CIO Profile: Reed Specialist Recruitment's Sean Whetstone on virtualisation

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.”

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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.