Catherine Doran relishes a challenge and as director of information management at Network Rail, she will certainly find them in abundance at her new employer. Doran joins a company with fresh ideas and impetus but weighed down by an image problem proving resistant to change. While train punctuality may be the best for six years, erasing memories about the wrong kind of snow or leaves on the line is proving difficult.

The company is working hard and with considerable success to slough off some of the baggage it inherited when it took over the UK’s railway track and infrastructure from private firm Railtrack in October 2002. For the six months to 30 September, the firm reported an operating profit of £225 million, compared with a loss of £95m in the same period last year.

No caretaker manager

The pace of change for the new company has been fast and shows no signs of letting up – which suits Doran just fine. “You bring me into a company if you want to change how it’s currently functioning. I am not a steady-state operator. Bringing me into a perfectly oiled machine and saying can you just turn that handle for the next five years wouldn’t be right,” she says.

Top of her agenda is to refresh and refocus the 10-year IT strategy, begun in October 2003 by her predecessor. What is challenging about Network Rail is that the company has a large, complex IT infrastructure with 40 year-old systems that need to rub shoulders amicably with systems that are 40-days old. Doran believes it is important to get stuck into tackling strategy right away, before you get sidetracked by the minutiae of daily tasks.

“If you don’t start tackling strategy more or less from the outset, you will get too caught up in the day-to-day stuff. It happens to all of us. You get involved in the doing and delivery,” she says.

Being focused on strategy does not mean she had her first week or month mapped out before she joined. “You think you’ve got an idea and know what’s going on, then you walk in and real life intervenes,” says Doran. “The notion is that you will be able to sit back and think great thoughts but you simply don’t have that luxury.”

Joining a new company requires a fast download of new information, particularly when you are moving to a different industry. Doran freely admits: “I knew nothing about trains and I take the tube to work.”

But switching to a new industry does not faze her at all. “In my early days I was in manufacturing, insurance, the leisure industry at Ladbrokes, then in Lloyds and Beechams. I’ve worked in many different types of company, so the notion of changing sector doesn’t scare me – actually I find it energising,” she says.

"You bring me into a company if you want to change how it’s currently functioning. I am not a steady-state operator"

Catherine Doran, director of information management, Network Rail

Train talk

It does, however, involve brushing up on a whole new set of jargon and acronyms. “One thing that took me by surprise was the degree to which I’ve had to learn a new language. I know telecoms language, I know finance languages and the acronyms from both of those sectors – and I know IT acronyms like a champ – but the rail industry has its own language to such a degree that the intranet contains a jargon-buster,” she says.

If it had not been for an advert for trainee programmers in the mid-70s when calculators were the height of computational wizardry most people encountered, Doran would have ended up a maths teacher. But intrigued to find out what programming entailed, Doran sent off an application, sat an aptitude test and was drawn into a very different career.

"I told BT I was joining for career purposes and wanted a chance to develop with them. If I felt my role hadn’t moved on after two years, I’d leave"

Catherine Doran, director of information management, Network Rail

For the first nine years her career followed a technical rather than managerial path, working for software houses on assignments with a wide range of customers and industries. “That way you really got to see what goes on inside a company and that what works in one place that doesn’t work in another. You also get to learn about best practise,” Doran remembers.

It was not until 1992 that Doran took on her first general management role, swapping a long term freelance contract with BT for a full time position in its telephone billing business. “I’d done programming, team and project leading – going up the hierarchy in terms of developing systems – but I wasn’t doing line management or general business stuff. I’d stayed very technical for a long time,” she says. It may have been her first role as a line manager but she had a clear idea what qualities made a good leader. “I decided that I couldn’t be worse than some of the other people I saw,” she jokes.

Seeking out challenges

With her first step on the managerial ladder there was no looking back. “I told BT I was joining for career purposes and wanted a chance to develop with them. If I felt my role hadn’t moved on after two years, I’d leave,” says Doran. True to her word, two years later Doran stepped up to her next challenge with a role at NatWest. It proved to be a major turning point in her career. For the first time she was joining a company she did not know much about and was also stepping outside IT.

“Although in the two years at BT I’d been doing billing stuff and I wasn’t involved in the technology, I was still fairly close to it because there were quite complex and difficult management issues of looking after different versions of software. When I went to NatWest, I was running a department of 250 people. I didn’t know anything about the systems. I obviously didn’t know about the people and I didn’t know anything about banking apart from being a NatWest customer.”

