CIO profile: Tony Johnson of Zavvi

Tony Johnson is a member of a minority group - IT directors who sit on the main board of a major company. Johnson heads IT at the Zavvi...

Tony Johnson is a member of a minority group - IT directors who sit on the main board of a major company. Johnson heads IT at the Zavvi Entertainment Group, the company that emerged from a management buyout of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Retail in September 2007.

It is a triple pleasure for Johnson. He has become a company director in a major retail chain. He is working in IT for which he has developed a deep career attachment. And the backdrop to his working life is the music business, for which he has a passion. He admits to being a fan of 1980s groups such as The Smiths and New Order.

So how did Johnson reach this working life nirvana? And what lessons does his experience have for other IT professionals setting out on their career journey?

The answer to the first question is not by any conventional route. Johnson took a degree in land management, but then decided that the property world was not for him. "It would not have been a career that could have kept me interested for a lifetime," he says.

So what to do? Cut loose from university life, he had to find an income. What better than to take a Christmas temp job at Our Price Records, where there might be the odd opportunity to listen to some music in between serving the seasonal shoppers? It was one of those casual decisions which don't seem very important at the time, but turn out to be life-changing.

Johnson liked the work and went on to become a full-time employee, eventually managing Our Price stores in London. A life in retail beckoned. But then IT intervened in the shape of an electronic point-of-sale system. A new system, appropriately called Elvis, which stands for Epos Linked Virgin Information System, was being rolled out to all the stores of what had morphed into Virgin Our Price as the result of a merger.

Johnson joined the team as a trainer. Teaching store staff how to use the new kit proved to be an unusual route into IT, but also a surprisingly effective one. From the start, Johnson has been interested in bringing IT to the masses - showing how people working at the coalface of a company can gain benefit from it. It has marked him out as very different from the back-office nerd of IT legend.

"I guess I have always seen that the inherent value in IT is only as good as the people who make use of that technology. Unless you give people the skills and ability to use the technology at their disposal then you will never realise true value from it. I have always seen that as a very fundamental and important aspect," Johnson says.

But there was more to it than that. In IT, Johnson believed he had found a career that would keep him fascinated for a lifetime, in a way that property management never could. But it was not the bits and bytes that intrigued him.

"Pretty much from day one I discovered that I had a previously hidden and untapped interest in the application of IT," he explains. "I don't come from a technical background so I am not interested in technology for technology's sake. I am interested in technology from the perspective of what value it can drive and deliver to a business as a whole or to the end-user through the exploitation of that technology."

It is a perspective on the role of IT which, at the time Johnson was taking it in the early 1990s, was comparatively rare. It is by no means entrenched in all organisations today - and there are also too many IT professionals who still see the technology as an end in itself.

And yet a business-focused approach to an IT career poses its own challenges, as Johnson can testify. After all, if you come from a non-technical background but are managing a team of technical specialists, you need to understand what they are talking about. Fail to do so, and you lose their respect.

Johnson tackled the problem largely by learning on the job. He read the literature and, in the later stages of his career, has used information from the internet to bring himself up-to-speed on the key technologies.

"For me, one of the key things about employing and working with people who have a more detailed level of technical expertise is to tap into that knowledge, not replicate it, but take key aspects of what they know to inform my own understanding of whatever the particular technology might be," he says.

Johnson believes there is a key balance to strike when a business person is managing technologists. "One of the key skills for an IT leader who is not technical is being able to interpret what technical people are telling them, being able to understand when the technical people are pulling wool over your eyes. You need to be able to call people's bluff when you sense that somebody technical is trying to bamboozle you with too much technical jargon," he says.

The question is, how do you set about it? Over the years, Johnson has refined his approach into a fine art. "The key is asking the right kind of questions that will draw out the information you need," he says. "It is not about catching people out. It is testing their assertions and understanding that your interpretations of what they have told you is accurate, as much as anything.

"I would not want to paint a picture of people trying to mislead me. That is not the case at all. It is more about ensuring my interpretation and translation of what has been said by a technical person is accurate and I can relate that to what it is I am looking to achieve in terms of business delivery.

"I think the background I have in project management and business analysis is vital. A key part of my role on a day-to-day basis is understanding both IT and the business, and minimising the potential for confusion between what the business is looking to achieve and what the IT specialists are thinking," he adds.

In essence, Johnson is a one-company man. He has had the same employer through its various mergers and buy-outs. But that has not stopped him developing the breadth of perspectives that a manager who had skipped about between half a dozen employers would have gained. That is because Johnson has shrewdly developed his career by moving around the company to where the action is.

He has worked on business systems and the supply chain, both key elements of what, at the time, was Virgin Retail. Indeed, while he was working on the supply chain project (see CV: Tony Johnson), he was not within IT. "It gave me an outsider's view of the IT function."

It turned out that the rest of the business was not quite as enthused about the contribution IT was making as the IT guys imagined. It was a key insight which Johnson was able to put to good use when he became head of IT at Virgin Retail, moving up to his board-level post a few months later. "Addressing that issue became one of my top priorities," he says.

Since then, he has introduced a raft of measures that have boosted IT's value contribution to the company. What is the bottom line lesson for other IT professionals who might want to emulate Johnson's career and reach the board? "I think you need to develop a rounded understanding of your business," he says.

With more taking that advice, main board IT directors may not remain a minority group for too much longer.

CV: Tony Johnson 


1989: Graduated from Reading University with degree in land management.

1989: Joined Our Price Records for Christmas job and stayed on managing stores in London.

1993: Had first brush with IT as electronic point-of-sale training co-ordinator on roll-out for new system to 248 Virgin Our Price stores.

1993: Moved on to become a project manager responsible for full lifecycle of software development.

1996: Appointed a senior project manager by Virgin Retail responsible for line management of team of project managers.

2000: Promoted to business systems manager at Virgin Retail with buck-stops-here responsibility for system delivery and performance.

2002: Moved on to become supply chain IT manager. Worked on project which fully "re-engineered" the supply chain.

2003: Became head of IT at Virgin Retail. Responsible for ensuring that IT can support the company's business strategy.

2003: Appointed a full board member at Virgin Retail as IT director.

2007: Participated in management buy-out of Virgin Retail which resulted in creation of Zavvi Entertainment Group. Currently its IT director.


Johnson's role within Zavvi Entertainment Group 


Tony Johnson runs an IT function with an in-house staff of around 30. Some functions, including helpdesk, hardware maintenance, network infrastructure maintenance and some software maintenance are outsourced. The in-house team is structured into three core areas: an infrastructure team which "supports the nuts and bolts and keeps the systems running" a development team which "handles application development across all our platforms" a business systems team, which interfaces with the rest of the company and helps to translate business needs into systems that deliver.

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