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CIO interview: David Allison, global head of IT, First Quantum Minerals

For his first global CIO role, the IT chief had to tackle unusual challenges such as reliable networking and IT use in inhospitable mining environments in developing countries

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Meet the CIO connecting IT in the most inhospitable environments

David Allison has held senior IT positions in a range of organisations, but in February 2018 he finally got the opportunity he craved – to lead technology globally for a big company. As global head of IT for copper producer First Quantum Minerals, he’d have struggled to pick a more interesting or challenging first CIO role.

“I’m having an absolute blast – I love it,” he says. “It’s the change and the responsibility that I really like. I love having a voice that’s heard. I like having the audience from senior people and getting the chance to help shape the company’s direction. And it’s also made me realise that I crave more of that.”

Allison previously held senior IT positions at LafargeHolcim, Aggregate Industries and Infineum. At First Quantum, he reports to the CFO and leads technology across a diverse business with a disparate geography. Allison says other first-time IT chiefs will recognise that the route to the top can be circuitous.

“It is very hard to get your first CIO gig without having done it before,” he says. “People would say, you’ve got a lot of applications experience and a lot of senior management experience, but you’ve never run infrastructure and you’ve got to do that before becoming CIO.

“I believed that this wasn’t the case. I thought you could do all the elements of the CIO role without having had infrastructure experience. I saw this job, applied, got chatting and they clearly needed some help in IT.”

Allison’s lack of infrastructure experience hasn’t held him back. In fact, dealing with global networks, security and back-end systems has been his big focus since he joined First Quantum.

“It’s ironic that my whole background is in business applications – and here I’m focused on what has, for the most part so far, been a pure infrastructure CIO role,” he says.

“We’ll be able to do much more in the cloud going forward, simply because the network reliability is there”

David Allison, First Quantum Minerals

Responsibility for applications has traditionally resided with First Quantum’s individual mines. The company runs eight mines that are often in low-infrastructure locations, such as the two biggest copper facilities in Africa and one of the biggest new copper mines in the world, in Panama.

Each mine is run as a separate organisation, with its own profit and loss and its own IT department. Allison was keen to bring more structure to the way technology is implemented and used across the global organisation, which also includes corporate offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Johannesburg, London and Perth.

One of his first priorities on joining was to establish the key challenges faced by the different mines. He was eager to work out how he could exploit IT to support their operational activities.

“I went to them and said, ‘What do you want from IT?’ They thought they just wanted a catch-all place – if there’s anything wrong with a computer, even if it was something beyond our control, they’d have a place to go,” he says.

“However, once I explained how that approach has its limitations, and that they’d ultimately be disappointed, then we got into some real business-led conversations.”

Creating a reliable network

Allison says his conversations with mine bosses showed it was clear that what they wanted above all else was a reliable network. It wasn’t unusual, particularly in Zambia, for the firm’s workers to suffer daily network outages, he says.

After conversations with internal business colleagues and external IT leadership peers, Allison decided to work with Paris-based consultancy Wavestone. “They knew all about African networking and were exactly the kind of organisation I was looking for,” he says.

“I outsourced the network design and negotiation process. We went through a full tendering exercise with suppliers in Africa and we went with a Namibian communications company called Paratus that’s a business-focused network provider.”

Paratus established two separate multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) networks, and a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) in Zambia. The new network provision has ended outages, boosted performance and allowed the business to think about novel use cases that would previously have been unimaginable.

“Now they’re starting to be able to do things like virtual truck-driver monitoring,” he says. “That’s really important because they can check driver performance in real time and can see if someone’s getting sleepy or erratic, which means higher standards of safety and performance.”

Making the most of cloud

That move into real-time data analysis is an example of how First Quantum is beginning to embrace the cloud. The disparate geographical organisation of the business meant it was previously tough to get a consensus on how IT should be implemented.

Allison says he pointed out to stakeholders at an early stage of his conversations after joining the firm that they needed a network that would allow for future expansion into the cloud. The high-performance level of the network and the ability to stand up novel use cases, such as truck-driver monitoring, means even those who might previously have been wary of the cloud are beginning to see that a move to on-demand IT is not only beneficial, but inevitable.

“We’ll be able to do much more in the cloud going forward, simply because the network reliability is there,” he says. “The business is rapidly moving towards cloud adoption because of that network reliability. That’s exciting because we’ve proved it can be done – you can run a reliable network in Africa.”

Allison adds: “We’ve just done our first cloud backup – that’s the heavy lifting of a terabyte of data a night into the cloud, which gives us disaster recovery capability way in excess of what we’ve been able to have before.”

Although First Quantum is now doing things on-demand that were previously unachievable, the firm was already using cloud-based business applications before Allison’s arrival. The company had signed up to an enterprise agreement with Microsoft but wasn’t making full use of its applications and services, such as Azure and Office 365.

Allison was keen to sweat Quantum’s existing cloud-based technology assets. He let the previous agreement expire and is now saving a lot of money by paying for cloud services as required.

“The next big thing is going to be the full Office 365 roll-out, but as a hybrid model, so that each business has got the choice,” he says.

“All our corporate centres will go to 365 and I’m already ramping up Azure for lots of things. OneDrive is there for people. Providing further benefits from these services is all about putting in place the additional layers of security, so we can start to have integrated cloud services.”

Securing enterprise data

Allison has already dedicated significant effort to security. To tackle the risk of phishing and data leakages, the firm has implemented a new security strategy, which has included appointing ex-William Hill security head Steve Collins as chief information security officer.

First Quantum now has a dedicated security department, with a security operations centre in Johannesburg. It has established strong enterprise firewalls, with regimented network segmentation, and a full record of data-access privileges, which are managed by a newly appointed access-control manager.

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These privileges have been tied to the human resources department via the implementation of cloud-based people management platform Workday. Other investments include the network-management tool Cisco ISE, data-monitoring tool Cisco Stealthwatch and multi-factor authentication tools from Duo.

“The organisation really embraced the idea that we were starting to put in place good security practices,” says Allison. “And we’ve done this by simply putting the right skills and the right make-up in each location.”

The long-term aim is to make it even easier for people around the business to use applications, he adds. “We want people to be able to hook-in a service with the right plugin and that all the authentication just works. We’ve got single sign-on sorted, which is good, but there’s still quite a lot on the background of the security side that we’ve got to do.”

Transforming the business with technology

Improvements to networking and security have been bolstered by a focus on service and support. Allison has established a pan-African service centre that looks after Zambian operations, but also those in Johannesburg and Mauritania. The long-term plan is to create a small regional centre in Australia and then a significant regional centre in the Americas.

Those three regional centres will allow Allison to provide 24/7 support to the firm’s global workforce. “I’d hope that whenever people engage with IT, wherever they are in the world, that they have a consistent experience,” he says.

“Wouldn’t it be great if, no matter where you are, you phone one number, it reaches the right people and you just get a great experience talking to IT wherever you are, no matter what time of day or night, because there’s just one common approach. And I genuinely think we’ll have that in two years.”

Allison’s hope is that his continuing work on infrastructure means his IT team will be able to start on more transformational projects by early 2021. He hopes that ongoing change process will mean that anyone across the organisation will be able to plug in and use cloud services and other emerging technologies as the business need emerges.

“We’ve got to get the basics in place,” says Allison. “We need to make sure that the network, cloud services and datacentres are where we need them and are all working in a way that the organisation can pick up. And then, if people want to go and spend money on analytics and robotics and internet of things, then they can go for it – because they’ll involve us anyway if we prove we’re credible as an IT department.”

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