The five minute CIO: Vincent Richardson

26 Apr 2013

Vincent Richardson, CIO of Concern Worldwide

Concern Worldwide’s CIO explains how it uses leading-edge technology to communicate with aid workers in some of the globe’s most remote locations.

Can you give me a sense of the scale of Concern as an organisation – how big is it, across how many territories?

It’s actually a global enterprise. Dublin is our international headquarters and we also have fundraising offices in the US and the UK: in Chicago, New York, London, Belfast and Glasgow. We have around 3,500 staff globally and about 2,500 of those use technology to carry out their work.

We have programmes in 24 countries, from Haiti through sub-Saharan Africa – Sudan, Chad, Niger, through Congo to the likes of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. We’re in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and in DPRK [North Korea].

What does your own day-to-day role involve?

I lead what I call a diverse and geographically dispersed team of IT professionals and we deliver the full suite of IT services to our enterprise services for our back office and network management and we also have information system management for all our applications.

Then also I have a number of regional IT managers distributed through the world to manage our staff and they report back to me.

We’ve got a global team of probably about 50 IT staff. We might have one local IT support person in a country and another part-time. So it’s actually quite a large organisation.

What are the main IT applications that you use?

Our key systems are Microsoft Dynamics GP for financials and accounting, a fundraising tool called ThankQ, and Empower for HRM are our key line of business applications. We also heavily make use of SharePoint for our intranet.

These applications are all hosted on our virtual server platform – this is made up of VMware, Cisco UCS servers and EMC storage platform. We consolidated from a data centre with over 60 servers to six.

What implications does that have for your IT team?

We are small and nimble. We can scale to a very high level – a global level when we need to, when it comes to deployments – but it is a very tight team. Dublin is our core, it’s the hub and it’s where we host most of our applications that we don’t host on the cloud.

How much of your job is about keeping systems up, firefighting and so on, and how much is given over to taking a more strategic view?

It’s both. I keep myself very close to the day-to-day and I’m in constant communication with the managers who are responsible for various areas. ICT is viewed as a tool of real strategic importance in Concern. We simply couldn’t operate without it. From finance and accounting to our fundraising and how we communicate and collaborate as an organisation, it’s crucial.

But we don’t just view ICT as an operational tool. We view it as a tool to help those we serve. In fact, one of Concern’s core organisational strategic objectives over the next few years is to find ways to embed technology directly into our programming and benefit what we call our programme participants.

As an organisation with charitable status, do you find you have to be smarter with your IT investment compared to a public or private-sector organisation?

Absolutely. However, we do take great advantage of our status as a charity to get the best possible pricing. We are also part of an international ICT consortium called NetHope.

We use NetHope to integrate with the big technology companies at the highest levels and the net benefits do not just mean better pricing or free licensing or equipment, but a real opportunity for these organisations to collaborate on initiatives that have the power to change people’s lives in some of the poorest communities.

Because of budget issues, or maybe a need to be smarter about how you use technology, does that make you early adopters where it’s appropriate?

It goes both ways. Obviously, as an organisation, particularly when it comes to [managing] money, we’re risk averse. But on the flip side, when it comes to technology and our ability to adapt to new things, we would deem ourselves as very early adopters if we can get in at the right time.

We were fully on BPOS [now Office 365] 18 months to two years ago. That revolutionised how we operated on email. If you think about a traditional Exchange infrastructure, particularly where we work, for us, we would have to implement Exchange servers in local offices because there wasn’t good enough bandwidth to route back into Dublin.

Sometimes, infrastructure in the field would crash and if an email server went down, there was no email. The long and short of it is, on an almost weekly basis we could have a different country with no access to email, whereas now, the only factor in access to email is the availability of bandwidth.

We’ve basically ripped out our Exchange environment. That’s an example of something we knew was going to have a profound impact on how we were going to deploy a service. On the flip side of that, we only just virtualised last year and we were living off a whole bunch of legacy servers for longer than you would have wanted but we wanted to sweat them.

What are the challenges in ensuring you can communicate with staff carrying out Concern’s work overseas?

We have to be prepared for all eventualities because one of our programmes is emergency response. We would have a toolkit that’s designed and ready to roll in event of disasters: they’re built off a laptop, a satellite phone and a BGAN – a broadband global area network that actually looks like a laptop. You open it, point at the sky, stick a SIM card in and get half a meg bandwidth out of it, anywhere on the planet.

If we roll out into a very rural part of a country with no civil infrastructure, you have to rely on satellite-based technologies and the sun to generate power. IT in the field begins and ends with power. There are high levels of unpredictability in the field, so how we approach IT in the field is quite important.

The quality of electrical infrastructure varies wildly from country to country and unless you have that taken care of, you’ll find yourself swapping out hardware with burnt-out PSUs and blown motherboards like there’s no tomorrow.

For example, there are four different electrical standards in Africa: German, French, US and UK. So we ensure our offices are wired to a proper standard, that we have proper surge protection and earthing and so on. We also have to ensure that power supply is as uninterrupted as possible, because a local ‘grid’ can drop multiple times a day.

Can you tell us about some of the major technology projects you’re planning?

We’ve stabilised a huge amount and pushed out stuff onto the cloud and were looking to take advantage of the Lync component in Office 365. So, my plan for this year and next is to look at technologies to help us communicate and collaborate more effectively.

We’re moving back to the videoconferencing space. We’re in the process of implementing Vidyo. It’s really transformative in terms of the way you view videoconferencing. The traditional way, needed very expensive infrastructure and dedicated bandwidth. And then at the other end, when you try pulling multiple parties over different geographical spaces, Skype just won’t cut it, where you could have people on a laptop or mobile device [in the field] or 15 people sitting around a table in head office.

Vidyo scales to pretty much any available bandwidth and adjusts the quality accordingly. Legacy systems can’t do this. It’s all software driven. You can scale to high-definition telepresence in your boardrooms through to mobile devices, at a ridiculously low price. I’m looking at this not just for collaboration but to at least reduce our travel costs.

So you’re having to keep one eye on costs even as you’re taking the more strategic view with IT?

I do genuinely think we operate in a different way to traditional IT departments. We’re not an insurance company or a bank so we’re not heavily regulated – although we do take PCI and data protection extremely seriously. The only thing we have is our good name.

For example, when we moved to Office 365, it wasn’t going to impact on the way we did business, whereas a bank would have concerns about turning over their email to a third party.

I came from a consulting background and I’m familiar with the traditional CIO or IT director who tended to be deeply conservative. I’ve always been prone to looking at creative ways to looking at things and solve problems, but I do think there’s a certain conservatism to the way people look at technology – and they’re not supporting their business properly by looking at it that way.

Things are changing all the time. The buzzword now is BYOD – bring your own device. That’s happened, that ship has sailed and we’re [now] finding the whole concept of bring your own application – for example, Google Apps or Dropbox – and people can’t understand why they can’t use a tool that’s more efficient than what they’re being given in work. You have to change or you perish, so you have to adapt.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic