CIO profile: from IBM to the Isle of Man

Allan Paterson is a CIO who likes to say "yes".

Allan Paterson is a CIO who likes to say "yes". Since he arrived as head of IT for the Isle of Man government, he has said "yes" to a whole raft of projects that have helped to deliver improved services to the citizens of the pint-sized isle (population 80,000).

Paterson believes that the ability to say "yes" - and then deliver on what you have said "yes" to is vital in getting IT taken seriously by its users.

He says, "The key to a successful career in IT is delivery, delivery, delivery." But that does not mean that IT pros have to say yes to every off-the-wall idea they are asked to implement. They have to be sure the idea fits the organisation's agenda. And they also need to make certain that it will not undermine the overall direction of the IT strategy.

In fact, it means that an IT professional who aspires to lead a sizeable team needs the "political" skills to empathise with the ambitions of users but the steely centre to ensure that those ambitions do not blow the core strategy off course.

That pretty much sums up Paterson in a nutshell and it is why his six-year sojourn on the Isle of Man has proved so successful. The island faces many of the IT problems of the UK government, but in microcosm.

Paterson's career contains a wealth of handy pointers for younger professionals. It all started in a conventional way when he left university and became a trainee programmer with IBM.

Looking back, Paterson sees his IBM years as an especially valuable foundation to his career.

"In those days," he says, speaking of the far-off 1960s and 1970s, "IBM invested in education for you technically and professionally. So I got a lot of personal and technical development, including a diploma in management - a broad base for the future."

It is one of the reasons why he started his career looking at IT in a wider context than merely the bits and bytes. "Seeing the big picture as well as the detail has always been part of my agenda," he says. "I fly at 30,000 feet but I also walk at ground level."

From system analysis work at IBM, Paterson segued into consultancy. "I suddenly had to stand up in front of very senior executives and be accountable for what was going on," he recalls.

"It was also a valuable lesson in having to co-ordinate resources for which I did not have direct responsibility. I started to learn how to make sure that the right people had the right information at the right time - and to report effectively."

He recalls sitting in a Midlands hotel room on a Sunday night before he was due to begin his first major assignment (for the then Cadbury Schweppes) making notes in a little book. One was, "Have confidence because 90% of the time you are right and the other 10% is OK as long as you do not keep repeating it."

Another was, "Do it. Do not prevaricate - just do it." Both of these simple pieces of philosophy have become central to his management credo over the years.

Paterson's time in consultancy also provided a lesson in hard knocks. Near the end of one big assignment, he briefed a client verbally on his findings before going on holiday. When he returned, he found that his written report, which he had left to be typed up, had been changed in his absence to meet a salesman's objectives. "There was a whole integrity thing going on there," he says.

Time to move on.

On to Findus

Next stop was Findus, the frozen-food maker. And some more hard lessons. The company, part of Nestle, was already losing market share to own brand products. The company faced restructuring - and that included IT. Paterson was part of the team that recommended Findus's dedicated IT operation should merge into Nestle's. "But I decided I did not want to be part of it."

He moved to British Sugar and then, via the Kellogg Co of GB, to Bass. This was the middle phase of Paterson's career and like the middle phases of most successful IT careers it was a case of "onwards and upwards". But it was also a case of learning on the job.

At Kellogg's, for example, Paterson found himself managing an IT operation with 67 permanent staff in multiple offices. It was considerably more than he had managed in previous posts. "It took me a while to realise that I needed to come out of my own office and talk to staff in other parts of the building," he recalls.

Another lesson was about how he had to work more and more with senior management. "It meant listening to their agenda and understanding their requirements. In part, it meant becoming a bit of a chameleon. In a large company, the dynamics change in different parts of the organisation and you have to react and respond in ways which are appropriate to them."

The need to plug into users' needs also proved important at Bass, where Paterson played a key role in helping to update the company's IT infrastructure for the challenges of the high-growth 1990s. Paterson noted that one of his colleagues would sit in his office and bad-mouth "users". It was not an approach which set the right tone to engage with users who needed IT services, says Paterson.

"Users are people like you and me," he says. "They have their own agenda, experience and contribution to make. I learnt very early on that you have to meet and greet them - and build alliances."

But building alliances is not always easy - as Paterson discovered when he moved to construction company Amey as director of group information services. He found himself working for a strong chief executive. "And, ultimately, he did not like me."

Perhaps Paterson should have recognised the warning sign at his interview when he was asked, "If the chief executive asks you for a laptop in the colour of his dining room, what would you reply?"

Alongside his IT duties, Paterson was in charge of commissioning the company's Mayfair headquarters. The project went well but, looking back, Paterson admits he did not build the right kinds of bridges with the CEO who was going to work there.

When the irresistible force meets the immovable object, there is only one way to avoid a bust-up. The irresistible force has to leave for pastures new. Which is what Paterson did. The Isle of Man beckoned.

So how did Paterson find this impressive selection of top jobs with blue-chip organisations to advance his career? He admits that he discovered some of them by keeping his eyes on the Sits Vac columns. He won the posts at Amey and Isle of Man, for example, after replying to advertisements in The Sunday Times.

The right CV

In that situation, the CV is the key to getting an interview. "It has to be an action-oriented CV which focuses on achievements," says Paterson. "And it needs to be written in language which addresses the job specification. I do not have a standard CV. I modify it for each job application."

There is a final important lesson from Paterson's career. He has made it to a top IT job, but not at the expense of his family or his own work-life balance. To mainlanders, the Isle of Man may seem like an obscure lump of rock in a storm-tossed sea but, to Paterson, it is a little piece of paradise.

"In IT terms, I have not cut myself off," he says. He points to key talks he is currently holding with Microsoft's Redmond campus about a long-term relationship. "But I am home every night, a quarter hour after I have left the office. And I think the family and I have really benefited from being here."

And Paterson is very happy to say "yes" to that.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment