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CIO interview: Henry Cohen, CIO, Telegraph Media Group

The newspaper publisher is developing an agile mindset in response to the growth of digital over printed publications

Following a year of getting the basics sorted, Henry Cohen, CIO at newspaper publisher Telegraph Media Group, is moving up a gear to focus on projects around web, mobile and data analytics.

Cohen was hired in 2013 to assess the state of the IT strategy before effectively becoming CIO in December 2014. Under his leadership, the investment focus in IT over the past 12 months has been in the underlying architecture.

“The goal was establishing what was effectively an abstracted architecture, whereby a series of APIs [application programming interfaces] with an enterprise integration platform were created, so that we had a transaction layer that sat between the web front-end, the back-end legacy systems and also the content management system that was in place previously,” Cohen tells Computer Weekly in an exclusive interview.

“It was seen as being necessary to decouple the architecture so we could then replace components as and when they were required without the need for rewiring, which is what we’ve done this year.”

According to Cohen, the idea was also to ensure that components needed were built once and could be used many times, rather than continually redeveloping and reproducing them as demand grew or changed.

As a result, the Telegraph has a more flexible architecture to support the digital and web processing needs of the business, which have now become key areas of focus.

A year of heavy lifting

Cohen says 2015 was a year of “heavy lifting” at the Telegraph Media Group. The company moved its core platform, a content management system (CMS) that supports content production through various channels such as news, business, lifestyle and others, from Escenic to Adobe AEM.

Advertising and print production at the Telegraph is delivered through Lineup Adpoint. In addition, the company uses workflow platform Papermule for copy chasing and Newscycle’s DTI Content Publisher for print production. Salesforce, Zuora and other bespoke systems are used for functions related to subscription management.

As well as the CMS, the company uses other Adobe products such as Campaign and Analytics, as well as Adobe Test and Target. For mobile content publishing, the company uses the Red Hat API platform and Kaldor’s PugPig.

Henry Cohen, Telegraph Media Group

“Analytics is at the heart of everything that we do”

Henry Cohen, Telegraph Media Group

In addition, the media group has a number of enterprise platforms to cover back-office services such as subscriptions, print production, advertising and finance, all of which are covered by smaller suppliers. On areas such as finance, the firm uses Agresso as, according to Cohen, it wouldn’t make sense to go for more expensive platforms such as SAP for back-office functions.

“We are an organisation that’s 1,200 people strong and we’re all in one location in Victoria [London]. We don’t have the corporate size or spread of an organisation that would need something such as SAP,” he says.

“The Agresso product, for example, is an ERP [enterprise resource planning] platform and meets our finance needs. Google for Work meets our office application needs. Therefore, we don’t have the requirement for SAP or anything of that level of power or complexity and cost. The approach allows us to redirect our efforts into building fast and flexible digital properties rather than running large systems.”

Focus on analytics and mobile

Now that the basics are in place, one of the goals for Cohen’s team is to better use data to analyse the customer journey.

“We want to link together content production with our subscription and registration capabilities because we believe news is becoming a commodity. Therefore, what’s going to make us attractive to the outside world is the content we produce, the quality of that content and its delivery to our readers,” he says.

“Analytics is at the heart of everything that we do. It’s important that we understand the behaviour of our readers and their interests so we can serve them more relevant content.”

The Telegraph’s readership still buys over half a million newspapers a day. Cohen says that for the printed newspaper, there is an understanding of how the core demographic behaves – but the digital world is very different.

“For that reason, analytics and SEO [search engine optimisation] are key to our success. Understanding the behaviour of the reader and their dwell time, the page hits, the pages they like to land on and consume, and then converting the dwell time into something that has more longevity in terms of registration and then subscriptions – those are key drivers and key success factors for us,” says Cohen.

Analytics may be core to everything the Telegraph does, but that doesn’t mean there is room for complacency.

“There’s always more to do in terms of the use of analytics and to do so in an efficient and economic way, rather than just loading pages full of tags and getting overwhelmed by statistics. We spend a lot of time thinking about analytics and looking how our pages are performing, as well as page views and dwell times across all of our channels and our platforms,” says Cohen.

“We’re investing a lot of time and effort in democratising the use of and access to the behavioural, analytic and event data we collect to create a full data lake capability, and we’re leveraging Amazon Web Services to achieve this.”

