.

Does that suggest that a lot of businesses are still caught up in the cost of running their IT versus setting aside budget to look at using technology to innovate?

We’re seeing a mix, in reality. We’re definitely seeing some cost-saving tech being adopted but also seeing some of the more forward-thinking technologies being adopted. We’re seeing a lot of interest in adopting mobile devices and tools required to manage and secure all of that.

There’s definitely a change and I think that’s in no small part due to the consumerisation of IT. People are embracing technology in their personal lives, seeing what it can do and bringing those visions of what could be possible into the organisation.

Do you think this shows the traditional IT model is turned on its head, so that end users and not IT departments are choosing their devices and apps?

There’s a lot of change and it’s happening in two ways. It’s happening behind the scenes in an uncontrolled fashion in some way. But organisations that acknowledge it’s happening and want to take advantage are going to be to the fore. There’s a lot of BYOD and BYOA [bring your own app] coming and some organisations are burying their heads in the sand. But a lot of organisations are looking to do this in a controlled fashion and want to take advantage of the fact that their employees want to be productive and mobile.

At a time when there’s a big push towards standardisation, to make IT easier to manage, is having a raft of different devices and apps a nightmare for IT professionals?

Yes, it can be an absolute nightmare. The key is to standardise those things you can control and look to deliver on to these things you can’t control. Stop trying to be the policeman or the gatekeeper, in a way, over what device users can use, and start thinking of managing applications, access and policies. Think of the device as just a screen. It’s about layering the corporate alongside the personal.

Then, it’s about moving the control plane away from the device and onto the corporate applications and data. Users are familiar with the concept of app stores … IT almost needs to become the app store for their own applications and data, so that users can self-serve. IT needs to create that partition to make sure corporate data can exist on that device.

How much of your job involves getting to evaluate the latest technology and how much is about being pragmatic to use what’s available to do the job?

To set the scene, we’re a small company, a 20-person operation, and we have fairly basic IT requirements ourselves: productivity tools, email , web browsing and some line of business applications. I suppose we eat our own dog food as much as possible, in that we use desktop virtualisation so we can access applications from anywhere on any device.

Where we often go a bit further in deploying technologies that we’re selling, it’s in showcasing technology that our dealers can use and sell to their customers.

Any evaluation of technologies is done with a mind to take a new vendor on board. We try to stick to a number of key vendors and expand on what we offer from them.

I’m inundated on a daily basis by various vendors wanting me to take all of their technologies on board and I can’t do that: we have to make a business case before we even look at the technology. The first thing we decide is, is there a market for this technology, and is it something our partners can make a business case out of?

Is there any technology you have seen that you thought, this is going to change the game?

I think some of the new mobility solutions are going to change things. A lot of the mobile-device management products had been very focused on situations where the company owns the device, and that’s changing. We’re now seeing Citrix and other vendors in our portfolio get to the point where it’s not important what the device is. It’s a fundamental shift away from trying to control everything from the tin upwards.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your role to date?

I think as the role evolved, one of the biggest challenges was maybe to get to the point where I wasn’t seen as a guy who could whip out a screwdriver and install something anymore. When a career goes from being deeply technical to being more business-focused and marketing-focused, it’s leaving behind the idea that you’re still a master of these technologies.

How did you make that shift?

For me, anyway, it was a slow process and probably accelerated by me stopping reading the installation manuals, deferring to the engineers and eventually for those more technical things, people stop coming to you.

You cannot keep up to a level of expertise you have to have unless you’re working on it day in, day out. That’s a specific calling and that’s why we hire best engineers in the business to do that.

Was it a conscious decision to take a step back from being in a hands-on technical role?

It was the way the business developed, but it was also a conscious effort to stop staying up to date. There was still the enjoyment of the technology. I had to turn myself away from those books, stop knowing this stuff so I could free up my time and my mind to see the bigger picture.

It’s a small company, it’s a case of being involved in every part of it and it was over a period of time becoming more involved in the marketing and business side of things. It gave me the chance to get to know how these things worked in those areas.

How do you split your time between focusing on technical issues against looking at the business strategy?

My role, as well as title, has changed. To director of technology and strategy – I wanted to get the ‘technical’ out and ‘technology’ in, and that has worked to some degree [laughs].

But I would still be deeply involved in what areas of technology we’re involved in: what role will we play in cloud, in the new IT as it happens, and on the business side of things. That happens on an ongoing basis – though I would never claim I could read our annual returns.

What can you tell us about DataSolutions’ strategy over the coming year, and in what way will IT support that?

In terms of running the business, we’re a fairly simple organisation. We are facing a change of our line of business toolset, which we’re evaluating at the moment. The preference would probably be to look at the cloud, because the more IT we have to run, the less we can focus on our customers. The less IT we have to run, the happier we are!

We will extend out the virtualisation labs to encompass other technologies in the security and the mobility space. A lot of these technologies are moving to the space where they’re maybe not as simple as they used to be: you’re not just buying a firewall anymore, you’re buying a unified threat management system. You have to show that.

Do you think people working in IT need to work on their ability to persuade colleagues and other managers about how technology can help them – is there a kind of marketing element to the job that goes unrecognised?

I think too many engineers and technical people still rely too much on buzzwords and getting into the type of language that business leaders and stakeholders in IT projects don’t fully understand. So you’ve got to speak in their terms: business value rather than bits and bytes.

I think it comes as you leave the deep technical knowledge behind, you’re not qualified to speak on those terms anymore, so you shouldn’t try. It naturally brings you into the conversations around business benefit.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic