"When the country is in economic difficulty, we're busy," says Joe Harley (pictured right). "So it's stress-testing all our IT systems. We've got around a million calls a day coming into the department."
Harley is pleased he was able to complete the bulk of a huge transformation of the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) infrastructure and standards before the credit crunch struck last year. Harley pitched up to take the Department's top IT job five years ago and immediately embarked on the project. He says the new IT systems have meant the Department has been able to respond more flexibly to a massive leap in demand for its services.
For example, calls to Jobcentre Plus are 68 per cent up on last year. But a new VoIP network means that it has been possible to switch calls around the country by moving staff "virtually" from pension centres to handle Jobcentre Plus telephone enquiries.
Harley's team has implemented a whole raft of new systems since the transformation programme began. "We implemented a new employment and support allowance system last November, on time and on budget," he says. "It was a huge endeavour, but you don't hear much about it in the newspapers, likely because it was successful."
Harley's move to the DWP was a surprising career shift after spending 25 years in the private sector, most of it in the oil industry. He says: "One of the things that attracted me was the size of the challenge. I am someone who relishes big challenges and big targets."
Those challenges don't come much bigger than modernising the IT support for Britain's welfare and pension services. So how do you become an IT pro trusted to spend a budget as long as a telephone number?
For Harley, it all started in a pretty ordinary way with a degree in IT and operational research from Paisley University followed by string of techie jobs in computer suppliers and local government.
His first big break came when he joined the British National Oil Corporation, which was privatised as Britoil in 1982. After time working in technical and IT management roles, he was promoted to trading and operations manager in the business.
"I was selling the company's oil to refineries around the world and arranging for it to be shipped to them," he recalls. Becoming, in effect, a customer of IT services proved an illuminating experience.
"One of the things I would say to younger people is that a spell in the line of business is important," he says.
But it wasn't long before Harley was back in IT as the regional IT manager for BP Exploration's European business. This was the late eighties and early nineties and the concept of outsourcing was developing fast.
Harley worked on putting together a partnership and alliance approach for delivering IT services in the North Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Alaska. The work caught the imagination of the prestigious Harvard Business Review which wrote it up as a case study. Harley reckons there was no firm correlation between the useful publicity and his climb under the promotion later within BP, but it can't have hurt.
And his next move was his most important yet. "We were restructuring at the time and the CIO gave me a choice of going to Aberdeen or Anchorage," Harley recalls. "I'd been around Scotland a lot and I thought it would be good to have something distinctive to do."
He describes the three years he spent in Alaska as "a big turning point". He was responsible for all BP's IT in the icy state.
He recalls: "There I was, miles from anywhere, with a big job to do. There wasn't anybody else to ask and the time-shifts between Alaska and the UK weren't helpful in getting connections. It made me feel that if I could be successful in Alaska, the final frontier, I could be successful anywhere."
During his time there, he created an infrastructure and support environment across all the oil fields - not easy when temperatures sometimes plummeted to -60°C. He created an information strategy for the Alaskan business and cut IT costs by half.
Small wonder that BP eventually wanted him back in the UK to take on an even bigger task - CIO for all of BP Exploration's upstream business, the part of the company that searches for and recovers oil. Again, Harley found himself involved in strategy creation and cost cutting, both jobs that involved taking the IT function - and, through that, the rest of the business - on a roller-coaster of change.
Harley sees the ability to lead change as a key skill for a successful IT professional aiming for the top. If anything, being good at change is more important than being good at IT technologies.
"You can always get technical support around you if you need it," he says, "But you must have the capacity for change and the ability to add value to the enterprise - that's what IT is all about. I describe myself as a change agent who happens to know something about IT."
It was the kind of hard-core management thinking that made him a natural choice when he stepped up to become BP's global IT vice-president responsible for all the application portfolios, datacentres and consultancy - and a staff of 1,300.
Harley quit the oil industry in 2000. After 20 years, he felt he needed a change and, besides, he was head-hunted for a job which contained just the kind of big challenge he likes. ICI Paints was a major international business but, strangely, it didn't have an IT function. Harley spent four years building one for it and refreshing the organisation's technology.
His current post at the DWP, he says, gives him an opportunity to put something back into society. "The DWP has customers - the jobless and pensioners, for instance - who depend on us for the services we provide. So the work is much more fulfilling than helping to pipe petrol to the pumps."
What does Harley see as the key to building a successful IT career? "It's a track record of success," he says. "You must have it. You must pursue bold moves and not settle for mediocrity. You have to take measured and thoughtful risk and embrace an agenda for change.
"And you can't do anything unless you look after your own capabilities and skills. So you have to keep yourself up to date and you have to grow people around you.
"A CIO worth his salt is going to have real executive engagement - and speak the language of the business. So you have to be a business executive understanding the business issues of the day. To me, a CIO is a board-level appointment dealing with board-level issues.
"I think that's where IT should sit and if it doesn't, it's not at the right level of engagement."
|CV: Joe Harley|
|1974: Graduates from Paisley University with degree in IT and operational research and takes first of a series of technical jobs in computer industry and local government.|
|1977: Joins British National Oil Company, privatised as Britoil in 1982, in a succession of technical and managerial roles.|
|1986: Becomes trading and operations manager at Britoil, selling North Sea crude to oil refineries around the world.|
|1987: Moves to Glasgow as regional IT manager, Europe for BP Exploration following its acquisition of Britoil.|
|1993: Emigrates to North America as IT director of BP Alaska Inc., responsible for all IT in the state, including the huge Prudhoe Bay operation.|
|1996: Moves back to Europe to become CIO for BP Exploration's global upstream business and later also takes on responsibility for European downstream business.|
|1998: Takes role as global IT vice-president for the whole of BP.|
|2000: Decides to quit oil industry and takes post as CIO of ICI Paints to create new IT function for the company.|
|2004: Joins the Department for Work and Pensions as IT director general and CIO.|
|Joe Harley's role at the DWP|
Joe Harley heads the IT function at the DWP and is responsible for an annual IT spend of £1.2bn. During his time at the Department, he led a programme that reduced IT headcount from 1,200 to 500 - but he also recruited 90 staff from the private sector. He is a member of the DWP's executive team and board, which is responsible for creating the department's business strategy.
This was first published in October 2009