Mobile and web development is a big area of focus for Cohen and his team. Highlights of the past few months include the redesign of the newspaper in print and web form and the introduction of an updated version of its tablet app in September 2015. But there’s a lot more work to do.

“We’re going to complete our transformation work by the end of the year and then we’ll have all our old web and mobile platforms – which deliver 90 million unique visitors per month – replaced by more modern systems which, supported by our design and editorial work, have delivered products that are very attractive, clean and easy to use,” says Cohen.

“2016 is going to be about developing these assets as things never stand still in the digital environment and we have to maintain our SEO and the relevance of our online content. So we will be doing further development on all our web and mobile properties.”

The nearshore advantage

Mobile and web development has been supported by the Telegraph’s nearshore outsourcing arrangements, which Cohen says have been invaluable given the scarcity of local talent. These requirements have been met from relationships with Cognifide and 3Pillar Global, providers based in Poland and Romania, respectively.

“We’ve achieved around 18 months of development in 12 months, which is a great success and credit to the business, product and technology teams. But it’s difficult, especially in London, to attract the right kind of skills as we are surrounded by a number of high-quality, leading-edge technology companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and so on,” says Cohen.

“By having an interesting and state of the art technology stack, supported by relationships with trusted third parties, we’re able to get a mixed environment of permanent members of staff on the engineering and development side, supported by suppliers either in terms of the skills that we don’t have or skill shortfalls as a result of the marketplace, which is hugely competitive at the moment.”

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Cohen prefers to use nearshore outsourcers due to time zone issues and access to capability at the level he requires.

“We’ve found that central Europeans’ skills and capability are excellent and the time zone is very similar to ours. As we’re a fully agile development shop with a series of scrum teams, it makes it easier for the third-party people to come and join us in our quarterly planning events or for our technical leads and architects to visit Poland and Romania,” he says.

“That way, we get the teams completely bonded and working together collaboratively – which would be much more of a challenge if our development shops and third-party development teams were based further afield. Being nearshore offers us a significant advantage and similar cost savings when compared with sourcing farshore services.”

This nearshoring rationale has prompted another change in IT provision at the Telegraph that was initiated by Cohen over the past year – the insourcing of the service desk including desktop support, enterprise operations, helpdesk, infrastructure and monitoring in a process that took three months.

“After the IT services were insourced I set up regular meetings with the executives on their views of technology and the issues they were facing. The meetings initially lasted for two hours and had a host of issues that they weren’t happy with,” says Cohen.

“Over the next six months, we got those meetings down to fortnightly rather than weekly, and in the fortnightly meetings, the major issues that anybody was having was with printers.”

By bringing the service desk in-house the Telegraph has benefited from being near to users, according to Cohen, who adds that this might not be ideal for multi-location organisations.

“Because we’re located in a single location, having our IT service operations in-house means we can provide a high level of customer support, visit business users and provide them with a very personal service, which they love,” he says.

Becoming agile 

To deliver the transformation the Telegraph required, an agile mindset had to be introduced to the IT organisation.

When Cohen arrived at the newspaper group, it became clear that IT would have to be customer-facing and aligned to business needs, while creating what he defines as “long-standing teams”. This is due to the digital environment which demands constant improvement and maintenance.

“To obtain certainty of delivery, it seemed to me that a scaled, agile approach at the development and portfolio planning level was essential to achieve success,” says Cohen.

A scaled, agile approach at the development and portfolio planning level was essential to achieve success
Henry CohenTelegraph Media Group

Now the IT team is moving into another phase of project delivery, the goal in the next year is to “establish a capability for great flexibility”.

“For example, we had the Apple News app up and running in around six weeks. However, we’re competing with organisations that can deliver capability even quicker,” says Cohen.

“I think it’s the sort of level of capability and agility one has to achieve to become a truly responsive development capability that interacts closely with the business. Therefore, if the business dynamic changes, you can immediately say, ‘OK, we can produce new capability and new technology to support that business change’, because that’s what makes us a truly valuable service to the organisation.” 

“Delivering awesome technology” is what Cohen considers to be the best part of his job, coupled with reactions to the technology-enabled products that his team delivers.

“I would imagine that people working for companies such as Ferrari or McLaren get real pride and pleasure from the work they do and the quality of the product that they produce. We have the same reaction here,” says Cohen.

“I’m really proud and very excited by the products that the team here – not just the engineers, but also the product people and the business stakeholders – have produced, as the quality of the work is very impressive, which makes the whole journey very exciting.”

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