CIO Interview: David Henderson, CIO, A&N Media

“From now on everything has to go into the cloud,” says David Henderson, chief information officer at Daily Mail and Metro publisher A&N Media.

The internet is revolutionising the newspaper industry, and for the publisher of the Daily Mail and Metro, it is having the same effect on IT strategy.

David Henderson, CIO at A&N Media, says the publisher’s websites attract 100 million monthly users and the shift from print to web along with changes in working patterns means the IT underpinning the business has to respond accordingly.

“There is no more selection for on-premise solutions. From now on everything has to go into the cloud,” Henderson told Computer Weekly.

To that end, he has placed cloud computing at the heart of IT strategy, with the roll-out of cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 to 2,800 staff being the “most punishing bit” of the project.

Now that email and the firm’s intranet are cloud-based and tools are in place for workflow applications, the aim is to migrate its Agresso enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems -a task that will be finished by the first quarter of 2013.

“The main reason [for migrating to the cloud] is there are less and less people buying newspapers, so we have to be a lot faster at launching new businesses and propositions,” says Henderson.

“And time to market for these propositions was months and years, rather than days and weeks - things have changed a lot. But the main motivation here is around time to market rather than cash savings.”

The cloud challenge

Despite the benefits of the move to a leaner set-up, the team has also encountered challenges during the migration, particularly about the quality of data.

One of the key concerns, according to the CIO, was to clean the organisation’s data. He says the team “learned very quickly” that it is a lot easier to migrate to the cloud if data is clean and has integrity.

“There have been a number of false starts, [though] we have been trying to not replicate what we already have, trying to be smarter. The business has changed, so you need to be smarter about data and particularly about data cleansing,” says Henderson.

“We have not really decommissioned much of the kit that has been left behind, we kept it alive far too long and that needs to be tidied up - we are paying maintenance on it, but it is all lessons learned,” he says.

“When you are so focused on getting new services live and then you move on to the next project and the next, then you [risk] leaving some old services just gathering dust.”

As well as a data clean-up team, Henderson created a team that is focused on the decommissioning of old services and equipment and ensures nothing is left behind and all maintenance contracts are reviewed or terminated as appropriate.

IT suppliers and the cloud

According to Henderson, most vendors tell “a very generic story” when it comes to pitching cloud offerings.

“If you take the PowerPoint presentations we’ve had, be it from Dell, EMC, HP, IBM and the like, if you change the logos they would be all scarily similar," he says.

He emphasises the point by saying the key challenge is to find the right chemistry with suppliers that are happy to take some risks.

“There is nothing we are doing here that is so desperately bleeding edge –putting email and ERP in the cloud and adopting DropBox is not particularly unique. The challenge is to find vendors that are happy to take risks and work on a joint team basis,” Henderson says.

“The companies we are working with are happy to invest resources and do some work free of charge, because they will learn from it.”

The consumerisation advantage

There are hundreds of smartphones and tablets being used by A&N staff. Henderson says the realisation that there was no way of stopping people from using social media on their devices or wanting access to corporate mail at home, came about two years ago.

“The challenge for us is that we have a lot of systems that wouldn’t work very well in those devices, so there is a whole bunch of projects we kicked off to make that easier: getting to work, logging onto one portal and getting access to all the applications people need,” he says.

“We’ve used the consumerisation of IT as a ‘make it easier’ programme. The goal is to give [staff] a tech fund and make applications a lot easier to use, enable people to use them anywhere, have a single sign-on and remove complexity,” he adds.

“What really helps, though, is giving people big discounts on tech they love. It is amazing the positive impact that has on people’s opinion of IT – you can spend years and years doing ERP systems and cloud stuff, but if you give people accessible gadgets they will love you for it.”

Henderson says that, at the end of 2011, A&N gave 50% discounts to staff on iPads and other products. As a result, the company now has a third of its employees bringing personal devices into work.

“It is part of the journey of cultural change and us becoming agnostic about which technology we use - whether you use a PC or Apple computer, it is fine,” he says.

“Of course we are trying to play catch up and it is easier said than done. There are many applications that need rewriting, it is definitely work in progress, but it is about getting people to think things are one click away instead of getting them to use lots of screens.”

The final part of that journey, says Henderson, is changing employees’ mindset from managing devices to managing data: “The policies we used to have around journalists not being able to use Facebook at work are gone, but we will just track what they use and share information with their editor or manager – we are moving that paradigm and providing tools to ensure people don’t abuse the company’s assets in a consumerised world.”

Staff support

Henderson’s team of 260 people – reduced from 400 in the last two years – has been supportive of the company’s IT revamp and the boost in motivation is noticeable.

“What is fascinating is that the whole team almost self-organised itself [around the cloud migration]. There hasn’t been any formal plan, the team is just completely coming up with their own solutions and ideas,” he says.

“There is a huge amount of momentum behind it, way more than I have seen before.”

The CIO comments that while staff are interested in working on cloud and big-data-related projects, the challenge has been to augment the existing knowledge with external hires that can bring in the right skills.

“But for these things [cloud and big data] there are not a lot of people that have done that before; take Office 365 for example - it was really hard to find people who have gone through a full migration,” says Henderson.

“We hired about 35 people and the preferred skills were specifically around strong analysis, external hosting and outsourcing, because in a lot of cases this is about working with third parties.”

Henderson comments that, by next year – when most of the heavy lifting around the move to the cloud will be done – his team will be much more involved in innovation and new venture creation. However, he says the IT department is already much more about driving business change than it was two years ago.

“[The migration] is a catalyst in changing what our team does and getting people more focused on insight creation,” he says.

Lessons learned

Looking back at the work he has done around cloud so far, Henderson advises peers in the same situation to start small and get confidence from doing pilots in areas of the business that are receptive to IT.

“If you can get your chief executive and get some serious sponsorship, then that makes all the difference. I am very lucky in that I have a chairman that is really enlightened, who gets these things,” he says.

“And I know it sounds like a cliché, but we have a very diverse business. You have areas like Metro that are very forward thinking, whereas the Daily Mail is very risk averse – we would only start something at the Daily Mail if we proved that it works at the Metro, for example,” he adds.

“But once you try it, you will probably realise the risks are a lot less scary than you originally thought.”

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