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CIO interview: Keith Woolley, chief digital information officer, University of Bristol

With Bristol set to host the UK’s biggest supercomputer, its technology chief is looking to make the most of internal and international collaboration to drive digital improvements

There comes a time in every digital leader’s career when they fancy doing something different. Keith Woolley has a strong commercial background, but joined the University of Bristol four years ago because he wanted to grasp the opportunity to work in higher education.

“I never thought this was a sector I was going to move into,” he says. “But the COO [chief operating officer] at the time was a known entity and he offered me the role.”

What Woolley discovered on moving from the world of private enterprise to academia was that he’d taken on a completely different type of challenge.

“There’s an awful lot of diversity in the technology stack that you need to manage,” he says. “The interesting thing, though, is that a lot of decisions are made in collaboration. So, although you are responsible, you still need significant skills and collaborations to make sure you can get policy and process to stick.”

In his previous CIO roles, Woolley’s responsibility for policy, process and security ensured that he mandated change. In the university sector, he found a different set of relationships.

“You work in partnership and you come up with the best possible solution for all – and I think that was the biggest learning curve,” he says.

“I had to extenuate skills I already had in stakeholder engagement and management. I’ve found I spend a lot of time now co-creating, bringing people on the journey and also changing the narrative, depending on which community I’m speaking with. It’s all about the benefits you’re bringing to people, rather than mandating change.”

Providing opportunities

Woolley initially came into Bristol as CIO. He was appointed chief digital information officer when the university restructured, following the appointment in 2022 of a new vice-chancellor, Evelyn Welch, who Woolley says is keen to empower people and remove complexity.

“She looked at her leadership team and started to think about how we should be combining things rather than having silos of operations,” he says.

“It came naturally for me to pick up all digital areas as well as information, which means joining together the physical and the digital.”

“We are delivering boundaryless education and research. We’ve put a technology platform and strategy together that allows us to be able to collaborate anywhere in the world and securely”
Keith Woolley, University of Bristol

Woolley says this joined-up approach aims to create high-quality user experiences for Bristol’s academics and students, whether they’re on campus or online. While the university, like other academic institutions, bolstered its online offering during the coronavirus pandemic, the expansion of his remit to cover digital is about more than improving its online presence.

“We’ve always had a lot of our content online,” he says. “We’ve been using virtual delivery platforms for a long time and we have all the platforms to allow people to access lessons online. So the shift in my responsibilities is more about augmentation. It’s about taking physical spaces and digital campuses and making them into an overall engaged experience.”

In the four years he’s been at Bristol, Woolley says he’s proud to have created a coherent digital strategy. “We are delivering boundaryless education and research,” he says. “We’ve put a technology platform and strategy together that allows us to be able to collaborate anywhere in the world and securely.”

Woolley says delivering boundaryless education and research is about much more than implementing technology systems. Rather than focusing on the stack, his team concentrates on business requirements. For a modern academic institution, that focus on outcomes means providing equitable system and data access to users, regardless of their location.

“How can we make sure we’ve created a fair playing field for everyone?” he says. “How can we make sure that our staff and students can take part in whatever we do, no matter where they reside? Answering those questions successfully is about providing a digital equity platform that makes sure we can operate across any private or public cloud.”

Building foundations

Woolley says the key building block for this platform has been VMware’s Cloud Foundation (VCF), which is a multicloud infrastructure approach that delivers full-stack hyper-convergence to any on-premise environment.

“It has revolutionised what we can do,” he says. “VMware is a genuine enterprise technology partner and we’ve put a lot of our strategic intent into their capabilities. We’ve built VCF in a resilient way across multiple datacentres and we’ve put self-service portals over the top.”

“The way I describe my role is that I’m a managing director of an IT business and the University of Bristol is my biggest customer. That approach means I can very easily treat the organisation like a complex PLC, because that’s the way my brain has got around all the complexities I’m having to work with”

Keith Woolley, University of Bristol

Woolley’s IT team worked with external partner Xtravirt to implement the VCF platform. They also spoke with Bristol’s academic community to ensure they were providing a multicloud technology platform in a cost-efficient and effective manner.

“We’ve built it in collaboration with our academics so that we’re able to understand the type of environments they require,” he says.

“I didn’t want to have a platform that was just a Wild West, where I’d lose resources very quickly and academics would take every process and bit of RAM that we’ve got. We couldn’t afford for that to happen.”

As well as infrastructure concerns, Woolley says his digital strategy also addresses information security. His team has worked with the executive team and senior staff members to address risks across the academic estate. The result is a practical, organisation-wide approach to IT.

“I’ve been able to secure funding all the way through the transition period of the last four years with our board of trustees,” he says. “And we’ve been able to bring the whole of the university on that journey. Our strategy is all about developing a collaborative approach.”

Supporting innovation

Woolley says one of his key priorities over the next year will be to help the University of Bristol deliver on its potential in artificial intelligence (AI).

It was announced recently that the government is investing £225m to create the UK’s fastest supercomputer at Bristol. Known as Isambard-AI, the computer will be 10 times more powerful than the UK’s current fastest supercomputer and one of the most powerful in the world when it opens at the National Composites Centre in summer 2024.

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“One of my priorities will be to ensure we deliver that technology securely over the next 12 to 18 months, so we can have a national infrastructure for AI in the UK – and that’s a massive responsibility,” says Woolley. This requirement will be added to his all-encompassing day job.

“The way I describe my role is that I’m a managing director of an IT business and the University of Bristol is my biggest customer,” he says. “That approach means I can very easily treat the organisation like a complex PLC, because that’s the way my brain has got around all the complexities I’m having to work with.”

Woolley says these complications include the different verticals, such as departments and research interests, within the university, and the requirements within those verticals in terms of governance and day-to-day processes. He’s also keen to help the university advance its engagements with students around the globe.

“We are looking to see how we can start to do wider collaborations with other governments in other countries,” he says. “We’re also looking at our international platform. That’s about finding out how technology can turn the friction down and make sure we provide an easy-to-consume experience.”

Delivering experiences

Woolley says a frictionless technology experience makes it much easier for the university to attract academics, researchers and students.

“Simplifying strategy was the first thing I tried to do,” he says. “Going forward, I think success is about working with high-quality partners with a very simple approach to delivering technology, so that we can remove complexity, duplication and keep costs down.”

Woolley says his long-term aim is to make it straightforward for Bristol’s academic community to take advantage of the institution’s technology resources.

“I want to provide frictionless, single sign-on,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. You’re secure, you’re safe, and you don’t need to leave your coffee shop to come into our university. I want our international community to have integrated and seamless activity once they’re online. That’s where I’d like to be in 24 months’ time – to have created this seamless environment.”

Beyond that two-year timescale, Woolley’s aim is to provide equitable experiences to students around the world. He says Bristol is already exploring how it can support students in schools across South Africa.

“If you’re in a region with limited connectivity and desktop capabilities, I would still like to provide you with the opportunity to do virtual and augmented reality because the workload is somewhere else and inside our compute environment,” he says.

“I want that joined-up experience to be just an extension of our network in a cost-effective way. That kind of success would mean we’ve been truly able to expand our campus footprint to any location in the world.”

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