IAIN PATTERSON PROFILE
by Peter Bartram
The voice on the phone was both vague and insistent. Headhunters work that way. "Our client is looking for a CIO. No, we can't tell you who it is. But would you like to meet over dinner?"
Iain Patterson, at the time IT director of Aero Inventory, an aerospace inventory services provider, decided he would. Two months later, he was heading the IT function that was supporting construction of the 2012 Olympic stadiums and village.
"It was all a bit a cloak and dagger," he recalls. Patterson had five interviews with different members of the board of CLM, the consortium responsible for the construction elements of the 2012 Olympics.
"They asked how I would manage relationships and how I would turn a project around. It was difficult to reply without knowing more, so I had to give broad-brush answers," he explains.
Patterson was not told formally what the job entailed until he had agreed to sign on the dotted line. But he admits that by talking to people in his networks he'd worked out much earlier what was going on.
Still, there's an interesting question behind the story: what kind of IT professional would CLM and the Olympic Delivery Authority want to headhunt as IT supremo for the construction phase of the Games' preparation? Patterson has his own views on that.
"I think, first, it's about having the ability to see quickly where a problem lies so you can do something about it," he says.
"Then there's the need to understand the value networks that operate in an organisation, plus the ability to engage with the different stakeholders in an organisation and agree with them what should be delivered. And then [you need] the ability to put together a communication plan so the stakeholders can see what needs to be done to hit the objectives."
Sounds simple. In reality, these are the kind of skills it takes a varied career to develop. Patterson started after he left London University with a degree in electronics. He knew he was never going to be a technical wizard. In any event, he got his buzz from looking at the business issues.
Not surprisingly, then, he was less than a decade into his career when he set up his own company, 4Tec Security, with a partner. The idea was a good one: to develop software so that different security systems could work together. At this time Patterson started to realise that technical innovation is all very well, but it is what customers want that is really important.
He split with his partner after they disagreed over the future direction of the company. After a period of what Patterson calls "navel gazing" he joined the Swedish security multinational Gunnebo. It had just taken over another company and wanted Patterson to organise projects to incorporate electronic capability into the new firm's products.
Patterson had to build and manage a 60-person team. It was a challenge because, as he admits, he hadn't had any formal training in people management. But he has his views on how to spot talent.
"You know straight away when you meet a talented person by the way they talk and present themselves," he says.
"They exude confidence and have an ability to get to the point succinctly and not deviate when they're discussing an issue. It's partly about the way they use language. They talk primarily about the business - then about the technology. You can pick it out quite easily."
Patterson built a high-performance team, which contributed an e-sales strategy that delivered a 40% cut in cost of sales. The e-sales experience made Patterson a headhunters' target for the wave of dotcoms that were speeding off the runway at the end of the 1990s.
He joined Efdex, a start-up that had ambitious plans to set up an electronic trading system for the food and drink industry. Like so many of the dotcoms, it didn't last. Patterson moved on well before the crash and reckons he learnt from the experience.
Fortunately. Centrica was also thinking about how it might deliver e-services to its customers.
"I applied for a job on the basis that I knew how it wouldn't work and, therefore, could tell them how it would work," says Patterson.
"I had seen at first-hand what goes wrong with e-commerce and I knew what it would be necessary to do in order to ensure that an e-project was successful. Whether Centrica had only one person apply I will never know, but I got the job."
Patterson spent six years with Centrica and advanced through different roles to become head of business systems at British Gas Retail. So what's the secret of getting on in a FTSE 100 company?
"You need to understand what the business you're joining is all about, its position in its market environment, and its competitors," advises Patterson.
"Effectively, you're just another a business lever in that organisation, no different from marketing, operations or finance. You need to sit down and engage with the people who are your prime supporters and peers.
"The biggest thing you need to understand is how you are adding value - how you are transforming the way people perceive your department - and what are the tangible benefits you're providing for the users - internal and external. It all involves learning how to communicate and understand the big picture."
Patterson learnt something else during his spell at Centrica - when it's time to move on. By 2006, some of the senior executives and directors who'd driven a major programme of change were beginning to leave. It looked as though a new team would take over and Patterson realised that could mean they would have their own idea about who should take on the most senior IT roles.
Besides, he wanted to experience a company that had more international reach. Aero Inventory was a high-growth firm quoted on the AIM stock market. It was on the verge of winning a $1.6bn contract from Qantas, but lacked the IT to clinch the deal. That's where Patterson came in.
In little more than 18 months at the company, he drove through an IT programme that contributed to 75% growth in business. And that's when the phone rang
The irony of Patterson's current role working on Olympics IT is that he is helping to organise himself out of a job. Partly thanks to improved IT, construction work is said to be ahead of schedule. His work of integrating organisations and setting up new systems is pretty much finished.
Now he has his eyes on the future. He's been talking about the possibility of joining the Crossrail project, where his experience of providing IT for major construction would be highly relevant. But he's also tempted by other roles.
"I am pondering what to do," he says.
"I would like to go back into the commercial world and take the things I've learned on the Olympics programme into a major company."
He believes the lessons about integrating organisations, focusing on needs, liaising with stakeholders and delivering value have broad business applications.
"They are not there just to drive our careers or change technology," he adds.
"They are there to help us gain more customers and, therefore, make more money."
In a recession-battered world, there should be plenty of companies wanting to learn those lessons.
CV: Iain Patterson
1992: Set up own company, 4Tec Security, drawing on BSc in electronics from London University and experience working for Group4 Security and Modern Alarms
1996: Split up with his partner at 4Tec after disagreement on future direction of company. Joined Swedish security multinational Gunnebo as European development manager
1999: Joined dotcom start-up Efdex.com as European corporate development director to lead $100m programme developing trading platform for food and drink industry
2000: Business information systems manager at Centrica. Led project to create house.co.uk e-commerce application
2002: Business information systems manager at British Gas Retail; became head of business systems in 2004
2006: Information technology director at airline maintenance services provider Aero Inventory
2007: Headhunted as CIO of CLM/Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), with the task of integrating three construction companies and government bodies into a single IT delivery team.
Iain Patterson has a core IT team of 10 who in turn manage the work of around 120 IT specialists. The team provides the IT services needed by the firms constructing the Olympic facilities. When construction is complete - by 2010 if on schedule - the job of providing IT services for the administration of the Games passes to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog).