CIO interview: Susan Cooklin, CIO, Network Rail

Susan Cooklin has had an eventful 2012, delivering major technology upgrades while driving projects to help the Olympic Games run smoothly

Susan Cooklin has had an eventful 2012. The CIO at Network Rail delivered major technology upgrades, while driving the projects required to help the London 2012 Olympic Games run smoothly. She is about to embark on a new cycle of transformation in January.

On top of that Susan Cooklin has received various honours – including making it to Computer Weekly's UKtech50 list of the most influential people in UK IT

She has also taken on new responsibilities at Network Rail to add to her IT remit. As of 30 November, Cooklin took responsibility for her employer’s finance and HR shared services, which saw her team expanded from 600 to 1,000 staff.

“The deliverables of the last few months came from a lot of hard work. It was a very difficult year for us. Because of the Olympics, we had a lot of change projects to deliver outside, which meant we had less time to do things,” Cooklin told Computer Weekly.

Out with the old 

Highlights of the work delivered by Cooklin’s IT team this year includes the completion of a major upgrade to version 12 of Oracle’s E-Business Suite – which is among the largest installations of the software in Europe.

The process began in September 2011 with the development freeze of the old, heavily-customised system. Network Rail decided to upgrade because a lot of functions in the old version would no longer be supported in 2013 and there were a number of functional changes, as well as additional features related to tax, procurement and payroll that had to be applied.

“The upgrade was a big project for us," says Cooklin. "We had to shut the system down for four days for the changeover and then pray that when it came back up everything was working. Other than a few blips, that’s what happened.

“These projects are always tense," she says. "But the key thing was to freeze the system as it was, back in August 2011, and make no changes to it from about September until March, so that we could test everything and have a steady base to move from.

“It is all done and dusted, but what is funny is that I still get a lot of calls from people in the industry and suppliers offering to assist me in my Oracle 12 upgrade. You'd think they would have done their homework.”

Cooklin stresses that the two main things that made the project successful were having good project management skills in-house and support from Oracle and systems integrator CSC.

Delivering the “near-impossible” 

I really want my guys to understand what our business colleagues are up to so we provide the right technology tools for them

Susan Cooklin, CIO, Network Rail

Cooklin says the project associated with the London Olympics was another challenging piece of work that was delivered this year.

For the London 2012 Olympic Games project, the aim was to look at some of the Network Rail’s core technology services and ensuring there was a “service wrapper” around them – both in terms of performance and security.

“We are pretty good on services, but we felt we needed something additional for the more critical services that would really affect customers or passengers,” says Cooklin.

As part of the preparation for the Olympics, a special programme started about a year before the events began and 44 applications were identified as candidates to be ring-fenced. Improvements were carried out until about May.

“We introduced an additional control layer that looked at any changes in IT coming through. 

"We have some very strict change controls in place and, while some things did change during the Olympics, we just knew everything that was going on and that was critical. As soon as you started changing things, they can become unstable,” the CIO says.

As part of the Olympic work, several monitoring screens were set up in four months across key train stations, in addition to the existing information monitors to allow for extra passenger traffic controls and to display other types of information. 

Out of the 350 screens requested, 290 were installed and connected to the existing telecom and information hubs by BT.

Amid all that activity, Cooklin moved with the majority of her IT team to a state-of-the-art office in Milton Keynes, where she also hired 100 new members of staff across all disciplines – from programme managers to systems analysts –from the local community.

“I really want my guys to understand what our business colleagues are up to, so we provide the right technology tools for them. And I feel that, in Milton Keynes, we are much closer to that objective,” she says.

The agenda for 2013 

Looking forward to the coming year, Cooklin expects her team will be making amendments to Network Rail’s ERP platform, mostly around financial and HR functions, such as pensions and payroll, and making some corporate applications and data available via mobile devices.

Cooklin’s team is looking at a creating a range of mobile applications based on Apple devices for internal use. Network Rail has for some time been looking at ways to drive operational improvements and get rid of paper through mobile tools, but the idea is to ramp up the number of applications next year.

Network Rail is working on an app for its maintenance staff, which is expected to be ready in the new few months. The company has already delivered a few mobile productivity tools, the first dubbed “Board Books”, used by the company’s board executives for the handling of documents.

Focus on Apple

The company focused on Apple products only as opposed to Android, Cooklin says.

“At the time, we looked at mobile but we couldn’t get the right security solutions around it,” she says.

“We looked at Android and Apple then and at the time we made that decision, Apple offered the best alternative and we could have security in place in the right way. 

"That is our strategy at the moment, though it is very early days in the deployment of apps. I do think, however, that iPhone and iPad technology is just another part of IT, just another way of deploying solutions.”

The next funding period 

In the next few months, one major task that will keep Cooklin busy is planning for Control Period 5, or CP5. 

The multibillion-pound plan sets out the actions needed to improve punctuality and safety, add capacity and relieve congestion, as well as modernise the UK rail network. The five-year plan is funded by the Office of Rail Regulation and runs from 2014 to 2019.

CP5’s predecessor, Control Period 4, runs until the end of 2013 and has significant technology components to it, such as asset information, network operations and putting signalling control systems into one integrated traffic management platform. Many of these things, according to Cooklin, have been ticked off the list.

“We will have done a lot that we set out to do to support the transformation programme [in CP4] and probably more," says Cooklin. 

"Now, we will be looking at our plans for CP5 and there will be another whole bunch of technology-related things we will have to do to continue to support the business,” she says.

“My priority is to agree how much money we will have to spend and that is a negotiation that will take place in the first six months of the year. 

Having inherited business services, my other area of focus will be how to create an integrated business services with the IT department and what my plans will be. I am just thinking that through.”

To deliver more for less during CP5, Cooklin will have to continue  some of the things that her predecessor Catherine Doran – now CIO at Royal Mail - started doing before she moved on, such as IT supplier rationalisation, which has been on the agenda since 2008.

“[Doran] did quite a good job at reducing the amount of suppliers, she downsized quite a bit, but you can always go further with these things,” says Cooklin.

Apart from planning for the next wave of transformation, Cooklin says that her main challenge in 2013 will be integrating IT with HR and finance shared services into a single function. But after such a big year, how can a CIO take an entire IT team back to “business as usual” and still motivate them?

“I have a very able and willing team and we have a lot to do. We are still looking at how to rationalise that down to fewer IT partners, we have improvements to make in our systems. We may not have the same stuff as 2012 planned for the coming year, but there are definitely enough projects to keep people motivated,” she says.

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