People plus cloud make the 2017 CIO of the Year

Published on the 19/06/2017 | Written by Donovan Jackson


Top CIOs define themselves as motivators, leaders and inspirers of teams…

Winning the CIO of the Year gong, said Richard Kay, from a set of finalists which included two of his peers, is probably a sign that the civil service is on the right track as far as the introduction of enabling technology is concerned. “We know that it is easy to do business with us and it is easy for other governments to engage with us and for example, they are, on simple things like registering a business. Here you can do it in about 30 seconds; the Philippines have been interested in learning how we do that, as it takes months or even years to get that sorted,” he said.

Kay picked up the top award for his work in sorting out the NZTE’s business systems from what could charitably have been called ‘a mess’ and in the process taking its net promotor scores from an abysmal -15 to a practically unheard of +80 within just 18 months. The full citation of what he has done – facilitated might be a better description – is here.

That’s because, Kay cheerfully agreed, being a CIO these days is only partially about technology. The ones who get the best results are people persons who get their teams behind a vision. Asked if most of the work is getting people on board, he said it is probably 50-50. “Definitely we have done an extraordinary amount of technology change, but [the success achieved] is also attributable to cultural change. If we didn’t have that cultural change, we wouldn’t have had our people firing on all cylinders, aligned, tuned and pumping.”

Arguably, the technology stuff is the easy side of it; deploy, configure, enable – technology routinely does what is asked of it without complaint (it will also do the wrong things if that is what it is asked to do, as we all know). People are a good deal more complex.

That gives rise to a potentially interesting paradox, which rests on the stereotype that ‘techies’ are often not people-persons. Kay had a bit of a laugh at that one. “Well, in my department you don’t really have a choice. We are an energetic, collaborative organisation, so if you’re a wallflower, well, you won’t get much time for that. That said, of course yes, we do have some introverted quiet people, but we do challenge them to become involved. But we’ve never had that [stereotypical] huge problem with devs and coders isolating themselves.”

He pegs diversity in his team as a contributor to the successful turnaround of the NZTE tech environment, and said this helps bring fresh ideas and insights into different ways of doing things. That team consists of around 55 FTE people, with a few consultants on tap, situated all over the world and supporting around 1000 users.

Given the structural reality of NZTE supporting users globally, the organisation has had a far better shot at implementing something which has traditionally given government departments the heebie-jeebies. Cloud.  “Anything that is commodity is outsourced and goes into the cloud. That’s been a huge win in keeping staff numbers low and we get rid of the overheads of physically managing infrastructure. The dream of it being easier and less complex is true,” said Kay.

When iStart noted that concerns around security or data sovereignty or even data ownership tend to be theoretical rather than practical issues, he let out a chuckle and said, “Absolutely, and we’ve gotten over those fears just by doing it. A lot of architects are making problems where they don’t exist, so we’ve taken a common-sense approach. If, for example, you want to do security yourself, you’re competing with Microsoft which spends billions. They can do it better, and we’re not security specialists.”

And, added Kay, NZTE in any event had servers scattered all over the world, and cleaners and other folk would have had (theoretical) access to them. “Cloud means all that goes away.”

With NZTE breaking that sort of ground, it also sets the scene for other departments to more seriously consider cloud where possible and appropriate.

But Kay also laid to rest the most popular selling point for cloud. “It hasn’t been cheaper; probably roughly the same cost. But the benefits of cloud, performance being the main one, make it well worthwhile, along with agility. You get more bang for buck, but when people say ‘you’re going to save money, it ain’t gonna happen. That’s not what cloud is about.”

Winning the award, said Kay, is not so much about him, but rather about his team and the broader NZTE. “It sounds clichéd but it is true. This represents the team and NZTE; we have worked bloody hard, and I am nothing without my team and I really mean that. I haven’t really thought about it much personally, but there have been many doubters and naysayers over the years, so this has probably now proven that I sort of do know what I’m talking about. But it is awesome for our team and NZTE.”

Well done, that man.

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