On solid ground

On solid ground

Craig Soutar of the New Zealand Transport Agency talks about the CIO’s ‘balancing act’ of simultaneously leading through a growing ICT portfolio and delivering core services.

Craig Soutar looks at the role of the chief information officer (CIO) across three dimensions.

“Are you a CIO that is deeply embedded in the organisation, that drives transformation and really doesn’t have much to do with technology? Where you have people alongside that do all that?”

“Or are you at the other end of the spectrum, where you are a deep technologist and run a very tight ship, and a respected service provider to the organisation?”

Or, are you someone in the middle that can do both that — and can do more?”

Soutar, CIO of the New Zealand Transport Agency, places himself wherever his business needs him to be. “I can be balanced in the middle and I am comfortable either end of the spectrum.”

In fact, this was how Soutar, who was recently named CIO of the Year, answered when asked what would differentiate him from the other finalists for the award.

He has been CIO at the NZTA for over four years, moving there after a transitional period of working as an independent ICT consultant and six years at ANZ National Bank.

The judges, all former CIOs, called Soutar “a role model CIO”, who makes a significant contribution to the IT industry in New Zealand. “He is a thought leader contributing to All of Government initiatives, is on the ICT Council, and is an active member of the CIO Forum, as well fulfilling his duties as CIO of the NZ Transport Agency,” they noted.

The CIO of the Year was just one of three accolades recently picked up by Soutar and his team. Last year, NZTA completed the registry system modernisation or BCP — which won ICT Project of the Year at the 2012 ITEX Computerworld Awards and more recently, the Networked Government category at the 2013 IPANZ Public Sector Excellence Awards.

When asked about his views on managing such a varied portfolio at the NZTA and involvement in various All of Government forums, Soutar shows a photo of a wooden stool with three legs.

One leg of the stool stands for project delivery, the second as core services including continuous improvement, and the third as capability uplift.

“One of the risks you can have when you devote too much focus to project delivery is that the core services and continuous service improvement leg gets a bit short and makes things wobbly,” he says. “One of the things I need to continually check myself and for my organisation is to make sure our investments in all three of those legs are of equal length.”

He says this analogy can also apply to his CIO role at NZTA, his collaborative work across the transport sector and to the All of Government opportunities he is involved with.

He says it is important to maintain the overall balance by having members of the wider IS management team taking the lead.

That team is comprised of a head of technology, an information manager, business alignment and solutions manager, and head of project management office. “Between the five of us, we complement each other well and I am very proud of our combined capability,” says Soutar.

His chief technology officer Peter Davies, for instance, is in charge of the technology, technical teams and tactics. “That enables me to focus on the three I’s: inspiration, innovation, and information.”

Last year Soutar reformatted the weekly IS management meetings at NZTA. From a weekly meeting, he decided to hold two sessions every week. The first will be around business and operations and the second is about people “including us,” without an agenda, he says. “That has been an important learning and performance improvement for us. We are still a work in progress and I love the challenge of us wanting to get better and better.”

So what are some of the key differences that stood out for him, moving from the private sector to a central government agency? Culture is one, he says. “The private sector is naturally competitive. It is very energising; it keeps you on your toes, but it also can be very combative.

“What I very much like in the public sector is how collaborative it is, and how we are coming together to ultimately deliver better public services for our citizens.”

At the recent CIO Summit, Soutar discussed some of the lessons learned from rolling out a business transformation programme “around some big potholes”.

He and his co-presenter Dean Thompson, head of the NZTA programme management office, examined how the agency worked with internal and external organisations to implement the registry system modernisation or BCP.

Related: CIO Agenda 2013: Transform, innovate, engage

Related: Champions of change

The project involved modernising all the registry systems right at the heart of land transport across New Zealand: driver licenses, motor vehicle licensing, road user charges, and safety checks including WoFs and CoFs (warrant of fitness and certificate of fitness). The project involved, among other things, developing a new web interface for 700 screens, converting millions of lines of LINC and Cobol code to .NET, and migrating over one billion records to a Windows platform.

The programme involved over 150 people from across the NZTA and its key partners, including significant technical leadership and service provision from Unisys.

The original estimated cost to replace the registry systems was over $70 million. The outcome, which made the audience cheer twice for Soutar and his co-presenter, was delivering the project at a cost of $8.2 million. He says this was achieved without having to completely rip out and replace the systems and interrupting services.

The process started in 2008, when the only way to address the end of life registers on the Unisys mainframe was to start from scratch. A business case was drawn up for $70 million dollars. However with the global financial crisis, a new incoming government and a lowered risk appetite for projects of that size, NZTA had to go back to the drawing board.

“We looked at eight options and did further due diligence including a detailed discovery and analysis,” says Soutar on one particular option. The assessment became a “dynamic process of being able to look into the future and what we needed our systems to look like”.

Once they chose the option, “We backed ourselves to do it including choosing the best partners to do it with.”

The team also researched which agencies around the world had completed a similar migration. They found none, just agencies that had started and were unsuccessful, and those who had not yet completed the project.

Soutar and the IS management team talked to the leaders of these agencies and asked what they would have done differently. “We learned a lot.”

Such openness among peers is one of the good things in government, he states. “In the state and public sector, I have many wonderful peers to learn from and share with. When I was in the bank, all I had was a peer in Australia and two in New Zealand. Whereas at NZTA, I have got at least 70 peers in New Zealand.”

