Mission: Critical

Mission: Critical

The New Zealand Defence Force's Derek Locke heads one of the most massive and complex IT organisations in the country. But for Locke, the challenges of meeting the demands of a peacetime environment with critical overseas missions mean he has the best CIO job in New Zealand.

How many push-ups can you muster? How fast can you assemble a rifle? Are you ready to step out of your comfort zone to join humanitarian missions and search and rescue operations in various parts of the globe? The advertisements in print, broadcast and online media all highlight the rapid pace and excitement of being part of the country's defence force. As the Air Force ad puts it, there is no danger of being stuck in the same job for years.

Derek Locke, chief information officer of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), says the messages from these ads definitely apply to what he and his 300-strong IT team are doing.

"Absolutely," he states. "We not only support a static environment, but a deploy-able environment. We can be supporting a large number of networks at any given time and working on 140 projects at the same time. We are 24x7, 365 days a year."

The IT department would be advised on a Friday, for instance, and by Monday would be sending staff overseas to build networks or work on a telecommunications project for the Navy, Air Force or Army.

"I rate the challenges here as exciting, and that as a general rule, the people we have here are extremely talented and very hardworking," says Locke, who became NZDF's CIO in late 2005.

Locke was project director for NZDF's JEMS (Joint Engineering Management System) when he succeeded Ron Hooton, who held the post for nearly five years as NZDF's first CIO.

But before working for NZDF through JEMS in January 2004, Locke's career consisted of a succession of C-level posts in the corporate sector.

Locke is a qualified accountant and his recent jobs included chief executive officer of Domainz , managing principal of Vignette Software in New Zealand, and chief financial officer and later on financial controller for Telecom New Zealand. As principal of Ernst & Young, he worked on SAP projects for Telecom NZ, the Police, Air New Zealand and Fletcher Forests.

"I have been around a bit," says Locke. But, he contends, his current assignment tops the list when it comes to managing a complex organisation.

"Massive" is how he describes the systems at NZDF. "We have a very large infrastructure to look after." The entire defence force has around 700 servers. "We have a large gamut of applications, and a variety of databases, far too many in fact."

The current IT shop is mainly Microsoft using Telecom New Zealand as telecommunications provider. But it is also in essence an SAP shop through its ERP, with HP and Unix and "a lot of legacy systems" included.

His staff are deployed throughout the organisation. Around 60 people are assigned to the JEMS project, but other projects may only require one or two people. "We are trying to build a world class organisation that manages the defence of the country, and we see IT being a critically important part of it. We have extremely good systems."

Currently, the force is implementing a Citrix thin client rollout which Locke says aims to eventually manage 12,000 desktops. Defence is also in the midst of implementing full scale disaster recovery and back-up systems and procedures, working with major suppliers like Gen-i and HP.

Locke explains these are all part of the Defence's static environment. Support for deployed missions, like the systems for New Zealand forces in Afghanistan, present a different set of issues.

"The biggest challenge for the deployed environment is marrying the corporate environment with the military environment which presents a number of interesting issues," says Locke. "The problem is essentially blending the need to focus on operations within a peacetime environment.

"A lot of our focus goes into the corporate environment when at the same time we are supporting missions overseas. They require secret connectivity which creates challenges for all of us. In short, we have to juggle our priorities because operations always come first and this can create conflicts."

This complexity has an upside. "We have a very modern workforce. All the systems are the latest, we run the latest version of SAP. We try and keep very up-to-date with our software. We are continually in the process of upgrading all our hardware."

Locke says he has observed a near zero turnover in the IT department in the six months he has been on the job. "The reason is we pay relative to the market reasonably well, but we are not in the top quartile."

The prime retention factor, he believes, has nothing to do with remuneration. "We provide a very different and exciting environment. No day in NZDF is the same as the next day. It is always challenging."

A knowledge managed force

Locke says one of the areas he and his team are working on is in a project called IMX, which stands for "Information Management and Exploitation".

Locke started working on the project when he came on board. The project aims to provide a "holistic view" of information within NZDF, particularly the exploitation of information in the corporate environment and how that contributes to NZDF utilising networked enabled capability (NEC) in the military environment.

"IMX is about getting better information faster, but also how we are going to manage information. Our catchline is 'informed people making better decisions'."

IMX is a Defence-wide undertaking, with Locke as project sponsor. There will be a number of projects under it, with about "eight streams of work".

He says IMX is about "continual improvement", a long-term project. "This is around obtaining for us as part of our global strategic reach, a network-enabled force, and a knowledge managed force."

Locke leans towards deploying a project in phases - as Defence is doing with IMX, and the ongoing SAP ERP project. This view was tempered by his experience while working at Telecom.

"We implemented SAP in a big bang. I now think you should bite off little bits at a time, and grow capability organically rather than a big bang."

The IMX project includes a business classification schema. This aims to ensure NZDF is ready to migrate to an electronics records keeping system that meets legislative compliance requirements.

Another project stream is the "next generation registry". Locke explains Defence has a number of "distinct" registries filed in paper, books, on Excel spreadsheet, and in databases. "We want them under one umbrella."

IMX involves improvements to email management, shared folder filing, information access, collaboration creation and management of documents. "Our biggest challenge is the management of unstructured data. This includes the growth in email activity and home drive data."

The project is setting up rules for different classification of email, whether it is for information, for action, for endorsement, or for authorisation. This issue is close to Locke's heart, as he receives at least 200 internal email alone daily. "So you look at email straightaway and know what you have to do," says Locke. "If it is just copied for my information, pretty much, I won't [need to] respond."

He cites the case of an email containing an attached document informing 10 people about an upcoming meeting. It is sitting in the inbox of 10 people. The recipients may send it to three other people for comment, who will also file it and print out the document.

