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CIO interview: David Bulman, interim CIO, Wellcome Trust

The medical research charity is reviewing its IT plans ahead of recruiting a permanent CIO

The Wellcome Trust, the world’s second largest medical research charity, is reviewing its future technology requirements ahead of the recruitment of a new IT leader.

Former Virgin Atlantic CIO David Bulman has been appointed as interim CIO at the charity, which has an endowment of around £18bn – only the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is bigger in the field of biomedical research.

Bulman started in May 2015 – a couple of months after previous incumbent Mark Bramwell left after nearly nine years of service to join Oxford University’s Said Business School – and will stay until October 2015.

“This is a proper interim role. I’m here for a relatively short period, just to manage the day-to-day operations and take a look at the organisation to help the chief financial officer [Tim Livett], who is [also] quite new,” Bulman told Computer Weekly.

“Tim and I worked together before [at Virgin Atlantic]. He wanted some help developing what IT should be in this organisation and, from that, help formulate what sort of person he needs as a replacement. 

“We are defining the right type of leader for the technology organisation needed here,” he said.

Strategy matters

According to Bulman, he has not been hired to set IT strategy for the trust. Instead, the executive is helping to “tactically look” at ongoing projects.

“I’ve had to work on setting the budget for 2016, but the actual strategy is sort of outside of my remit,” he says.

“However, we’re looking at some key strands of what technology should be. From that, we’ll bring in a leader who will set the strategy,” he adds.

That focus will include technologies such as cloud computing. The organisation already uses cloud for areas such as IT service management. It is also working on a prototype for a cloud-based digital library platform. 

A good knowledge in modern data analytics techniques is going to be critical

David Bulman, Wellcome Trust

Once the viability of the platform is proven, the next stage will be to develop additional services, such as optical character recognition (OCR) indexing, searching and annotation storage. 

In addition, there will be a set of application programming interfaces [APIs] and a “discovery layer”, which will allow institutions that may not have such capabilities to showcase their digital content. The future will see further developments in cloud computing as the organisation seeks to improve ways of working.

“We’re looking at tools such as Office 365 and Skype for Business and how we use these products as a platform for changing the office environment,” says Bulman.

In addition, work is underway to define what the Wellcome Trust needs in data analytics capabilities. “I think [data analytics] is going to be a prime strand of who we look for in terms of an eventual replacement,” says Bulman.

“That’s because this is a place that generates large amounts of data – more so than many other organisations you would see around – because of the nature of funding and managing medical research, so analytics becomes quite interesting,” he says.

The search for the next CIO has yet to start, but the organisation is clear about the required skills the recruit will need. 

“I’m expecting to find somebody who can navigate the existing operations, but – more importantly – a good knowledge in modern data analytics techniques is going to be critical,” says Bulman.

“I know from previous experience it’s a relatively rare skill set. We haven’t started looking yet, so what’s in the market is still to be seen,” he adds.

Current projects

Two other major projects are in progress at the trust. The largest is the replacement of the organisation’s grants management system with Grant Tracker, a product supplied by specialist supplier CCTechnology.

“Due to the nature of the trust, managing the grants that support research bodies worldwide is a significant part of its existence,” says Bulman.

“We’re adjusting the final stages of rolling out a system for grant management, which is going very well. This project is in its final months, so the system will be going live shortly,” he says.

The CCTechnology implementation follows a previous attempt to develop a grants management platform, an initiative that was cancelled around nine years ago. 

As an entirely bespoke system, the main challenge was that the business had moved on during the long period of time it took to develop it. In addition, given the original decision to go for a “big bang” approach, the system became too big and overly complex.

Bulman says the forthcoming roll-out of the grants management system is a “completely fresh start project”.

“Obviously, they took the learning from the original one, but the whole point was to go out and buy off-the-shelf rather than build, which meant a very different approach to how the project was run until recently,” he adds.

In addition, the charity’s investment management systems have been under review. Without disclosing details, Bulman says a supplier has already been chosen.

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