Interview with Phil Pavitt

Phil Pavitt: 30 years’ experience as a Board level CIO and business transformation leader.

A successful, dynamic and inspirational Technology leader with over 30 years’ experience as a Board level CIO and business transformation leader.  Phil has led the technology charge in the UK for some of the most recognised private and public-sector organisations including; Specsavers, Aviva insurance, HMRC, TFL, Centrica and ntl.   

In this interview; you will get some incredible insights into the kind of challenges faced across such a varied range of organisations. You will also understand the new skills Phil has developed to keep himself truly relevant in today’s digitally driven world (1).png

What are your top 3 priorities in your most role?

The three things that seem to challenge most businesses are:

Integrating New Stuff - Everyone wants the new stuff, but they aren’t sure how to manage and match it with the legacy or heritage IT. You talk to organisations and at Specsavers it was as true as anywhere else, they all want the shiny new thing they have heard about, but aren’t quite sure how they can integrate that with what they are already operating.

Value for Money – I think increasingly more and more chief executives are disappointed; for every pound spent there is always a promise of tomorrow which never arrives. A bit like a premier league football manager who believes by buying one more striker he’ll win but it never really happens and of course people get very frustrated by that.

Becoming Technology Centric - Trying to move IT into a technology age - utilizing things like Digital and all the smaller elements and helping companies become more technology-centric. Where technology is at the heart of the company, it’s all linked to things like user-centric design; not just customer persona, but users and colleagues.  


Which previous role had the biggest impact on your career?

That’s very hard for me to say, because each of them were quite different; some brought a huge technology change or challenge, and some, the nature of the business was the challenge. I had never worked in retail before and the whole attitude is around ‘make and mend’ or ‘just in time’, it was a really challenging approach. Then you get some of the more complicated and fast-moving things like the cable industry; ntl, that was very exciting, there we were as ntl fighting British Telecom on one side and Sky on the other. You couldn’t move any faster, we had product launches with two cappuccinos and a high five. To be more specific though, I suppose I would say my largest job, or largest challenge was HMRC, not necessarily as a CIO, which don’t get me wrong I thoroughly enjoyed, but becoming the director general responsible for change. Under the Coalition Government they decided to reduce costs in every department by 25%. The challenge was how do you reduce cost in an agency that collects the governments income - £500 billion a year? That was a tough role and the reason I think I got that responsibility, was because we realised that technology had to be used or utilized to do things, to automate and make the whole collection process more efficient and to begin to spot potential offenders or potential opportunities faster – this involved very early stage AI and machine learning, way before it was fashionable. Technology needed to be exploited in terms of using very modern systems, which means that people who are very, very clever could be freed up from the mundane to focus on people who were avoiding payment. HMRC of course isn’t just about managing people who are tax avoiding, it manages child benefit as well. That job was my most satisfying in some ways and had the biggest impact because of the sheer level of change. Sitting at the heart of government as the revenue manager, although that sounds a stupid statement, as the IT guy you are responsible for the systems that are collecting whatever the government is going to invest or spend in the future. It’s a unique and tough position. The last aspect of HMRC is the fact that it touched over 90% of citizens; it’s the biggest government interface in terms of citizens, yet when I arrived it was less than 5% digital. How do you put taxes online? How do you complete that whole complex process? It probably taught me the most, which is strange as there is a reputation of ‘slowness’ attached to the government.


How do you see the role of the Technology Leader changing?

I think at the end of the day, and I have spoken extensively in articles about this, the IT Department is dead. To be marginally controversial, I think the rise of the Chief Digital Officer has been symptomatic of a failing CTO, although it isn’t as black and white as I say it, but to a degree it is true. CIO’s for the last 20 years, myself included, have been talking about how difficult IT is and how slow applications are. We talk about how we can’t get anything done and it’s going to cost a fortune. CEO’s agree with that and say ‘You run this kind of boring, sludgy stuff that holds us back and I’m going to find a CDO that is going to help us do all the exciting, digital, snap of the fingers, 3-kids-in-their-garage-have-banged-out-another-website type of person’. CIO’s get really upset, but we are reaping our own publicity; we talked about the commoditization of IT and it now is commoditized, so Marketing go and buy their own IT at the drop of a hat. We banged on about commoditization for 20 years, it’s now arrived and now, of course, it has surpassed us. I think the CIO in the traditional way has changed and is being phased out. I think people need to change their thinking now about that role. I talk to a lot of CEO’s of the FTSE 250 and they would genuinely like to make technology the heart of their business and they realise that if they don’t become very technology oriented as a company they are going to struggle in their markets, so suddenly technology is the heart of a business’s strategy. The problem is, despite CIO’s wanting that for donkey’s years, it’s caught a lot of them out. They’ve been really happy wrestling ERP’s for 10 years and battening down email hatches, or building giant data lakes, so when the CEO suddenly says “technology is at the heart of our business, what does that mean?” we go “errrr iPads?” We really have to rethink what our role is.

