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CIO interview: Claire Priestley, IT director, City, University of London

City, University of London's IT director is leading her team's drive for innovation while seeking collaboration with other public sector bodies in the capital

City, University of London IT director Claire Priestley likes to do more than the everyday IT leadership tasks of improving the technology across campus and introducing new innovations. With the institution's location in the heart of London, she's keen to make the most of opportunities for collaboration across the public sector in the capital.

Priestley, who held a number of senior IT roles over the last decade at City, was appointed as IT director in August 2016 to give continuity for a plan that had been previously set out and bring in continuous innovation to the university. 

“For once, I wasn’t hired to solve a problem. I was already part of the directorate before taking on my current role, and we were in the final stages of implementing a transformational strategy that had been ongoing for the preceding four years,” she says.

“I still work with the guiding principles of that strategy. Largely, that means outsourcing the commodity IT, rationalising the infrastructure and putting choice at the point at which it touches the user – building a heterogeneous edge and homogenous core.” 

Diverse requirements

Since taking on the most senior role in IT at the university last year, Priestley has implemented a further restructuring, and the team is building capability for innovation and hot-housing, furthering assurance and data capabilities, while keeping services running. 

Keeping the lights on at City is by no means a simple task. She is supported by a team of 135 in-house staff, who look after the technical estate for an average population of around 17,500 students in addition to over 2,500 staff based at 23 buildings and five main locations. 

“Much of our work is routine and operational, but the nature of IT provision in a university can be pretty diverse,” says Priestley. 

The IT portfolio supporting that is also significant, including 5,000 desktops and laptops as well as more than 1,000 mobile devices. The team also supports about 220 teaching spaces with full audiovisual and teaching pods, lecture capture in 60 rooms and a further 80 spaces with a variety of audiovisual equipment. 

Additionally, the IT team looks after a number of Mac labs, specialist TV, radio and music studios, as well as radiography, optometry and engineering labs – plus on and offsite high performance computers. Core applications City runs are SAP, virtual learning environment Moodle and student management platform SITS. 

Currently, City has a highly virtualised server back-end and runs on a full software-defined network, with its fabric network to be extended by December 2017.  

Over the last few months, City has also delivered new hardware and PCs in over nine capital projects, including over 350 new PCs and collaborative working spaces, as well as technical upgrades in a total of 45 different rooms, including a lecture theatre, teaching rooms and new office spaces. 

Driving further innovation 

In addition to the standard hardware estate, there is also a range of other requirements, many related to up and coming technology innovations that come up without too much notice – and the team has to be able to respond.   

“As with all services, we sometimes need to scale rapidly, so we right-source for scale and/or in niche areas of expertise where it makes commercial sense to do so,” says Priestley. 

These initiatives include the replacement of City’s legacy enterprise service bus with BizTalk ESB. Priestley says decisions have already been made as to the approach and technology, with implementation due to start early in 2018. 

Another core area for the IT team is supporting the investment projects that underpin the university's key performance indicators (KPIs). “All projects are ultimately business projects and should have a clear line of sight to the KPIs which they are enabling, supporting or delivering” says Priestley. 

One such programme of work is Modernising Administration for Students (MafS),  led by the director of student and academic services, Susannah Marsden. MafS is City’s programme to create a more seamless administration service that helps teams work together more effectively to put students firstThis totals over 10 projects including data analytics, student communication and student engagement.

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Recent milestones under MafS include the delivery of simplified user interfaces through the SITS E:Vision application, reducing complexity and streamlining processes. 

Other projects include work to facilitate the university’s research targets. According to Priestley, IT initiatives related to research include delivering systems to support grant management administration, ethics decisions and data. 

To further enhance student experience, the university’s IT team has also launched an app to help students navigate their way across City’s 23 buildings and its many teaching rooms. 

Introduced at the start of this academic year, CityNav is an app and web-based indoor wayfinding tool based on Google Maps, to provide door-to-door navigation from home through to the correct room where students can find their lecture or personal tutor.  

With the introduction of so many new items to City’s technology portfolio, security has also taken priority in Priestley’s agenda. One of the early, user-facing deliverables for information security is the implementation of PhishMe – a human phishing defence system including simulator, reporter, triage and intelligence functionalities.   

“As with all universities, we have a high volume of transient users and as such, we need our users to be as savvy as possible to the threat of phishing attacks,” says Priestley. 

“Harnessing their support in the early detection of threat is a real benefit and integrates well to improve our overall security posture."

External collaborations 

The concepts of smart campuses, smart buildings and smart cities are “tremendously exciting” to Priestley, and a lot of ideas for further improvements in the student experience are drawn from City’s proximity to innovation hubs, in which she is actively involved.

“Working at a university in the heart of London means I can’t fail to have an eye on [London’s first chief digital officer] Theo Blackwell’s appointment and the planned transformation for London as a global tech hub,” says Priestley.   

"How we collaborate across disciplines, districts and services is an area for which I have a particular passion – I think there’s a wealth of unexplored opportunity that can benefit everyone,” she adds. 

An example of such collaboration is the Connectivity over London initiative, launched by Priestley with an aim to provide comprehensive wireless connectivity across London – initially involving a number of public sector organisations such as universities, local authorities and NHS hospitals. 

“But there’s so much more we could achieve,” says Priestley. This includes CIO+1, a series of events she designed to improve diversity and collaboration in the IT sector by giving underrepresented groups access to networking opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. But there is still more on Priestley’s innovation radar. 

“Being in the higher education sector has me excited about artificial intelligence and augmented reality,” she says. “These technologies already feature in assisting students to simulate ‘real’ working conditions across a range of disciplines, and we’ve clearly only just scratched the surface so far.”

“How we collaborate across disciplines, districts and services is an area for which I have a particular passion. I think there’s a wealth of unexplored opportunity that can benefit everyone”

Claire Priestley, London’s City University

According to Priestley, the list of everyday tasks and demands to keep track and implement innovation is long, but the main challenge goes back to the ever-present CIO dilemma of how to do more with less. 

“How do we achieve quality constrained growth? How do we find clarity with ever-increasing data? How do we simplify without introducing greater complexity? [Design thinker and cognitive scientist] Donald Norman mentioned this as far back as 1988, but I think it still holds true today – particularly in relation to the paradox of technology,” says Priestley. 

“For me, the technology questions are possibly the easiest to navigate. If we always focus on our user, we find our path,” she says. “The other questions require a little more thought.”

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