The five minute CIO: Helene Graham, Eircom

12 Sep 2014

Helene Graham, CTO, Eircom

“I think one of my main roles is to ensure that we as a business see the future and don’t get paralysed by the immediate issues,” says Eircom’s chief technology officer Helene Graham.

Graham has more than 20 years of experience in the telecoms sector, with roles spanning networks and IT. This includes 15 years of operating in a management capacity for operators in Denmark and Ireland.

Prior to taking on the CTO role at Eircom more than a year ago, Graham served as head of technology strategy at mobile operator Meteor.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

Our IT infrastructure is very significant because it essentially has three prongs to it; we have internal IT systems that are used to manage our internal business from desktop systems and applications, project management systems, test suites to ERP systems and so on; we then have a very wide array of systems that we use to server our customers directly i.e. CRM, billing, portal, EPOS, voucher top-up and fault handling systems and finally because what we deliver to the customers largely needs IT infrastructure in the fulfillment and provisioning process we have a large array of systems here too ranging from inventory systems and middleware to provisioning systems, mediation systems and so on.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

Prioritisation is naturally extremely important for any CIO and almost self-evidently it become trickier in hard times. In growth times it is very easy to devise long-term plans that make sense and attack things in an orderly and structured manner. However, when you are in recession and general down-turn the longer term objective tends to be put on the long finger and it all becomes about delivering immediate results that impact the short-term commercial goals.

I think that we have found a reasonable balance in managing these priorities in Eircom by dividing our requirements into the broad categories of: Subsistence (what has to be done because we e.g. are going out of support or have legal requirement e.g. a VAT change), Growth of current business (this is making the services we have better and bigger and easier to consume), New business and finally Strategy/Innovation (these are things that while they are not necessary today will become necessary tomorrow).  Over these categories we oscillate a constant evaluation of our effectiveness and address shortfalls where practical both in terms of money and time.

As the CTO I think one of my main roles is to ensure that we as a business see the future and don’t get paralysed by the immediate issues. These naturally have to be solved but we need to have a clear idea of where we are going to, so I look closely at the category of Growth of current business to ensure we are not just doing more of the same but truly challenge ourselves to get on the pathway to where we really want to be. Sometimes that is an agility course that is OK because we all want to deliver but it is also about getting back on track when that hurdle has been managed.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

We have a very complex infrastructure because we have grown organically over a large number of years and so have our services and systems, typically with a system per service. Some of them are more than 30 years old and while they are in full working order they are in some cases far from what would be considered state-of-the-art.

When you have developed your systems and infrastructure over a long period of it time you tend to get a lot of small systems –actually this goes back to the longer term view. If you lack a longer term strategy you definitely end up with point to point solutions i.e. systems that deliver very important functionality but in an extremely narrow space. We are constantly taking steps to simplify and we have succeeded with a lot lately however it is not always easy to get the Business case to stack up because these point-to-point solutions and even larger systems that have been in place for a long time do not eat a lot of bread –they are costly to replace and they often don’t have a lot of people-efficiency opportunities either. We will get there over time.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We have a reasonably large IT team both in terms of architects, designers and operational staff. But as mentioned we have a lot of IT and I think by anyone’s standards we would be considered quite lean. We have some systems where a large part of development and operations have been outsourced.

Right now we have a good balance I think but we are, as any other company, always considering how we can improve. Outsourcing is always a consideration for us but it has always been important for us to hold on to the intellectual property of the inner workings of how we serve our customers.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

I have responsibility for Network (PSTN, NGA, IP core and so on) and IT Architecture and strategy.  My team members are the subject-matter experts of technology architecture and strategic and we are looking forward (most of the time). A significant part of my role is ensuring that we always are on the forefront in terms of the opportunities that are open to us as a company and evaluate the trends and shifts that are in the technology space.

It is my role to ensure that clear recommendations are made on technology development and innovation and that technology partners are identified if applicable.  However, since we also have an element of governance responsibility on deliveries there is a sizeable amount of times spent on consultancy at a project level.

What are the main points of Eircoms IT strategy?

Stabilise, renew and innovate. We have a large number of initiatives that are driven from the CTO area that will enable new business opportunities in the future and we have significant consolidation and simplification project on the way. All of our initiatives will gradually improve the customer experience.

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

I think all CIOs are looking at how to make their business more digital, more mobile, more cloud based and make better use of analytics and we are looking at that too. Some of the areas where we see huge benefit from this are around convergence and single pane of glass for the customer. We have very technically complex products that we have to make easy for people to buy and consume and that is a huge challenge.

Our customers are using so many different channels now when they interact with us and use our products and it is our job to make sure it is a good experience. Customers can move from being complete novices to being super stars in a very short period of time e.g. they can get broadband, buy a tablet and start a video call all with in the space of 24 hours and how we interact with them in that period will change significantly; they will move from sending letters or calling us to expecting immediate replies to emails or chat. It is a challenge but also very exciting. Beneath all the flashy stuff our services have to work and we are concentrating a lot on this making our IT systems better and better all the time.

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

We do the usual benchmarks both in terms of efficiency compared to others and spend.  I think it is important to benchmark but I think it is very difficult to do correctly so often the biggest value is that you think about what you do in a structured way as you fill in the benchmark and often end up questioning and correcting bad performance that way. When we get the result back I am not sure how much it actually tells straight off because it is typically not normalised correctly. I strongly believe spend is somewhat cyclical and it is therefore difficult to compare across companies that are at different stages of the cycle.

We are often talking about how to measure high performing IT and I am not sure we have fully it nailed. IT sits in an eco-system of stakeholders and customers and it is ideally the usefulness of IT that should be measured and benchmarked.  We do use metric like delivery on time and within budget, function points, number of change requests accepted and so on but it is extremely complex to draw a precise picture of how well IT performs and none of these measurements say much about the relevance of what has been done. Therefore it is a big responsibility for a CIO to constantly be critical of why and how we do things. Saying all of this… if IT does not perform at we will hear all about it and the hygiene factor is therefore that there should be no problems –as unrealistic as that might.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

We can always improve. But I think one of the most important areas for improvement is to question requirements and be innovative in how we fulfil them. This requires buy-in from stakeholders in the business. We also need to get better at selling IT as an investment and not a cost. When I talk to in e.g. CIOs in banks I get the sense that there is a better acceptance that IT is an investment. In Telco’s it is typically much easier to for people to make the link that network infrastructure is an investment that IT. IT is often seen as a cost and necessary evil. This is despite the fact that none of our network services could be sold without IT.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

The next step for NGA is very big for us. We have been working at it for a long time and will continue to do so. We are also as mentioned before focusing on customer experience and as number of projects fall out of this. We have a very extensive security program which is on-going because this is an area with a lot of changes and challenges both in the current infrastructure but also as we moved to cloud, NFV and SDN. We are putting a lot of effort into convergence from Wi-Fi to multiscreen because we believe that is an important part of ensuring that our services continue to be best in class.

Eircom has been under constraints for a number of years but in the past three years a lot has happened and that trend is continuing –it’s a very exciting place to be at the moment because we get to try it all and we, in IT, have enormous influence on what Eircom’s future looks like.

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