To answer your question, I think the technology leader now, for the first time ever, has an opportunity. With the right personality and the right approach, to be at the heart of a company’s strategy. This will mean, as the heartbeat leader of an important, functional and philosophical approach, you need to be very different. I think that’s where technology leadership is really going within business.


What are the 3 most important issues confronting the technology industry?

I wish there were only 3! I would say from the conversations I’ve had, and these are really from the business side:

Speed – I think the biggest challenge is speed. People want to know how you get from the old to the new. I was with a CEO who said, “Is it possible just to build on a green field site all the new stuff we are aspiring to do and somehow join the old stuff in a few years’ time?” There’s a huge emphasis on: I want to get to market faster; I want to experiment more; I want to play more; I don’t want to hear about a legacy or heritage engine. Flipping from old to new, that pivot point, I think is a huge issue facing us. How do you do that? How do you do that, investing tens of millions over tens of years? Will the new stuff we talk about today become the heritage stuff of tomorrow? That whole area around speed to market is one of the biggest issues facing us.

Digitalization – I think the digitalization of the product is another issue. Who hasn’t got an eCommerce site? Who hasn’t got customer personas? Who hasn’t got customer journeys? It’s all frankly a bit ‘five years ago’ now. They are a rite of passage, not a new thing. What is new are the products themselves, especially if you are selling a physical product. People talk about cars, which are no longer cars, they are mobile data points that happen to be wrapped around with some metal. I think people are beginning to realise that our industry now faces this digitalisation of the product itself. We talk a lot about sensors and usage of the product, understanding and so on...

Professional Partners -This goes back to the previous question I suppose. It’s the fact that technology teams or divisions have got to reinvent themselves as professional partners to a technology-centric company. Professional brokers, professional advisers, professional partners that really help companies realise that technology is the heartbeat of our business dream. That may well mean that we don’t run infrastructure, even if it’s as a service, you don’t really run applications or all that. We run things like business process design; we run brokers for innovation; we run commercial partnerships with suppliers who work directly with departments. It’s not owning lots of stuff like it used to be, it is owning the relationship and being the signpost of the technology role in a company, rather than the actual technology in a company.



What 3 technology trends are you most excited about and why?

Co-bot Solutions – A worker and a bot; where does the machine start and where does the human end? That whole interface is hugely exciting and challenging. The newspapers and the press have picked up on it in the last few months, “Thousands of jobs are going to disappear in the next few months in X,Y,Z industry and be replaced by robots” is typically a headline that’s not true, but is indicative of the fact that there is going to be a line between a human and a bot and how does one get the best out of the other? It’s probably one of the biggest trends to get right; will robots replace lots of jobs? I personally don’t think so. Ultimately a human and a bot, or co-botting will be a very powerful trend.

Blockchain – I think the exploitation of blockchain as an infrastructure solution – something I have been intimately involved in, in the last few months. We all talk about blockchain and for example crypto currency. I mean, is crypto currency successful or not? Interesting headlines, but what it’s based on? Don’t get me wrong it’s got a lot of challenges, but if we resolve those challenges as an industry it’s a very interesting, very secure, a very different piece of infrastructure, which has some exciting possibilities.

AI and Machine Learning – How can they be really exploited for good? Lots of companies I know have AI expertise and are running AI experiments, but I’m not sure they quite understand what it is, or what implications it has. Machine learning to aid a business has huge potential, but will bring its own set of challenges with it? If you are working in a highly regulated or medical business, to what level do you trust the machine to be the decision maker? Or is the machine you operate an aid memoir to a human decision maker? If you think about the implications for regulations, insurance or responsibilities, all of which are quite a complex area, undoubtedly AI and machine learning can help industries, but to what level? It’s a really interesting challenge




What product or company is having the biggest impact?

