Interview: Wood Mackenzie CTO John Linwood on life after the BBC

John Linwood, former chief technology officer at the BBC, talks about winning a high-profile employment tribunal and his new job at Wood Mackenzie

It’s been a long 18 months for John Linwood, former chief technology officer (CTO) at the BBC. He was fired by the broadcaster, branded a scapegoat for the failure of a £100m IT project, started a CTO role at Wood Mackenzie, and successfully sued the BBC for unfair dismissal.

But sitting across the table, cool, calm and even humorous, Linwood looks like he has put everything behind him.

Proving that one man can win against a corporation as big as the BBC doesn’t come easily and Linwood said it was the support from his family and the IT industry that got him through those “dark days”.

“I got lots and lots of support from not only people I knew, but people I didn’t know,” Linwood tells Computer Weekly in his first interview since his dismissal. “I got emails from all sorts of people going, ‘No you haven’t done anything wrong here, stick with it.’”

It became clear that the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI) project was in trouble in 2010 when delays began to set in. But it wasn’t until May 2013 when the digital production archive project was permanently stopped and Linwood suspended that things started to heat up.

Being the CTO, Linwood was made the scapegoat and sacked in July 2013. He was then forced to defend himself in Parliament as MPs investigated the waste of licence fee payers’ money. But the ordeal culminated with Linwood winning a high-profile employment trial which found the BBC had been unfair in dismissing him in its desperation to find a “fall guy”.

“It’s tough but you’ve got to live with yourself for the rest of your life,” says Linwood, talking about the tribunal. “So it was important for me that I stood up and did the right thing and fought, because otherwise I’d spend the rest of my life regretting that I didn’t do it.”

This landmark case was the first time IT versus business responsibility was tested in a public court. Lessons learnt from the tribunal could prevent IT being made the scapegoat for management mistakes in the future.

But what advice would Linwood give to any IT executives who find themselves in a similar precarious situation? “The important thing is to tell the truth and be honest. You can’t get caught out if you’re telling the truth,” he says.

A new start

Since June 2014, he has been the CTO at global energy, metals and mining consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, which lent him support during those trying months – even offering him his job in April 2014, before the tribunal had started.

With the court case behind him, Linwood has settled into his new role where he heads up technology and ICT at the firm.

Big data dominates innovation at Wood Mackenzie. As an information services provider, it analyses data about energy, mining and metals from many different sources and shapes it into industry forecast reports.  

Linwood says that, using the expertise of 500 in-house analysts, these reports can project data up to 30 years into the future in fine detail, such as how much capital will be spent on a particular oil well in 20 years’ time. The company also uses Google graphical tools to zoom into oil fields and see all the data aggregated in one place.

“So this makes Wood Mackenzie quite unique,” he says. “The sheer depth of data we hold is incredible.”

Collecting data from all types of sources – from government data to conversations with a miner in Chile – presents the company with a challenge in dealing with structured and unstructured datasets. But the other challenge it faces is dealing with the amount of data and running big forecasting models, while making slight adjustments as energy prices fluctuate.

“One of the problems is we’ve got is so much data,” he says.

Linwood says that, if you can name a database system, the firm has probably got one somewhere. But Wood Mackenzie is predominantly an Oracle shop, using Microsoft SQL Server as well and a number of different tools to query the data, including next-generation tools to handle unstructured data.

Linwood is interested in semantic search technologies at the moment. Systems which take the meaning of information, words and natural language help the company dealing with countries all over the world, where different unstructured datasets have different meanings.

But it’s the speed of data which is particularly valuable. “Our customers are investors, banks, governments, producers, energy producers and being able to predict something quickly is incredibly valuable for them.”

And once the report is finished Linwood says the really exciting thing is how Wood Mackenzie delivers the data to its customers through the cloud, allowing them to drill down into the statistics more than ever.

“From a technology point of view, it’s incredibly exciting,” he says. “We deliver everything digitally to our customers through a portal, where they can do their own searches, queries as well as download the data and put it into their own models.”

Linwood says a customer might not completely agree with all of Wood Mackenzie’s data – for instance it might not agree with its forecast for US GDP in ten years’ time. But the portal allows clients to tweak the reports with their own models, which then changes the results.

Internal IT

Linwood says Wood Mackenzie has historically been quite conservative with its own IT. One of his big tasks is rolling out technology enhancements to staff, such as a bring your own device (BYOD) scheme, online storage facilities and staff Wi-Fi.

There are just over 100 people in the IT department with most in Edinburgh and the US, which look after the IT requirements of the 26 offices around the world. While the team outsources much to large suppliers, it also develops technology in-house, including workflows and big data models, as well as their economic and strategic models.

“Unlike other companies that have outsourced entire chunks of IT, Wood Mackenzie has used technology providers as an extension to the technology team.”

The team is hiring and increasing the size of its London IT department, and Linwood is also looking at building up centres of excellence around the world – a concept he first approached during his time at Yahoo. Linwood believes if different locations become responsible for an area of technology  it will drive deeper expertise and innovation from “a critical mass of thinking”.

The London office has been doing a lot with mobile, because there are so many suppliers in the capital, while Houston could look to become the experts in cloud technology.

The board

When Linwood took the job at Wood Mackenzie he said it was important for him to be “on the top table”. Alongside the head of consulting, head of sales, head of research, HR director, chief executive officer and chief financial officer, they all run the business.

After the BBC drama, Linwood says he wasn’t going to join an organisation where technology wasn’t thought of from the top down. He says there is a trend towards technology being considered as part of the entire business, as he sees more board-level non-executive technologists. He sits on the board of a small listed company, “and I wouldn’t say I was wholly hired because I was a technologist, but that has certainly helped”, he explains.

And it is this understanding of technology which is transforming business on a huge scale. Pointing to the likes of Amazon, Linwood says it didn’t set out to become a retailer, only to use technology for strategic value.

“That requires a different engagement,” he says. “That requires us to understand what the business is trying to achieve, not what he business is asking us for.”

Harking back to the way the BBC failed to engage the business and IT over the DMI initiative, Linwood says that, all too often, the business side of an organisation goes to its technologists with a fully formed technology idea, asking for it to be realised.

“The problem is you’re not leveraging technology, and you’re also probably giving the technologists a task that will be difficult, because you haven’t thought through the technology in mind.”

But he says if technologists change the conversation to ask the business about the problem it wants to solve, you end up with a much better strategic solution, as well as one that’s easier for the technology team to deliver.

“And then the business suddenly goes, ‘These guys have become somebody I want to talk to.’”

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