Kevin Evans is the CIO of Sun Branding Solutions, a global SME the offers brand and product life cycle management - packaging design and build, to you and me. It is pretty good at it too, having been around for 123 years. CIO UK spoke to Evans about his role as a business leader as well as the head of the IT function. And we asked him to speak to how a maker of physical products in a traditional sector can innovate on behalf of its clients.

Evans has a tech CV that takes in publishing, banking and a stint as a contractor. He first went to Sun to rescue a SaaS project that had fallen behind schedule and over budget. And the rest is history. He found a company with strong values and products, but one that required some disruption to modernise. This process went well.

"We had a traditional premise," says Evans "It was great and it all worked but we were looking at up to two months to restore from tape if we lost the lot. So I sat down with Paul and said this needs to change and you need someone on the board that's a peer with the other board members. He offered me the job and that's how I ended up there."

In Evans’ words: "Gradually over the past few years I picked up more and more bits of the organisation and now I have the P and L for the digital business unit, as well as our infrastructure across UK, Ireland, mainland Europe, US, India."

It’s a great-sounding role that makes Evans the leader of a tech business, rather than a tech leader in a wider business - although he retains the responsibility for infrastructure throughout the business. Evans says of the division he runs: "We have a digital unit whichsells SaaS solutions that are in use by Walmart, Bacardi, Aldi, RB (formerly Reckitt Benckiser), Unilever and Heinz. Big brands with big packaging launches.

"We have a consultancy team and we have a software implementation team. We've got the actual software offering and its licensing revenue and support and so on. This all sits under the digital business unit."

In many ways this is the ideal scenario for a technical business leader. And Evans has executive support. "I'm on the board. We have Paul, who's my boss, who's the group MD and is in charge of all of our international operations under the Branding banner. We have a commercial director, creative director, ops director and me.

"Everything bar the digital unit predominately sits under either creative or commercial. I’m the anomaly in that I have a sales force, a consultancy team and an implementation team."

Kevin Evans CIO interview: Keeping the lights on, saving money

One of Evans’ first tasks upon arriving in role was to move Sun Branding Solutions infrastructure from on-premise to cloud. As well as making sound commercial sense, Evans sees this as a critical platform from which the company can innovate. But innovation must lead carefully in an industry with established multinational clients.

"We’ve got a big blue chip client base and we are on the end of the SME market. We’re not risk averse, because that implies reluctant to change, but we are conscious of the risk that exists within the business and we go quite a long way to try and minimize that.

"Changing to cloud storage, we have saved money. But it was an investment of capital to go out and do stuff to reduce risk rather than to bring in revenue."

Kevin Evans CIO interview: Innovating to stay ahead

Evans describes a division within the business in which change is constant. The only thing that stays the same, is the need to innovate.

"On the SaaS product we're doing constant development and investment in development," says Evans. "That is intended to be revenue generating. So some of the innovation pays for itself immediately."

Other development is intended to throw forward, creating potential opportunities and offsetting future risks. "Some of the investment is much more about minimizing risk or reducing long term spend. Other is to create products we sell that somebody pays money for. There’s a fine line between the two."

We asked Evans for examples of the latter. Machine learning was his first thought. "You've got a product that goes to launch. If you’re Asda, for example and you want to launch a new vegan lasagne, we need to come up with big sort of packaging that's not made out of dead whales - vegans don't tend to like that.

"We'd have the graphics teams and the creative teams come up with something pretty that goes on the front, and our legal team will make sure that everything goes on the package correctly, and then so on. My part of the business sells software that does all of this from inception through delivery." (See also: How eight CIOs are using machine learning.)

So far so useful. But the point at which machine learning comes in is where things get disruptive. "That process averages about 48 weeks," says Evans. "For medicines it can be three years. And there are around 400 stakeholders interacting with each piece of packaging. It’s a complex process and that's where our software can add value. We're doing some work with machine learning and artificial intelligence so we can predict up front on day one of your project whether it's gonna launch on time in 48 weeks, which, for a Christmas launch, is important obviously. If you're putting Christmas trees in specific markets on boxing day, you aren’t making money."

