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CIO interview: Stephen Booth, CIO, Coventry University

After more than 20 years at the university, the CIO is still taking on new responsibilities – including his team becoming a commercial entity and acquiring its own software

Stephen Booth, CIO at Coventry University, is dedicated to using digital transformation to help improve student experiences. He is so committed, in fact, that has he spent more than 20 years delivering technology-led change at the fast-growing higher education institution.

“I wanted to work somewhere that was about a social good,” he says. “For me, education is really meaningful – that’s why I’m there. Every day I walk in and I see my customers, who are the students, and I see that we’re doing something good that helps them.”

A techie by background and passion, Booth joined Coventry in 1999 as a programmer. He has fulfilled a range of roles, including database administration, leading an enterprise middleware team and then running a wider infrastructure team, before becoming assistant director of infrastructure, CTO and – since August last year – director of the IT department.

“That’s the other reason I’ve stayed so long,” says Booth. “I’ve been able to have quite a varied career here. I’ve been able to go across the spectrum and end up in a leadership position. So, I’ve been able to move with the university as it has changed.”

While Booth has stayed loyal to the institution, the university has undergone significant growth. “Ten years ago, we had something like 12,000 students in Coventry,” he says. “We’ve now got 40,000 students in Coventry, but if you include our online students and other campuses, you’re getting close to 80,000.”

Coventry runs campuses in Scarborough, London and Poland, and also has offices around the world. “It has changed enormously,” says Booth. “And so that change, combined with delivering the core mission, is what keeps everything fresh.”

Taking on new responsibilities

Booth’s promotion to CIO coincided with another shift at the university. Last August, the IT and estates department became a commercial subsidiary. As part of Coventry University Enterprises Limited, Booth’s team provides service back into the group – but also has the opportunity to potentially offer services outside the enterprise firewall.

Moves in that direction have already been made. In February, Booth’s organisation acquired the virtual-learning platform Aula.

“Now I have my own software-engineering company and I have four customers, a couple of which are other higher education institutions,” he says. “That all means commercial aspects are part of my remit.”

Booth says the integration between the IT and estates departments is crucial to the university’s long-term plans. The intention is to build a combined infrastructure services capability.

“You get quite a lot of power and a synergy when you start blending the physical and the virtual and understanding what you can do,” he says.

The aim of this work, says Booth, is to create a fresh approach within a new combined organisation. The people who work for it recognise that they are providing a service back into the broader Coventry group and the wide range of locations and people they serve.

“It just creates a different mindset and purpose for the organisation that still fits with the overall mission but allows you to not be seen as just a part of the university,” he says.

“You get quite a lot of power and a synergy when you start blending the physical and the virtual and understanding what you can do”

Stephen Booth, Coventry University

The shift towards commerciality follows a challenging period for the IT department. Like other academic institutions, Coventry had to manage a shift to online learning when the coronavirus pandemic led to social-distancing measures in early 2020. The good news, says Booth, is that the university’s systems and services were ready.

“As it happened, in terms of digital capability, we were reasonably well prepared,” he says. “We had already got an established online presence – we’re number one in the world in terms of massive open online courses at the moment. So, we’d got a good base infrastructure, but what we obviously had to do was scale that up quickly.”

The university was already enacting a cloud-first strategy, which allowed Booth’s team to “turn on the taps” to meet demand. However, he also recognises – like so many other CIOs – that the business was exposed like never before to the big benefits of digital transformation during the pandemic. This recognition has led to fresh demands on IT.

“You’ve gone from digital maybe being ‘a thing’ in certain parts of the organisation to suddenly everything being online,” he says. “And post-Covid, you come back to something that’s not what you had before but a blended-learning environment instead. And if you think about a blended environment, that starts to transform everything you know.”

Fresh questions – such as “are our rooms fit for purpose?” – have suddenly become prescient. In fact, Booth takes lectures himself, as much as anything to understand the day-to-day challenges that academic colleagues have to deal with. It can be an eye-opening experience in the age of hybrid learning, as other CIOs have also told Computer Weekly.

“You suddenly start to see that you’ve got two audiences – one that’s online and one that’s in the room – so how do you engage them both?” says Booth. “That reality has fundamentally altered the way in which we approach teaching and IT provision.”

Delivering constant change

Booth says his team’s continuing efforts to deliver the technology the business needs have been accompanied by a cultural change programme. He says it was important that the whole approach to IT provision altered, with a focus on the purpose of the work that technology professionals fulfil and a recognition of how the team would work differently.

“One of the tangible things we’ve done is to accelerate the move to an agile delivery model,” he says. “We were classic waterfall before – we were ‘here’s a project, write your business case, do your tender, see you in 18 months’ time’. We’ve now pivoted that approach to an agile delivery model, which is at different levels of maturity.”

The end result of this shift is that the IT team delivers change into the business every two weeks, rather than months later. And when you start to deliver technical functionality regularly, says Booth, you start to drive up the pace of business transformation.

“You deliver on that promise of agility, which is really what we need,” he says. “I often say to my colleagues that our number one metric is speed. The business takes availability for granted now – everyone uses cloud platforms and they’re rock solid.

“So, our differentiator now has to be speed – how quickly can we go from someone asking for something to meaningful delivery, and that has forced a complete transformation. Since August last year, we have begun to really see that sense of agility take root. It’s starting to change things and give predictable delivery to the business.”

Creating an integration platform

A crucial support to Coventry’s digital transformation effort has been MuleSoft’s integration platform. The university is reliant on a range of legacy technologies, including a longstanding student records system. Booth is keen to move away from older technology and is using MuleSoft technology to support his agile business transformation.

“We knew we wanted this integration capability, but what we didn’t know was which system was the best fit for us,” he says. “So, we narrowed it down from 10 to three vendors to do an intensive evaluation. And having done that proof-of-concept work, it allowed us to take the tender to market.

“The reason we chose MuleSoft was because, for us, it was the most complete solution. There’s more of a fully formed house with MuleSoft, whereby you don’t need quite so many people and you’re faster. So, the total cost of ownership – while it’s more expensive in terms of the tin – is much higher in terms of long-term benefits.”

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Booth says having a tight grip on integration helps him shift the delivery of technology from large-scale systems to student-focused services. As business requirements change, his IT team can add new elements – and if issues occur in terms of technology provision, they can deal with those too.

“It lets you cut up that monolith a piece at a time,” he says. “So, rather than taking an approach that says, ‘give me money and here’s a new system five years down the track’, I can bring value back into the business sooner. We can start on one project, we can design the service and we can put it in. If we’ve got it wrong, we can change it quickly.

“The technology increases robustness because you’re putting this wrapper around IT, so that if something fails in the back end, the customer doesn’t have to experience that because you can fix it and replay it. So, it all goes towards agility and flexibility and the ability to respond at a decent pace to what the business wants us to do.”

Engaging with students

The digital technology that Booth is building is all part of a long-term plan to deliver an increasingly engaged student experience at Coventry. A high level of engagement allows the university to ensure it is delivering the best possible learning outcomes.

“Our mission statement is ‘creating better futures’,” he says. “We’re trying to give everyone who comes here a better life chance. That’s what we’re trying to do. And to engage students, you need to have systems that give you a sense of belonging.”

As part of this objective, the university has created student success coaches. These coaches take the engagement data that the IT team collects and work with students to improve their experiences and their chances of getting the best possible degrees.

“They are there to take that engagement pointer from the data and turn that into a human interaction,” says Booth. “It’s really about providing continuous engagement and a continual feedback loop, with the students able to see their own journeys and feel like they belong to a community of learners.”

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