CIO interview: Marcus East on leaving Comic Relief for Apple

As Comic Relief’s IT leader moves on to join Apple, he talks about the charity’s technology strategy and the jobs market for IT leaders.

As Comic Relief’s IT leader steps down to join Apple, he spoke to Computer Weekly about the charity’s technology strategy and the current state of the jobs market for IT leaders.

Having left Comic Relief’s IT leadership role this month to take up a job at Apple, where he will be running the firm’s electronic commerce systems unit, Marcus East has observed huge changes in the role of technology at one of the UK’s highest profile charities.

Two years ago, East was hired by Comic Relief, which runs the Red Nose Day and Sport Relief events, as head of future media and technology with a brief to reorganise the department and create an IT strategy.

Highlights of his tenure included taking the systems underpinning Red Nose Day to the cloud earlier this year to cope with peaks of demand during the event and, more recently, the launch of a bespoke events and fundraising platform ahead of the 2012 edition of Sport Relief.

There isn’t a replacement for East yet. In the short term, his responsibilities at Comic Relief will be split across a strategy director and an operations director.

“Comic Relief is still looking for a replacement, but that might take a little while. There will be several internal candidates for the role, as we developed a great team, but we will have to wait and see how that progresses,” East told Computer Weekly.

“Even though my job in the last couple of years has been of a transformational technology leader in terms of creating a team, a strategy and delivering a number of large projects, the team is now moving into a maturity phase,” he adds.

“It is now much more about managing the platforms that were built rather than building lots of new things. But technology leadership is still important and a critical part of senior management at Comic Relief.”

Past challenges

According to East, the most challenging part of the Comic Relief job was having to work “in an environment where not everybody fully understands how technology strategy works.”

“Certainly for me, my role has not been one of simply managing technology but one of educating the senior management team,” says East.

“I had a lot of fun working with our finance director. [Working together] really helped him understand the implications of technology and the decisions being made.”

East says educating the charity’s chief executive and other senior directors to the point where they acquired a much better understanding of technology and the role it plays has been a major challenge – especially on executing project Frost, which delivered Comic Relief’s most advanced fundraising and events management platform.

“If you are a charity and you are doing applications development at a large scale with 20 developers, it can be quite scary for those who don’t know what development is, because there is nothing to see or show - people start getting nervous,” East says.

“Having said that, my experience has been around managing expectations, so we got through a difficult period at the beginning and managed to deliver the project successfully in the end,” he adds.

“I understand technology can get very complex and as a leader, you are doing complex things you have to communicate and inform those who are not tech specialists. You cannot be a technology leader if you are not able to do that.”

Future plans

Project Frost was the last initiative led by East. The platform was developed to address the requirements presented by the Sport Relief campaign in March 2012. In 2010 about 175,000 people were involved in the event and Comic Relief is expecting more than twice as many supporters next year.

Among other things, the systems enable independent organisers to set up and manage their event efforts online, allow individual supporters to register for events, create teams and buy merchandising.

The system was built using agile methodologies and an architecture created by open source development firm Ibuildings, which has been used for commercial applications such as the BBC iPlayer.

The new platform has more fundraising functionality and flexibility than alternatives such as JustGiving and the transactional aspects are handled by WorldPay and PayPal. Frost also enables use of mobile interfaces and social networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as business intelligence tools that are useful to marketing and operations staff.

“Frost has been the biggest project not just for Comic Relief, but for the whole charity sector, on the basis that in the past, many charities tried to build such platforms,” says East.

“Comic Relief is the first charity that has successfully managed to build an end-to-end registration, event management and fundraising platform which is getting such positive reviews from users.”

The majority of the system has been delivered, with more features to be rolled out prior to the event. Other projects which are due to be completed in early 2012 include the release of iPhone and Android applications.

Moving on

The opportunity to change jobs was presented to East by a headhunter. His original plan was to remain at Comic Relief for longer, but the opportunity was too exciting to ignore.

“I am sad to leave. There are only a few organisations I would leave Comic Relief for and Apple is one of them,” he says.

In his new job, East be running the systems and platforms that underpin, as well as the Apple Online Store across the Europe, Middle East, India and Africa regions, so everything from website development to the back-end systems that support online commerce at the firm.

Having worked for years for the likes of IBM earlier in his career, East is comfortable with the unusual shift from the not-for-profit sector to corporate.

“I am a commercially-oriented tech leader and I will be just as happy [at Apple] if not happier. It is surprising though, the number of targets that Comic Relief has and the professionalism of its people parallels it to a major global corporation,” he says.

With so many IT professionals clinging on to their jobs and unemployment reaching higher levels, you could be excused for thinking there are no opportunities in UK IT.

However, there has been a fair amount of movement in the higher spheres of technology management in the last few months, with Centrica CIO Dave Bickerton moving on to HP, Paddy Power CIO Kevin O’Connor joining NYSE Technologies and other senior figures changing jobs. East’s take is that at the moment, there is an “absolute war for talent” in the marketplace.

“Organisations are beginning to prepare to come out of the recession and they are realising that the new battleground for success and market share will be online and through the use of technology,” he says.

“In order to do that, they will need to access the best people. So if you have vision and business insight, the world is an oyster.”

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