Edmund Halley Road in Oxford's Science Park is a trading estate of gleaming modern office blocks in a leafy commercial suburb. As you'd expect of Oxford, the majority of the tenants are high-tech and scientific organisations. Perhaps you wouldn't expect it to be the home of utilities and maintenance specialists Amey. But as Group CIO Darryl Salmons explains, leading-edge technology usage is exactly where it expects to build its future.
Amey is a significant business in the UK economy, and like many in the utility and maintenance sector, goes slightly unnoticed. Its turnover last year was £2.3 billion following the acquisition of Enterprise, giving Amey a very significant market share. It now has 21,000 employees, which grows at times due to TUPE when the firm takes over significant services.
Part of the Spanish Ferrovial empire, which also owns Heathrow Airport, Amey provides a wide range of services, including waste management, metering, facilities management, rail and road maintenance, as well as health and justice services. Its clients include the Department for Transport, Ministry of Defence, Kent County Council, nPower, Severn Trent Water, Avon and Somerset Courts and the National Grid.
The Enterprise acquisition, reported to be worth £385 million in February 2013, meant a need to standardise the technology across the two organisations. Amey was already a large SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) user, while Enterprise had an in-house ERP system. Salmons decided the SAP off-the-shelf ERP would be incorporated across the organisation. It was a large SAP enterprise project, but the CIO was keen to ensure that the acquisition was not a case of buy a firm and leave it alone. He wanted to use the SAP platform to ensure that there was good visibility for the CEO and the entire organisation.
Wait for a train and at some point you'll see an Amey van arrive at the station, and an engineer come on to the platform and take a look at the equipment, and then log some information into a tablet device. Salmons sees the SAP platform as a foundation for enabling the organisation to change the way it works, and his team structure has enabled the organisation to standardise and mobilise its strategy.
"Maintaining highways is a business that hasn't changed in the past 50 years. But the way we do things is profoundly changing because of the Internet of Things (IoT), data and sensors. So there's a whole range of analytics opportunities that are coming together at the same time," he reveals.
"Pot hole repairs used to be a case of a team got a list of holes and they worked out their own schedule, and perhaps they did them in an order that enabled them to stop somewhere nice for lunch." Salmons adds that the lists were likely to be inaccurate and teams may not be able to find the pot hole, or they'd fill one that was a lower priority. Once again using data and mobile technology is helping Amey, he says, improve the service to customers, and in the case of highways, the local authorities customers.
"We have a data-led strategy. Our road repair teams, using rugged devices, are getting information on each job they are required to carry out, and nothing else until it is completed. They take a picture before and after the job, and GPS means they know they are working on the right pothole. Once done they get the next job and an optimised route to it. Productivity has gone up by a factor of four," he says.
These technologies not only fill holes. Salmons has been working with Amey on using technology to improve the health and safety of its employees, many of whom have high-risk roles on motorways or remote rail lines. "When you see what our guys do it is frightening, and it's the same on the rail network. There should be no accidents, and health and safety is always the first thing to be discussed at any executive meeting," he says.
Amey is using drones to inspect rail bridges, and is working on the adoption of wearable technology to confirm employee's locations and enable them to report an incident if anything happens.
"When I joined there was a joke that you don't get a customer calling and asking for a smart city. Now they are as they are interested in what the concept can do," he explains. In January, Salmons hired Dr Rick Robinson from IBM as IT Director for Smart Data and Technology. Robinson led a number of smart city initiatives at Big Blue and joined Salmons and CIO UK in the interview.
"Smart cities are another variant of digital disruption. Digital has manifested itself in retail and financial services, and these sectors have learnt from each other. Smart cities is through urban innovation such as smart metering, smart social infrastructure, and how that can benefit us as a provider of outsourced services to the government body and the end customer - citizens," says Salmons.
The IT vendor community has talked a great deal about smart cities, but the evidence is not on the ground for CIOs or government officials to see. This is where Amey believes it can sweep in.
"What we do as a business is take on the outcomes risk," Robertson says of being an outsourcing service.
"Vendors are not taking on outcomes risk. We do a lot of waste management and a lot of our bins have their own sensors in them, so we know there is no need to empty them every week," Salmons says of the cost benefits.
"You can also link that to social outcomes and create an impact," Robertson adds. The smart city leader is helping Amey's clients tap into funding resources for smart city initiatives that are available, and can speed up implementations.
Salmons comes to Amey from a data-oriented career in financial services and logistics to name two, while the maintenance and utility sector has by and large not realised its data opportunity.
"Our CEO has recognised this very, very early on. I want to be a data-led organisation, and realise there is a wealth of data out there. We manage thousands of assets and are collecting data all the time, and often not measuring what that data tells us. So we are linking everything together. Where we manage several areas of service for a local authority, we are now linking this together," Salmons says.
"Data from a pot hole fix could also be related to school parking, and if we work with a water company, we can ensure that any diversions are less disruptive," Robertson says of the overriding concern for motorised traffic among local authority planners.
"Since joining Amey in 2013, we've been building our smart data capability, and in 2015 we have deployed some of these solutions. In 2017 we will have built an account for a smart city. It will transform our role and hasn't been done before, and it was what attracted me to this organisation," enthuses the CIO.
On joining, he restructured the IT team; there are now four IT directors reporting into Salmons and divisional managing directors. "The business units like it as they have someone to face off to," the CIO explains.
As well as changes to the management structure, Salmons and the leadership team are changing the skill set in their department. "We've been hiring a lot of people and I spend a lot of my time on recruitment, as I see it as fundamental to my success." Skills now in Salmons team include data scientists, natural language programmers and analysts. These are coming in from academia, science and mathematical areas.
The Group CIO is a believer in the Gartner Bimodal IT model. "There's an awful lot of what you do is traditional waterfall and that will be the case for Amey for a while, especially with the big contracts as there is a fixed date or budget, and the traditional approach suits that. Bimodal really helps where we need to deliver fast-paced approaches and an iterative approach.
Salmons has framework agreements in place with large providers, including Capgemini, CGI, CSC, HP, IBM and O2. "I like to go for a small number of key players," he says. "There is also a discussion with the small providers.
One thing the CIO is very aware of is protecting the intellectual property of Amey, while also getting the best outcomes from the vendors.
Almost all of Amey's clients are central or local government, agencies of government, or regulated organisations, such as utilities. Salmons admits these are demanding customers because they are being challenged economically, and the headlines of local news outlets across the nation have not been easy reading for Amey. "It's a tough austerity regime. That doesn't mean people are not receptive to ideas. Outsourcing is a big benefit to a public body if it has a desire to take out cost and inefficiency. When people have less money to spend, so then the onus is on us to deliver innovation as they are more receptive to that," he believes. "Each place I've worked, I've picked up interesting experiences," Salmons says of a career that has included financial services, regulators and logistics.
"Excel was the most similar in that the IT was part of the solution to the customer. Our CEO was at TNT, so we have a huge amount of similarity. Both industries are about resource optimisation," he explains of his time as Group IS Strategy Director for Excel. He was with the Financial Services Regulator (FSA) for two years before joining Amey.
"The FSA was about transitioning an IT department and that needed doing here as well, but here we are raising the bar and deploying a Target Operating Model, which is something I took a lot of from the banks. While at De La Rue, we did a lot of merger and acquisitions, which again has played well here with the Enterprise acquisition.
"Experience is what counts as a CIO. You have to earn your spurs and scars as you are always learning," he says.
Not only is Salmons enjoying being part of an organisation that is embracing and working towards the opportunities the Internet of Things and smart cities offers, he's enjoying Leicester City being at the top end of the Premiership table.