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CIO interview: Why Europe matters to Ben Booth

Ben Booth has headed several European IT departments in his career, and he feels that remaining in the European Union (EU) is good for the UK and good for IT

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Remaining in the European Union (EU) is a good thing for the IT industry in the UK, argues interim CIO Ben Booth.

Ahead of the forthcoming EU referendum, the IT head – who has led several IT departments across Europe in his career, including in a permanent role as CIO at Ipsos Mori – believes that leaving the EU will have a “damaging effect on IT” in the short term.

“As an IT professional working in commerce, the single market is important,” says Booth.

And while the Brexit camp insist the red tape involved in the EU legislative framework is bad for business, Booth reckons EU standards around data protection, security and the single market of data are important to the UK.

“These would be threatened if we were to leave [the EU],” he says.

Before merging with Ipsos in 2005, Mori was a separate company – and Booth was its European chief technology officer (CTO). 

“I had a team in each of the main European countries, which gave me a good insight of the different cultures and legislation structures,” he says.

Booth notes, for example, that in Europe it's clear employment law is balanced in favour of employees – which is of particular note during any change programme, where issues often arise around cuts to staff. 

“You need to be sensitive to this and be able to work with employee work councils,” he says. 

“The key to any change programme is that it is a process, and people need to understand what is happening and what are the business drivers.”

Improving IT skills in the UK

While many Eurosceptics’ arguments to leave the EU hinge on immigration – specifically freedom of movement for people in the EU – Booth would like to see EU immigration restrictions relaxed for the benefit of the IT industry.

“It is good for us to recruit from the wider European market, but we also have a need to recruit even wider,” he says. 

“Some of the restriction on non-Euro countries does make it difficult recruiting non-EU citizens, stopping skilled people from coming here.”

It is true, though, that strong IT skills ought to be developed within the UK, admits Booth – but by not allowing free movement of skilled people, the UK economy is damaged.

“The BCS [The Chartered Institute for IT] is doing a great deal around apprenticeships. Transforming education is top of the BCS agenda,” he says. “[But] having pressure from outside will improve our own skills pool.”

Taking the plunge as an interim CIO

Booth's experience of IT in Europe developed after he departed his role at Ipsos Mori, when the company shifted its IT to the US. Booth decided to change the direction of his career and work as an interim CIO – which has seen him take up roles across the continent.

While moving from full-time employment to the world of freelancing can be regarded as a big career risk, it's something he had been considering for a while. 

“I did have some trepidation, but it was an idea I'd had for some time. The clients wanted my grey hairs,” says Booth, referring to the importance of experience in the interim CIO market.

It took a while to secure his first post – the nature of the job is as a problem-solver and these positions do not come up often, unlike IT contracting roles. But after four months, Booth had secured his first job as interim CIO in Moscow, overseeing a major transformation.

He has since worked as an interim CIO in the Netherlands for a private equity firm, had a role in Jersey, and worked for the Ministry of Justice on its Transforming Rehabilitation initative.

And according to Booth, being an interim CIO presents very different challenges to working as a full-time CIO in an organisation.

“While a permanent role is about managing business as usual, this is flipped on its head for the interim CIO. You are now dealing with a burning platform,” he says.

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But the challenge of working as an interim CIO is an interesting one, shares Booth.

“You have to get to know people very quickly and have to make an assessment very quickly,” he says.

In Booth's experience, the role of an interim CIO is to get to know the team and the technology as soon as possible.

“Often you don’t have time to get the best team in world so you have to work with what you have,” he says. “They are mostly good people who, in right role, will do well – but frankly there will be a small minority of toxic individuals or some who are simply not up to the job.

“You have to get them out quickly, and sadly you’ll have to have a difficult chat with those people who are not up to the job.”

Booth is now the UK representative at EuroCIO, which recently joined forces with BCS Elite, the computer leadership forum of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

EuroCIO’s membership comprises multinational organisations, representing 600,000 IT employees, making it the largest IT user organisation.

The role of the group is to share best practices, education and influence legislation and IT supplier practices. Its annual conference is taking place in Barcelona on 21-22 June 2016.

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