He says he can also talk to government CIOs in other parts of the world to discuss opportunities, issues, and problems. “You don’t feel alone.”

There were other major challenges they faced as they rolled out the project: a change in business leadership and significant scope change.

“Many of us stepped up into our roles in the interim to drive the programme, not only from an IT perspective, but also from a business perspective, when four top roles in the organisation were changed. That just goes to show if you understand the business well or you want to understand the business well, that is possible.”

Another lesson from the migration is scope management. Scope change is inevitable in large projects, he says. The ICT team may lose the faith and feel the frustration of the business if they “freeze the scope” or lock down systems for an extended period.

This is true across sectors, whether it is a legislative driven business or a customer driven business. “Business can’t stand still these days,” says Soutar. “If we were going to put a change freeze, we would lose the support of our business. We have to provision for the opportunity to be responsive with mutual understanding there will be risks.”

So while working on the BCP, they sent a message to the organisation that if a change is “top priority”, the IS team will work their way through how to do it. “We will need your support in these areas, whether it will be timely decisions, funding, trade offs, resources, and we set up all sorts of countermeasures.”

Indeed, while working on the BCP, NZTA had to implement significant system changes for road user charges. The latter grew in scope, with changes nearly doubling, as the system has not been touched since 1972 when it was first introduced.

“We were able to achieve the delivery on time for that project, and make sure that none of the impacts came through the BCP programme,” says Soutar.

He says the team nominated the BCP project for awards for two reasons: to recognise the outstanding work of the people involved, including that of their business partners; and to also show government can do things well in the business technology arena.

“Government has had a bit of a beating in the last year,” he acknowledges, a reference to the teacher payroll programme Novopay and data breaches from central government agencies.

“It does hurt,” he admits, when he hears reports of failed business projects with major technology components. “But it also makes you want to do even better. It just brings to life how the CIO can go from ‘hero to zero’ [in a short time]. I am ever mindful of that.”

Managing IT demand and supply

The rise of shadow IT is very much in his sights, and to this he repeats an observation he made to an interview with CIO New Zealand two years ago.

Related: Priority lane

“Demand exceeding supply is our greatest challenge and you can mitigate that gap by prioritising,” he says. “Across our business the most important initiatives have been prioritised. We are also trying to advance to the next level of prioritisation and governance maturity that we very much need as a ‘resource challenged’ organisation; to invest where it really matters. A number of our business units may feel they may not be getting the priority they deserve. They have the choice of working with us and we help facilitate where we are not able to deliver, bridging those needs by partnering with them with others, monitoring and reviewing the delivery to standards and policies.”

“So we have got our eyes and ears open, aware that shadow IT happens and is increasing. There are some things that are important to us that we won’t let go.”

These are changes that have anything to do with information security and privacy, he says. “That is an area that we want to, and need to be involved in.”

How does he see the CIO role evolve?

“The mix is changing,” he says. “It used to be a service provider or service partner, and then moved on to be an enabler.”

“In more recent times, it has become a true transformative leader around business process, business intelligence and business change management.

“I think there will always be a service provider and enabler elements in the role,” he says. But there will also be more opportunities to be ‘transformative’.

“You align yourselves to where the business needs to be, you just need to be intuitive enough to not move too late.”

His top tip for a future CIO? “Relationships are what really matter — with your team, with your business, and with other stakeholders. Don’t get hung up on the technology.”

Craig Soutar, New Zealand Transport Agency
Craig Soutar, New Zealand Transport Agency

Sidebar: A fair advantage

Craig Soutar is one a handful of government CIOs with a banking background on their CV — and now in the top ICT roles in central government agencies. Is there an advantage for people from the finance sector when they join government?

Independent IT management consultant Murray Wills thinks so. “Having a background in banking systems means that the individual will have an understanding of information as an organisational strategic asset and understand the leadership and organisational structures and processes that need to be in place to ensure that the organisation’s IT sustains and extends the organisation’s strategies and objectives,” says Wills, managing director at Maxsys Consulting.

“The discipline instilled in banking around governance, managing, and running projects, together with requirements around definition, development and testing to ensure that systems are ready to go live would serve government well.”

When Soutar joined National Bank, he recalls the following words from his boss CIO Peter Lockery: “Your years in banking will advance you well for the future.”

“Little did I appreciate at the time what he meant,” says Soutar. “He was right. “Banking is a very challenging environment. Looking after significant portfolios of services and projects can rapidly change the colour of your hair,” he says. “But it develops you as a better professional, having to balance much responsibility whether it be across service quality, effecting change, or adding greater value to the business.”

Soutar says the sector also provides a mix of scale that is not readily available in New Zealand. Banks have complexity and share certain characteristics with organisations like hospitals and airlines that demand very high quality standards, and where, he says, “Reliability and reputation is everything.

As well, Soutar reports to a former CIO, his predecessor Allan Frost, now group manager — organisational support. Soutar says he can “only think of upsides” to this reporting line.

“As well as having a senior executive that appreciates IT and the value it provides, I also very much value Allan’s strength in developing myself and others in my team.

“There is no banking heritage with him, but there is a genuine people orientation that has very much supported me in growing my ‘bank balance’ with the business.”

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Tags leadershipNew Zealand CIOgovernment CIOcio of the yearCraig Soutar

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