Sean Whetstone is well placed as head of IT services at Reed Specialist Recruitment, one of the UK’s highest profile employment agencies.
He has a strong sense of responsibility for nurturing the next generation.
Outside of work, devotes his time to being a school-governor and when we meet in his office, he shows me a Rasberry Pi cut-down PC he has been tinkering with.
The device has been developed to give school-kids the opportunity to play with computing and he is putting it through its paces, although I get a distinct impression that Whetstone got hold of the device also because he is fascinated by new technology.
The recruitment specialist he works for is also involved in helping many people into the next stage of their working lives and so Whetstone’s sense of social responsibility has a natural home there.
Founded in 1960 by Sir Alec Reed, the recruitment company is still a family-run business, with his son James now as chairman.
The company employs approximately 3,000 staff, over 17 countries in around 300 sites, Whetstone says.
The specialist recruitment arm was joined by Reed in Partnership, a business unit that works with the DWP’s Welfare to Work programme, and Reed Learning, a training business unit.
Alongside these bricks businesses, the company also runs Reed.co.uk, which Whetstone claims is Europe’s largest job board. Officially, Reed claims 2.5 million job applications go through the site each month.
Although it’s a diverse range of businesses, Whetstone says they share a common theme. They are all data-intensive businesses, with a solid data processing requirement.
He joined in 1989 as a mainframe operator, when the business operated a centralised ICL IT architecture and Wyse dumb terminals.
“By the early nineties, we had perhaps one PC in every office, because they were about £3,500 a piece,” says Whetstone, illustrating the company’s commitment to dumb-terminal computing.
That didn’t change until 1997 when the company invested in one PC for every desk. The company’s flirtation with client-server computing was relatively short-lived and it returned to centralised computing, starting with an investment in Citrix desktop virtualisation in 2005.
Whetstone admits he is rooted in thin-client architectures, which is fortunate because it is again back in vogue amongst manay IT departments.
“Like a lot of things in IT, it came full circle,” says Whetstone.
So, in 2005 we put in 5,500 Wyse terminals and VMware back end, centralised storage, HP blade centres and as much data as possible secured in the data centre.”
The company processes a lot of personal data about prospective job seekers and it’s understandable that it should have a keen sense of security.
Any high-profile leaks would likely destroy the company’s reputation with job-seekers, not to mention sour its relationship with the DWP. A leaning towards very centralised computing is a natural response to this.
The core of the company’s IT, much as any other recruitment organisation, is a relational database that matches job-seekers’ profiles with vacancies as they come up.
This is integrated with a workflow application that allocates bookings, as Whetstone refers to specific work matches, to Reed's staff.
“It’s the lifeblood of our business and then around that we have enablers like Microsoft Office. Email is another enabler,” he says.
There are variations on the model. Reed In Partnership focuses on the journey members as they are called go through in redefining themselves as job-seekers.
Their progress is tracked so that they remain eligible for benefits. Hopefully that journey ends with them successfully finding a job.
Again in Reed Learning, the same model is adapted so that courses are matched with applicants. A scheduling and booking application is used to make sure that courses are filled to capacity
“Each of them have got their own requirements in what they need to progress the business. What we do is use the same infrastructure. Virtualisation is a layer that allows them the scale security and flexibility to pull down a particular application for their business, whether it’s in-house or off the shelf.”
Whetstone believes the architecture he has set up, gives the niche businesses that make up the company the freedom to use the applications that most suit their needs, rather than adhere to a rigid procurement policy designed as a one-size-fits-all affair.
There is still a critical human element in the business, as recruitment agents use their skills and experience to secure the right applicant for a vacancy, but as an industry, recruitment has been quick to adopt new technologies as channels to market, primarily with the telephone and more recently through the internet and social media.
As the human element is so important and contact with the marketplace is critical, Whetstone likes the idea that Reed’s workforce can work flexibly, not tied to a specific desk or office.
He cites the disruption last winter when a lot of the country was snow-bound but a third of Reed’s workforce was able to log in and work from home. It’s a good example of the contingency opportunities the virstualised architecture brings.
Doubtless as the Olympic Games gets into full swing, some branches may have need to use those contingency functionalities.
This flexibility is mirrored by a simple supplier portfolio. Whetstone uses NetApp for storage over the company’s three data centres.
HP provides the tin, as he calls it, in particular blade servers. LAN infrastructure is provided by Cisco, with 10Gbps throughput. Azzurri provides the company’s comms, through IP telephony, internet connectivity and Wide Area Networking.
Citrix and VMWare provide applications delivery. Database muscle is provided by Oracle and Microsoft. Wyse provides end terminals.
Most of these relationships date back at least as far as 2005 when the company started to centralise its data, Whetstone recalls.
His relationships with his suppliers are strong and Whetstone believes he is dealing with best of breed providers.
Azzurri he singled out as a good illustration of the sort of service he likes from suppliers as a channel partner, because it has been able to provide access to different Vendors most suited to Whetstone’s needs of the day.
“Azzurri [allows me] to pick the best of breed from their suppliers. So when I built my first network it was based on broadband services from Verizon. Now this time around, it’s a whole different group of people.”
Whetstone has an IT team of just over 100 people and like the data, they too are now in a central location. He recalls how years ago, he spent most of his time in traffic jams travelling from one branch to another to fix IT issues.
He recalls how he used to get to know internal customers very well that way, but for him that doesn’t offset the days lost in travelling to each location.
Now he has a virtualised infrastructure, patches and software updates are performed centrally in the company’s Raynes Park, London site, where all the IT team are now located.
It has reduced application deployments from weeks to a matter of seconds, he says.
“Without a doubt, I’ve got fewer people, more highly skilled, centralised, focused on providing a more efficient IT service,” he says.
Whetstone explained that all of his employees wear a number of hats and they are not restricted to a particular IT functionality. Team leaders may be heads of more than one ad-hoc team, made up of experts who are also in other teams.
“I don’t want to have one storage person or one blade person,” he says. “Then you find that you have people backing each other up and you have this matrix of skills.”
Whetstone is more concerned that he has a sufficient skill-base, acquired through training, across the IT department rather than domain experts.
That way if one person is unavailable, others can step into the breach and the human element of IT provision has just as much resilience as the network.
For in-house development, Whetstone is a firm devotee of Agile and Scrum methodology. Waterfall developments have no place in the flexible world he has created at Reed.
“No longer do we start a programme and only nine months later do find out if it works or not. We have to respond to business-critical issues," he says. "All for a better world I think.”
It’s a practical approach to aligning IT with the business that he extends to his supplier relationships. He refuses to accept SLAs defined in terms of technical performance. The key is usability not network availability. An application can be available but so slow as to be useless to the business.
“We want an SLA that has a metric based on end-user experience of the application and you will pay us a penalty when you discover you are out of SLA, not whether the application is up or down. It’s about the supplier talking in terms that mean something to the end users.”
For end users, application performance is the critical factor and that is reflected in the uptime Whetstone demands from suppliers, which is on the scale of five nines.
“That’s about sixteen minutes a year or something”, he says.
As we talk with the Raspberry Pi in the background, the question of blue-horizon technology is bound to come up.
Now he has the infrastructure capability for it, Whetstone says his is very interested in the application of video conferencing within the business.
For management coordination across the company’s international points of presence, rather than for job interviews, although he admits the familiarity with video communications applications like Skype make that prospect more likely too.
As a Reed veteran of 23 years, he is well placed to guess what will become critical technologies for the company in the future.