AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA - stock.adobe

A CIO’s journey through the Covid-19 crisis

FDM’s IT chief takes us through the challenges of responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and the future opportunities that the changes introduced now present

We are all experiencing the dramatic changes that Covid-19 has ushered in and the effect it is having on nearly every area of our lives. While technology has played a significant role in how we have been able to deal with the pandemic, the crisis has also had a huge impact on technology and the role of IT in organisations.

As IT professionals, we spend a lot of time thinking about what could go wrong. We do this because we know that if the IT systems are unavailable, it impacts the business. So, disaster recovery and business continuity are in our DNA.

The challenge we often have is getting non-IT people to think about it and engage in preparation for “something going wrong”. The Covid-19 events and the speed with which the situation escalated has highlighted to all staff the importance of preparation.

Throughout the pandemic, FDM’s IT department focused on two main objectives – protecting the firm and supporting all departments to ensure business continuity.

Protecting the firm is founded on the idea that any IT security breaches, system outages or data protection and loss issues could distract valuable staff from the second objective. The IT security team at FDM has been working tirelessly to protect the organisation from cyber attacks, which have increased since the beginning of the pandemic. In a single day, we receive more than 275,000 attacks, all of which our IT security team is constantly protecting us from.

Behind the scenes over the past four years, while IT was implementing Microsoft Office 365 and other tools, the IT security team has been implementing what we call “the onion”. This is an IT security strategy that involves layering different types of protection on top of one another. Each successive layer of the onion addresses a different type of risk or threat and provides a further level of protection to the system users.

Border protection

Protection starts at the UK border, where the traffic to and from our IT estate is monitored by a government agency. This is done because certain characteristics of our company profile qualify us for this protection, such as our FTSE status and our client list. We have built a firewall surrounding our estate, consisting of servers and software that monitor traffic in and out of FDM’s IT premises.

Alongside Microsoft Outlook, we have other email systems, which provide resilience and back-up for our emails. All these systems have protection against malicious and suspicious emails and quarantine them when they arrive at an employee’s inbox. Nearly half of the emails sent to FDM never hit a real mailbox because they are intercepted and blocked.

We also have tools that use artificial intelligence to spot and report any abnormal behaviour in our IT systems. These tools are initially set to listen to the estate – 4,000 PCs, 600 servers, hundreds of applications and about 6,000 users – for a number of weeks, whereby they “learn” what normal behaviour is and can subsequently identify unusual behaviour and raise the alarm.

The devices our employees use have multiple layers of protection which look out for any threat, and this data is monitored in real time by the IT security team.

Supporting staff

One of the biggest challenges we faced during Covid-19 was ensuring that each and every employee was given the necessary support, despite the chaos and disruption. Inevitably, due to lockdown and social distancing restrictions, we had a number of consultants returning from client sites and it was vital to keep them motivated and engaged, as well as continually developing their skills.

After some lengthy discussions, we came up with the idea of FDM pods, a way of bringing together our people from different backgrounds and countries who could work closely together and learn from each other. So far, we have created 28 FDM pods with more than 200 people from around the world working on all sorts of projects.

Projects are incredibly varied, including performing analysis on tweets and analyst reports to identify patterns between those tweets and the equity/share performance of a company, to implementing regulatory reporting law for trading. One pod built a consumer share-trading app, with market research and data analysis functionality.

Each pod is designed to follow the FDM scrum framework with adherence to agile ceremonies, giving everyone the chance to keep on learning and developing, despite lockdown restrictions.

Read more about managing IT during the pandemic

With the move to remote working en masse, our consultants and internal staff have been extremely receptive and fast in adopting new IT tools across the business to allow them to continue their work seamlessly. This is great news, of course, because it enables the business in so many ways and creates new opportunities.

We now have a chance to really examine the art of the possible and ask: what next for our business? Can we open our programme to a larger and even more diverse population if trainees don’t have to be in the academy all the time? Do our trainees even need to train during office hours? Do we need to grow our office space at the same pace as we grow the business? Do employees need to be located in a certain city or even country? What opportunities do we have to change our ways of working to accommodate an even more diverse workforce and personal lifestyle choices?

Sitting on many forums and listening to peers across various industries speak about how Covid-19 has affected them, it is clear that, almost universally, the visibility of IT has been raised. Most CIOs report that they are being consulted more about how to deal with disaster and what opportunities technology presents to businesses. In many cases, the CIO has taken a key role, often leading in the Covid-19 task forces that companies have been forced to set up.

This is a fantastic evolution for our consultants as they progress in their careers. Covid-19 may have accidentally created a new era for the role of IT, elevating its importance – which can only be a positive thing.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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