Using AI to accurately predict up front when a product is going to launch is good, being able to predict and solve problems from the outset is great. "You can see if changing a printer, supplier or project manager at the outset will stop the process going wrong instead of fixing problems when it is too late."

Evans describes this as an example of where Sun’s innovation culture allows it to position itself ahead of competitors, even if customers aren’t forced to purchase immediately. "Our customers can look at us and say: ‘There’s a market, that's definitely of benefit to us. We could use that tomorrow.’"

Sun Branding Solutions

Virtual reality is another area in which Evans and his team see potential. He says they are working with Hololens around packaging, development, and 3D printing. And that this work is not just about products they can sell today.

"This is about establishing credentials as leaders in the market in terms of what we're thinking about, rather than having a product offering ready to go," says Evans. "We can go into retailers and we can show them Hololens virtual reality versions of their packaging and they can do 3D approvals."

Evans stresses that this is considering the needs the company and its clients have right now, and solving them better today. But more important is anticipating what clients will need in two or three years.

"3D head sets right now are not that big a deal. Nobody's going to go out and buy a 3D headset to go online shopping. It just doesn't work. But if people start to buy 3D headsets for gaming we will need to tap into that market." (See also: which industries are using VR to innovate right now.)

Evans describes walking a ‘tight rope’ between Sun’s retail customers’ needs today, and what those customers will require in three or five years. The company can’t afford to push so hard now that it alienates clients who are comfortable with their working practices, but needs to be seen to be a future-proofed partner. "We're trying to align what we offer to both meet the needs now but also be in front of the curve. It's an interesting challenge."

Using 3D imaging to showcase potential packaging solutions is a big opportunity. But it’s not something customers are asking for. "The investment is too much to benefit from right now. So we’re introducing it to our customers as a solution that could solve their current problems, but one that we know they are not ready to buy. As more use cases come along they will know to turn to us."

This is a critical point that will be familiar to all disruptive technical leaders. Evans says that for his business it is specifically relevant because of the products it makes for its clients.

"We're in a really competitive market. Everything that we make for our customer ultimately goes in the bin. When you buy a piece of food packaging you might pick it up because it's pretty but you'll take it home, read the instructions, and throw it in the bin. And that's our net product. So, it's a cost from a retailer perspective, not a benefit. If you have to invest a pound on every piece of packaging that's a pound you have got to make up in sale price."

What customers see as a cost is unlikely to be an area in which they want to invest in innovation. So price becomes the key issue. Evans sees a big part of his role as ensuring that it doesn’t become the only issue: "There's lots of people competing in our market and they're all competing on price and so are we. We have operations in India because we can produce stuff in India cheaper than we can produce it in the UK which means we can be competitive. But it's a pretty short term goal if that's your only business model.

"If you are literally reliant upon the price and not dropping below your minimum cost of products you're at some point doomed," says Evans.

Thus Evans sees his role as being both about keeping the lights on today as efficiently as possible, but making sure that when Sun’s customers are thinking about change, they see his business as the first number to call.

Kevin Evans CIO interview: How to innovate constantly

That is a desirable goal for all CIOs, but how does Evans achieve constant innovation? He describes it as a lot of hard work, that begins with making sure the basics are taken care of. He also stresses that working in an industry that values the secure and efficient delivery of existing products makes it easier to be seen as an innovator than it would be in a more overtly tech-focused industry.

Once the core infrastructure is taken care of, Evans describes an organisation in which innovation and creativity is prized. Mandatory, even, for everyone.

"We go out and about a lot, and bring back technology ideas that aren't directly related to what we do. Then we have people who can come up with use cases for our industry. We filter out which ones are worth doing, and then invest. A lot of it is hard work, keeping up with the register. It needs to be part of everyone’s role."

Innovation needs to be part of the culture, says Evans. Encouraged, and used as a motivator.

"I joined because I wanted to produce an innovative culture. We've got some really bright people, with really good ideas," says Evans. But it wasn’t always this way: "In the past we weren't particularly good at empowering them to try them and then we weren't particularly good at forgiving them if it didn't really work, and that's something that we've made a conscious effort to change."