For the last 12 months, I have deliberately taken a year out of the industry, primarily to re-learn my role. I began to realise, and there were a number of things at play, but one of the things that was effecting my time to move on from Specsavers, was I increasingly realised that there were so many new technologies like blockchain, machine learning, all the things we have talked about. I began to realise actually the whole shape of what I learned as a CIO, technically and the application of that technology, was no longer strong enough to stand up, and perhaps I’m being a little bit rude, as many CIO’s do and know a little bit but not enough. I’ve taken a year off to re-learn how to be a CIO at technology level, working with start-ups or series A funded companies in those new technology areas and then paying my way by doing some consultancy. My intention is to go back to corporate life sometime in the summer. To go back to your question all of those technologies challenged me, to make me realise that if you are a lazy CIO or a lazy CTO you could skate across all of those and use a bit of all of them, but some of them will more fundamentally change the way we operate as a business. We talk about digitalisation of a product, but what does that really mean? How does that really work? How do we exploit sensors? I can’t give you a specific answer. I’m really lucky to be able to take a year off and use that year to re-learn these, what I believe to be fundamental systems and solutions, and believe you me, it’s been a very steep learning curve!


What mobile app do you use every day?

Apart from all the normal ones like LinkedIn or the BBC website, I think ZOOM is my most current one - I love ZOOM and use it non-stop. I remember the days of growing up, some of the big corporate companies like Aviva would have a floor with some Cisco-based video conferencing centre. It had sensitive screens that zoomed towards you when you talked and everything else, costing tens of thousand pounds - now you just get this free thing called ZOOM. It just shows how technology has moved on, I love it!


What 3 skills should an aspiring Technology Leader look to develop?

Communication - You need to be able to learn and speak, with integrity, business language. There is still a huge amount of mystery around the IT language, the ‘black box’ or ‘keep it on our side of the fence’ to deliberately mystify the whole concept and keep it very quiet. The downside is IT technology is sexy, it’s accessible by all, we no longer have the monopoly on language. Re-learning, or learning business language is absolutely vital and with that comes business skills and business understanding. The whole language helps the business have confidence in you; that you understand them, and they have half a chance in understanding you. It’s a very important skill.

Business Process Design - It sounds a bit old fashioned, can you believe it? But it’s business process design. For 20/30/40/50 years IT have always come up with, and it’s partly a caricature because we’ve always been asked to come up with, “we’ve got a problem, I need a system”. When actually nine-tenths of a problem can be resolved by business process design and/or organisational design. Interestingly enough, if you put new technology around something that has been through a business process re-design, it is almost always going to work better and be more efficient.

Partnering - To learn how to do commercial partnering well. The outsourcing market is going through a tremendous change; big outsourcing deals are struggling and you don’t hear so much about them being given these days. Boutique partnering is becoming even more powerful; we talk about liquid technology work-teams, so say you are perhaps bringing 10 people in for a skill today, then in a year’s time they are gone, through individuals or partners. It tells you leaders need to learn about commercial skills, commercial conversations and commercial relationships. It’s true partnering because these days they are going to act much more as brokers than deliverers. It’s not learning how to write a contract, it’s learning how to manage commercial partnerships.


Where do you look for trusted technology information & inspiration?

I really struggle with this. In the old days, it used to be Wired or the BCS website and Computer Weekly. Your data sources are all those online publications, but it’s also wider than that, there are connections, there are people. LinkedIn itself for example, you just connect with people; my greatest source of information these days is less about what’s published and much more about relationships. 25/30 years ago, if I wanted to find someone who knew about cloud I had to go through some Trusted Vendors. These days it’s much easier, you go out and find people.



What books should someone looking to get on in their technology career read?

I’ve read this book twice it’s that good, it’s by two Gartner partners, Mark Raskino and Graham Waller and is called Digital to the Core. I think this book is a challenge about the digitalisation of product.

Phil Pavitt is currently exploring new opportunities to utilise his extensive experience and skills.