"So now one attachment is in 30 places and some people also print it out." The new system will require the user to simply put a link to the attachment. "This is looking at the tools, procedures and how we manage people. It is just about using the tools better."

A different 'driver's licence'

The IMX project implementation is linked with NZDF's scheduled move to a new building a few blocks away on Aitken Street in the first quarter of 2007.

Locke says all staff moving into the new building will have to sit a "driver's licence" before they can log on to the system.

They will include the chief of the NZDF, to the records clerk. "It will be basic," says Locke of the examination, "but the point is, we are enforcing a cultural change using the new building as a catalyst."

Locke says 500 people will be involved in the initial shift to the new building and all of them will attend a two-hour training session before taking what he calls "a little test".

He is also looking at the option of deploying Voice over IP in the new building. A VoIP pilot is ongoing at the old Fonterra building occupied by some NZDF staff. "We are also looking at wireless and other telecommunications capabilities".

He is also checking out virtualisation for the hundreds of NZDF servers. "We have to," he says, "We are running out of electricity, rack space and air-conditioning."

For security and productivity reasons, NZDF does not offer universal internet access to staff. "The rule is quite simple," Locke explains. "There is no internet access from the desktop. We have some internet desktops that are scattered around the offices that are not connected in any way to our networks. Typically people have to get up from their desks to go and log on and use their personal web mail, etc. We do not encourage its use for long periods as we view this as being unproductive as in most cases the access is not work related."

There are "isolated instances" where a KVM switch would be available. This means there are two desktops with a switch between them which allows access to the internet from the desk where the person can prove it is work-related.

"Firstly, it means we have much better security with our network and secondly, I think we are much more productive as a result. In other words, people are not tempted to spend all their days on TradeMe or downloading music, etc, both of which I have experienced in other places."

Hand in glove

Locke says a key in working for a complex organisation like NZDF is making sure IT is aware of what is going on in various parts of the business, and that his colleagues are also aware of what's happening in his department. "We are really always hand in glove with what is going on in the organisation. The measure of our success is our interaction with the business, and their confidence to keep working with us."

Locke says in the NZDF hierarchy, the CIO is akin to the one-star general level. NZDF has a "one-star program" which organises regular catch-up meetings among senior business leaders. He says these meetings are held every two or three weeks.

Sometimes these are formal meetings where external people are invited to talk to NZDF senior business leaders. On the IT side, Locke has invited suppliers like Microsoft, Telecom New Zealand, HP, SAP and Vodafone to discuss their ongoing projects with NZDF.

Being part of an organisation like NZDF carries a distinct challenge for the IT department. As Locke explains, the reality is IT is competing for funds with operations.

"We could always use more. You are always constrained by resources, you can not always have the latest and the greatest, we have to space our requirements."

While there is no "revenue element" at NZDF, "We do have obviously large costs." He declines to state the IT budget for NZDF, describing it simply as "extremely large".

"The organisation is very IT centric and we have a fair go at the head table when it comes to money," he states. "We have to manage that from all sorts of perspectives, but certainly from a public funds point of view."

Wellington to Waikanae

Locke keeps a hectic work schedule. He has "very long working days" starting at 8 to 8.30am after he drops off his youngest daughter to school. "It is very rare for me to be home before 7pm." He usually works half a day on a weekend, either Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

On the morning of the interview with MIS, Locke reviews his diary in his Apache PDA. There are meetings every hour from 9am to 4pm.

"This is not untypical," he says. "It is just straight meetings all the time. They could be all over the place, in the head office, camps and bases like Devonport and Whenuapai in Auckland."

At least once a month, Locke visits a camp to see first-hand the issues the users face, for instance, around connectivity. "I am a big believer in trying to get out and see people."

This schedule does not perturb him, and it helps that he relishes the busy aspects of the job. "What keeps me motivated? It is the excitement. It is the change, it is the challenge, it's making sure we can support the organisations, making sure we have a very robust infrastructure. I think it is the best CIO job in the country."

He also makes sure there is room for non-work related activities. "My big thing is exercise," says Locke. He joins the annual Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge which covers around 160 kilometres.

Lessons in leadership

Locke does not expect his current job to be long-term, as he believes ultimately, the NZDF CIO post should be handled by a military person. He says this could be achievable as early as the next couple of years.

Any senior role, he says, has to have a time span of between three to five years. "Outside of that you become stale, you start to get defensive about what you have done, you start to run out of new ideas about how to keep fresh and challenged, how to motivate staff and so on." When that happens, "It is time to move on."

He says the private sector could take lessons from NZDF's leadership succession program. "They have a very good mechanism to promote people. In my view, only the best people end up in the top jobs. There is a big weeding out process. It is often extremely effective."

He says those in leadership positions in the NZDF have experience both in operations, managing deployments locally and overseas; and have taken strategic roles. "They have got to have people skills and most importantly, the number one issue is leadership."

He is emphatic a CIO's role should be strategic. "People look to the CIO in the organisation for our IS and IT capability. They look to us for advice. You have to be at the top table with your views on enabling future strategic direction. That is critical. You have got to see the bigger picture; you have got to also keep up with constantly changing technology."

Flexibility is a key trait. He says a close look at the background of successful CIOs will reveal they may come from diverse fields but share one outstanding feature. "They have the ability to transform themselves from being an IT person, an accountant, consultant, lawyer or programmer into doing something else."

He does, however, admit to having a view of leadership that could be considered "old fashioned". He once read, "You should never be a CEO or have a C-level job in a very large organisation until you have teenage children."

Locke - who has a 26-year-old son working in finance; a 24-year-old daughter working in HR in London; and a 13-year-old daughter - attests this is true.

"Age, experience and managing kids, they go together," he says with a smile. "If you can manage teenage children you can manage anything!"

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