Practically, this means that every fortnight every member of Evans’ team gets half a day to just do whatever they want. They are encouraged to ‘hack about’ and come up with an idea, and then pitch it. If the idea is deemed worthy, it gets investment.

Under Evans Sun also invests in devices that have no direct application to the current business. "When first we saw Hololens a couple of the guys said ‘oh sure we can come up with something for that but we need a couple of units to play with’. So we bought a couple of units and we've taken them home and they've got to play around with them and we will turn that into some cool stuff that we're doing with our customers."

The main thing, Evans says, is to visibly create a culture in which trying things is prized and making mistakes is forgiven. Evans says he finds this personally motivating.

"I don't do well with boredom. There's some very good people who just keep the wheels on the bus and keep them going on. I'm not one of them. I get bored and I take my eye off the ball and then it all falls apart. And then it's fun fixing it again but it's an expensive way to run a business.

"So for me it is always about innovating. The VR and the AI stuff, we're just scratching the surface in the moment of what we can do with that for our customer base."

Kevin Evans CIO interview: Using the cloud

Evans believes that this is a unique time to be working in tech, and that it affords the opportunity for a 500-person company such as Sun Branding Solutions to compete and innovate on a global stage. Why does he hold this view? Two words: the cloud.

"Take our SaaS product. It's written natively for the cloud, it's set as your native app, and it scales automatically and moves itself around the world automatically. Five years ago we would have to invest hundreds and hundreds of millions into running something like that," says Evans.

Evans says that the cloud revolution has moved that capacity downstream so that now SMEs can compete in a space that previously would require a business to spend millions.

We asked Evans for practical examples: "We talk to customers and they say, ‘we've got an office in Australia’. And we say that's fine. It's literally a couple of key clicks and that's it. For us disaster recovery involves petabytes of data that would have taken us months to restore from tape a few years ago. It takes 12 minutes now. That stuff just wasn't there five years ago. There's no way we could have done it."

He says that this creates a challenge for Sun, as there is a credibility gap: customers need to be convinced of what the company can do. It has theoretical storage capacities of thousands of petabytes around its cloud platform, and that fundamentally changes the way that customer can do business.

"For an SME to be able to walk into somebody like an Aldi and say not only do we think we can cater for your current business, but we can also cater for your marketing collateral and we can cater for your TV approvals and your regulatory compliance and more. But also, if you grow, there is absolutely no way you're going to outgrow us. To be able to say that as an SME is quite phenomenal really."

It is a great story, but one that requires time and convincing telling. Not least because as Evans tells it, Sun Branding Solutions is ahead of its bigger, less flexible competitors.

"We talk to customers now and you can see the skeptical look on their faces. We have one big competitor that's talking about being able to cope with 2,000 users concurrently on the system by 2020. We're already testing at 400,000 concurrent users. And we'll start testing for 1,000,000 next year."

Evans says that his organisation has achieved this difference partly by being the right company at the right time in the right place. But also because it has the bravery and flexibility to say that change is coming and we need to change. "We need to get on this bandwagon earlier and we need to change the way we're working, otherwise someone else will and we'll be left behind."

Kevin Evans CIO interview: People and culture

None of this happens without having the right people, however. And Evans is effusive in his praise of his devs and the people who manage them. It’s clear that the organisation has a clear view of what skills it needs, and is comfortable making changes to get those skills.

He says that his developers need to have a deep knowledge of a narrow stack. And that sales consultants need to be able to do technical things, rather than just speak tech. He recruits people that want to be challenged and to challenge, and then gives them the space and environment in which to be creative. It is important to Evans that his team have a positive and progressive office culture based on achievement rather than time served.

"I'm not paying you to be here. I'm paying you to do a job and do the job well and I'd prefer if you worked from home and got it done effectively or come in when you feel like it. We want you for your ability and your brain and your application and you can't do that if you're getting up every morning and sitting in two hours of traffic."

"One of the nice things about the technology industry is that we've empowered working from home. And yet, we're not really good at capitalizing on it ourselves. That’s just one of the things we are trying to change."