Dear Phil Pavitt, this one is for you

How often do you, as an IT leader, tell people in other parts of the business what you have achieved?

For many IT folk, that sort of self-promotion doesn’t always come naturally – and often that can be one of the causes of negative misperceptions about the IT department and its contribution to the organisation. There’s no harm in selling yourself a little.

Does your profile as an IT leader matter? I think it does – not only for success within your employer, but also for your career development and perhaps most of all for your next job move.

Of course, I’m saying that as a journalist. I like people who want to have a high profile because it usually means they are keen to talk to the press. But it’s a skill that more senior IT professionals would do well to master.

Last night, I was a speaker at a BCS event about IT leadership, and in particular what makes an influential IT leader. I was invited to talk about Computer Weekly’s UKtech50 list of the most influential people in UK IT, and how we decided on that list.

My fellow speakers included two of the top IT leaders in the UK, both of whom made it onto the UKtech50 – NHS CIO Christine Connelly and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) CIO Phil Pavitt. Both are high achievers, both highly influential, and both with different views on that most subjective of the criteria that defines influence – profile.

Phil came prepared, presumably knowing someone from Computer Weekly would be there. He quoted from an article on our Public Sector IT blog, one which he interpreted as labelling him a “lumbering mandarin”.

He then went on to describe his achievements in the 18 months since he joined HMRC from his previous CIO post at Transport for London – and a hugely impressive list it is too. Pavitt inherited something of a mess, with plenty of opportunity for change for someone willing to lead that change. He’s delivered huge cost savings, renegotiated major supplier contracts, and improved efficiency – the very model of what the new government ICT strategy aims to achieve.

“Does that make me a lumbering mandarin?” he asked?

I enjoyed the banter – and was also pleased that the HMRC CIO reads our website. Phil clearly has, wants and deserves a high profile. He joked about being irked that he wasn’t in the top 20 of the UKtech50 list.

“Do you mind that you weren’t in the top 20?” he asked Connolly. “Not at all,” she replied. “Well I do!” he retorted, to laughter from the audience.

And in many ways he is right – he, like any other CIO who has delivered change, improved their organisation, and put IT at the heart of business strategy – deserves every recognition they can get. I invited him to be interview by Computer Weekly so he can put his case to our readers – his peers – and I hope he will accept.

But Pavitt also highlighted the potential downside of profile, citing how a national newspaper called him “the most incompetent CIO in government” after the HMRC PAYE underpayment fiasco last year, and had reporters doorstepping him in his front garden.

That’s a symptom of being a high-profile public sector CIO. As he rightly pointed out, nobody writes stories about the HMRC computer systems that calmly collect £435bn of taxes a year, handle 75,000 import/exports into the UK every day, and process a billion transactions a year. Get one thing wrong, and that’s what most people remember.

Connolly made a similar point – wishing that in some cases she could make her profile a little lower, particularly where the old National Programme for IT was concerned, citing some of the important achievements even that much-criticised programme has delivered.

But like any successful individual, you have to learn to take the rough with the smooth.

I’ve always thought that IT has been too slow, or sometimes too scared, to shout from the rooftops about what we do and what we achieve. So for me, it’s great to see achievers like Connolly and Pavitt talking about what they do and getting out that positive message about IT. It is time UK IT put to bed old misperceptions about IT departments always getting things wrong.

I recognise that Computer Weekly has a part to play in that, and we’ll continue to do so. I hope more IT leaders will too, through whatever channels and on whatever platforms they prefer.

So, from me to you Phil: good job, keep it up.

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