Business people from Mars, IT heads from Venus…

31 Jan 2003

Martin Wickham (pictured), information officer from Esat BT, talks about the state of the tech nation

The IT function in business today has become what marketing and sales were a decade ago. That’s the view of Martin Wickham, chief information officer (CIO) and director of Esat BT in Ireland, who goes on to suggest that there is more than a touch of ‘business people are from Mars and IT people are from Venus’ about the relationship between the different management traditions and cultures in an organisation.

He is talking principally about strategic decision making today where any planning for the shorter or longer term future has to incorporate the IT structures that will either enable things to happen at all or will be essential to making them efficient, effective and profitable.

“Any IT director today has two basic responsibilities – take costs out of IT and take costs out of the business. There’s a constant juggling act to perform, because of course investment in IT may first be needed before business costs can be reduced,” Wickham explains. “Similarly, IT may demand significant forward steps where you have to look further ahead than the normal business cycles. It’s usually the case that the technology end and the business development end are on different trajectories. So the IT guy has to make the right calls for the business, both in choosing technologies and in making recommendations across the business in terms of the technical implications – and time scales and deliverables – of proposals. That sometimes means a reality check for the pet projects or new enthusiasms of other managers.”

In traditional boardrooms that kind of top-level involvement may not be very welcome, where IT is regarded simply as a technical function. But Wickham doesn’t spare the blushes of his peers, reckoning that many traditional IT directors see themselves solely as technologists and don’t like to give up their toys. “The point of a CIO is that it should be somebody who is a business leader but understands the technology and its business implications. That will cut across business processes and structures as well as functions such as marketing, sales, distribution and so on,” he adds.

In the Esat BT group of businesses in Ireland Wickham’s team has taken a full 20pc out of annual IT costs in the last year. “At the same time we are going forward technically. A huge step forward is the consolidation of all of our data and major applications in dual data centres in Ballymount and Citywest, with state-of-the-art EMC storage area networks,” he says. “Like any business, our critical asset is our data. So it makes sense nowadays to consolidate and protect your data centrally and let the applications, as it were, hang off it – reversing the more traditional structures. We tested our systems thoroughly over the October bank holiday weekend, killing the main production platform and flipping over to Citywest where we ran the billing program – a fairly core application – for a week before flipping back the following weekend. There were no problems, I’m glad to say, and we’re still the only operation in BT with that level of resilience.”

The organisation also has gigabit Ethernet to every desk despite multiple locations. Wickham concedes that right now this is only possible because it is a telecoms company, but insists that apart from suiting their own needs this infrastructure is a model of what is coming for all business. “When it is widely needed it will be cheaper and more flexible to buy that kind of infrastructure as a service. E-commerce is currently on the reverse slope of the hype curve, but there is no real doubt about where we are all going. All business applications will need bandwidth, which will become a commodity that we use and pay for as we need,” he adds.

As for the future of Esat BT, he is inclined to ask “what will we be when we grow up?” Because of course the point is that telecoms itself is already a commodity and the telcos are all into value-added services. “We are already carrying data, images, video – and managing services for clients. IBM and some other big names are talking about ‘utility computing’ where you just draw down what you need. I ask ‘then why not buy it from an appropriate utility?’ But of course there are higher levels as well – in Britain, for example, the Halifax now outsources all of its network and computing infrastructure from BT. Our future will be in selling IT services and solutions – not just carrying the bits and bytes from here to there,” Wickham concludes.

Career path
Martin Wickham began his IT career as a mainframe programmer in the Revenue Commissioners. He then spent 12 years with Apple, moving from Dublin to Cork and then to Paris as a systems analyst two years later. He became IT director of the French subsidiary before moving to strategic technical planning in Apple’s European headquarters. He was IT director for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Gateway before joining Esat in late-1999.

By Leslie Faughnan