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CIO interview: Dundee University CIO Paul Saunders calls for diversity in IT

Paul Saunders, director of technology at the University of Dundee, talks about the cultural differences between the US and the UK in business attitudes

Paul Saunders has spent most of his working life in the US, but he now lives in an old blacksmith's cottage in Scotland and works at Dundee University.

Saunders joined the university two years ago. He says: "When I was offered an interview I had to look on a map to find out where Dundee was." And his broadband is almost non-existent. He says: “I get 0.2Mbps DSL connection.” Computer Weekly met up with Saunders at the recent Box World Tour event in London, where he participated on a customer panel.

The CEO of Box, Aaron Levie, is under 30 – so what is there to stop UK entrepreneurs? From his experience of the US, Saunders says: "I like to compare the difference between the US and Birmingham. In the US, If you were going to leave your job and start your own company, people would say,' best of luck.' If you tried that in Birmingham – where I grew up in the 1970s and 80s – they would say, 'I wouldn't bother mate, you'll be on the dole in six months.'"

He asks: "Why don't we have the same mentality as the US?"

A lot of innovation comes from US companies. Saunders believes the UK needs to address a cultural inertia to entrepreneurship. But there is progress. For Instance, the Digital Scotland initiative aims to encourage and foster startups; but Saunders argues: "We need this across the UK."

In fact, the UK needs to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects more attractive, and this goes beyond giving children the skills to build the next Facebook. IT needs people from a broader background. He says: "We must absolutely drive diversity into technology."

Speaking about his panel discussion at the Box World Tour, he adds: "We were a panel of middle-class, white men. I am not talking about this from a colour or sex point of view – it is about the diversity of our backgrounds. If the same people design software, nothing will change."

Disruptive suppliers are driving very different ways of doing things, but Saunders says startups face major hurdles when trying to sell into the public sector. “We still have very antiquated procurement rules that don't allow us to engage in an entrepreneurial, innovative way." Referring to a recent Digital Scotland event, Saunders says he was speaking to one entrepreneur who wanted to work with the public sector, bur was put off by a 60-page request for proposal (RFP).

Changing the face of IT

With the introduction of university fees, academia has become more like business. In many ways, this shift is similar to the changes taking place in IT departments, as they evolve to focus more on service.

He says: "There is a huge debate in universities as to whether students are customers. I don't think you should treat someone any different if they pay for something. It is about how we view customer service.

“We are trying to change how we deliver IT from system to service, which is a complete mindset change." 

He argues that this is tough for many people in IT, who became IT specialists because they like technology: "Some people got into IT because they don't like people, but we are starting to see that the role of IT is to deliver services and solutions that aid the business. It is not about how well we can patch a system or how well we can design a network," he says.

Such areas of IT are commodities, Saunders argues. He says: "Our value is about what we can do to improve the student experience." At Dundee this may translate to how IT can enable the university to remain number one for life sciences.

While in the 1960s and 70s IT people worked on mainframes and minicomputers that churned out reports to help people make better business decisions, today both the business and IT should question the rationale for producing such reports. "Are we doing these reports to make better business decisions or to justify the decisions we have already made?" asks Saunders.

Just because IT enabled the business to get the reports it asked for, that should not necessarily be considered “job done” for IT. Saunders is working at changing how IT measures success. "Before we used to ask if a system was live, had it been rolled out?" But such criteria were IT-centric, in that IT did not assess how well the system met people's needs or how well the service desk coped with helping users. "Everyone in IT does a stint on the service desk. You get to experience on the service desk what it is like for people who are not too thrilled with your software."

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In his experience, IT's communication with the organisation is usually when something goes wrong. "We don't do a great job tooting our horn, showing how we have aided the university. We also don't show people how to do things better and we confuse people."

IT has finite resources, so it needs to work out how to improve without incurring major expenditure, according to Saunders. He says: "When we were looking at file synchronisation and sharing, the price I am paying for Box was less than if I designed and built a file-sharing service myself, and there is no value in doing this." It is the same for email. He says: "We moved to Office 365 and it works really well."

Reflecting how IT has changed, Saunders says: "If you just focus on patching servers and building nice networks, this is not the world we live in anymore."

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