As head of the retail banking division, Doran’s job was to look after the big accounting mainframe systems that held customer data. “I was used to the scale as I’d been in BT and the technology didn’t worry me since I knew mainframes. The difficult things were: what is the company about, how does it operate, how does it get things done, what’s the culture? It was things that had very little to do with IT per se, that I had to get to grips with early on,” she recalls.

Mainframe focus

It was about that time that NatWest was leading the charge towards Windows NT and bypassing the Unix revolution altogether. In its rush towards this new technology, the bank was trampling on the morale of people who still worked on mainframes. “It was a hugely demoralised team. The attrition rate was 25 per cent because people were voting with their feet. I realised early on that this was a hell of a problem and that there needed to be some broad education across the business about what we wanted to do strategically – because mainframes were the crown jewels.”

She talked the issue through with management and helped change attitudes in the company, making people understand the crucial role mainframes still played. A year and a half later her remit was expanded to include taking care of all development for the retail bank, including ATMs and branches. The number of people she was in charge of grew from 250 to about 1,400 by the time she left the company.

Although her next role as European CIO at Capital One was in the same industry, moving there from NatWest was a massive culture shock. ‹ “Capital One was just so vastly different. I joined the European business and it was 1,500 people all told, most of who worked in the call centres. The US operation was vast but it was run very much as a separate business.

“You had that dichotomy of working for a huge machine in the US and how do you navigate that huge machine but also this small, friendly team in Europe.” She was headhunted back to BT after Capital One, running a small CIO unit in the retail business and it proved a very different experience second time round.
Doran’s role was separate from the main IT function and it was her job to commission work from them and outside companies.

Changed atmosphere

“My job was to sit at the business table, be part of building business strategy, then go and work with technologists to delivery the technology to support the business. It was a great time to be working for BT,” she says. “Broadband was less than one million lines, BT wasn’t in consumer mobile, so my first task was to deliver the technology to allow BT to go back into mobile in the consumer space,” says Doran. This feeling of optimism was very different from the beaten down attitude she had encountered nine years earlier.

“In BT when I was there the first time it was pretty much one of ‘assume a defensive position’ as the regulator was desperately trying to open up the market. We were facing competition for the first time, so we were trying to hold on to every part decimal of market share.”

Taking a step out of full time work after BT and becoming an interim manager helped Doran crystallise what she really wanted from a job. “It was actually a kind of eye-opener to me because I found myself thinking ‘do I want to do another permanent job or carry on this?’ It was hugely liberating to find that I didn’t care. It was more about what was the task,” she says.

She was weighing up the options of both permanent and interim positions, when the call came through from recruitment firm Egon Zehnder offering the Network Rail job.

After a little bit of web digging, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that the executive and the changes it was making were viewed positively. Meeting the executive team only confirmed her favourable impressions.

People and culture

Of course, there are many technology challenges to the role but Doran says the main hurdle of taking on a new senior position is getting to know the people and culture.

“Obviously you have to go into a place and do a quick canter round the technology – the big projects and the issues so you have a grasp of it – but I’m much more interested in the big issues the business is grappling with. All companies have things they are worried about and you’ll get to know some of the things that are front of mind in the recruitment process but you don’t get the texture until you’re actually in there.”

One of the unique challenges she faces at Network Rail is that some systems are shared with the rail operating companies, so any decisions about internal strategy have to take this into account. The fact that Network Rail is a not-for-profit company rather than listed also means there is a very different rhythm to the way it works. “One of the things you find is that companies are driven by next quarter’s results and, on occasion, this can drive short-termism,” says Doran.

"One of the things you find is that companies are driven by next quarter’s results and, on occasion, this can drive short-termism"

Catherine Doran, director of information management, Network Rail

Although Network Rail is goal-oriented and needs a modern, flexible IT infrastructure, the company is not driven by quarterly targets and takes the long view about IT and its tracks.

“I learnt that every year we renew 3 per cent of the track, so that means if it were the Forth Bridge it would it will take 33 years to complete. That chimes with me and my world view. I don’t hold with buying in a system then replacing it in two years,” says Doran.

Her first day at Network Rail coincided with a strategy and planning event for the entire executive team in Coventry. “I met all my new team mates in a social context on that first evening, then next day was spent listening to people talk about strategy, what are we going to do, what’s our vision over the next number of years. So that was fab. It was also bewildering, because I couldn’t keep in mind who everyone was. I’d love to be able to replay that day now.”

A daunting first day then but she is used to that. On her first day at Capital One she ended up on a plane to Colorado with a whole bunch of colleagues she had never met before. “I got introduced to a dozen people I met at 30,000 feet and then had four days of strategy and team building. So having to go up to Coventry for a meeting was positively benign.”