Kevin Evans’ move to cloud computing has encompassed global hosting, flexible and scalable storage, low-latency for worldwide users plus analytics and data science. He has also delivered a complete infrastructure transformation, driving a deliberately cutting-edge replacement programme that’s upgraded hundreds of desktops across three continents, replaced traditional SAN storage with an extensible petabyte-scale hybrid cloud, and improved WAN and LAN connectivity – all with a reduction in year-on-year cost. As a result, the business has been able to launch products into markets it previously couldn’t afford to enter.
Sun Branding Solutions
How are you influencing the products, customer experience and services your organisation offers to its customers?
We have a digital division, which reports in to me and offers SaaS solutions to many of the world’s most recognisable brands – in respect of our technology offerings I have ultimate responsibility for our products, customer experience and services, spend a lot of time with the development and consultancy teams, customers and Rob Quigley (the product owner for our flagship Sunrise product) to make sure that what we’re offering is not only industry leading but also aligned closely with what they need now and what they’ll need in the future.
For our non-digital product offerings – which are as diverse as structural engineering and waste reduction for packaging, graphics and creative artwork and legal advice – my remit extends to making sure that we’re able to deliver them in a globally consistent manner, that our DR and BCP provisions are well tested and suited to a modern highly-available world, and that demands like ever-increasing storage usage are anticipated and catered for so the “non-technical” people in our business can take those bits for granted and concentrate on leading their own fields.
Define the key business outcomes that you have delivered over the last 12 months and their impact on your organisation’s performance
As well as a complete rewrite and relaunch of our software offerings, taking advantage of the benefits offered by cloud computing in terms of global hosting, flexible and scalable storage, low-latency for worldwide users and some incredible analytics and data science offerings that simply wouldn’t have been possible a year ago, my team and I have also delivered a complete infrastructure transformation. SBS is over 123 years old and had under-invested in infrastructure for many years thanks to a lack of ownership and executive level sponsorship, and I’ve driven a deliberately cutting-edge replacement programme that’s seen us upgrade hundreds of desktop PCs and Macs across three continents, replace traditional SAN storage and an “archive data to make space” operating model with an extensible petabyte-scale hybrid cloud storage environment, upgrade WAN and LAN connectivity to interoperate better across our various locations, and invest in training and development for staff – all with a reduction in year-on-year cost.
That’s helped drive a reduction in operating cost across all our divisions, and aligned our cost to operate with revenues in a way that previously wasn’t possible – removing the need for inflexible CapEx investments that didn’t necessarily align with our needs. We’ve been able to launch our software offerings into segments of our market we previously couldn’t afford to enter, reducing our cost of implementation (which needs to be recouped either as direct up-front-charges or via subscription revenues) from the hundreds to the tens of thousands, and we’ve been able to pitch for (and win) work across our graphics divisions which involves working with data volumes our competitors still can’t cope with.
What has been your involvement with innovation at your organisation – in particular, with products, business model and technology – over the last 12 months?
I’m responsible at a board level for innovation across all of our technology projects, regardless of the brand it sits within – for product, business model and technology.
In product innovation, under my leadership we’ve been heavily involved with Microsoft’s Hololens since its launch in the US and will bring to market what we believe to be the first mixed-reality holographic product launch solution in the world in Q1 2017, with Bacardi showcasing our work at its launch. We’ve used artificial intelligence and machine learning internally to improve our own services, blurring the line between “product innovation” and “technology innovation” as we’re now taking those same services to market and helping our customers gain a competitive edge by the use of technology previously the exclusive reserve of those with armies of PhD data scientists.
The adoption of scalable, multi-tenant cloud hosting and global data storage has meant our business model now extends far further down the market than it previously was able to; the minimum viable revenue from a sale has reduced by around 80% for a software sale, enabling us to offer solutions to small retailers and independent producers and opening up new revenue streams. Outside of software, our infrastructure transformation has meant we’ve been able to absorb cost reductions driven by an increasingly competitive marketplace, while offering increased service and shortened timings to safeguard revenue and market share.
How have you delivered cultural and behavioural change as a CIO within the IT department and/or more broadly across the organisation?
SBS has a strong history of innovation and a sense of pride in a number of technology firsts (including launching the first fully digital repro suite in the world), so the cultural and behavioural change challenge was subtly different than in many workplaces – instead of trying to instil a sense of technology being an enabler, the challenge was in re-establishing the technology team’s credentials in terms of ability to deliver.
Empowering the team, providing meaningful budgets and delegating authority over them, building industry partnerships (particularly with Microsoft, who have been incredibly supportive throughout this journey) and encouraging people to take calculated risks and rewarding them for doing the right thing has meant the technology teams have re-demonstrated their capability, and in turn the business has come to have faith in them again.
That’s translated into a very open, “we’re in it together” sense of a joined-up technology team (or set of teams) and the wider business, and a shared sense of competing pressures and priorities that are now addressed in a much more collaborative, co-operative manner.
How have you worked with your CEO and/or board to communicate whatever ‘digital’ and IT means to your organisation/sector and improve digital literacy at the highest levels of the organisation?
My senior team and I have worked with the wider business’ senior leadership team and our board (on which I sit) to encourage a viewpoint that technology is no longer a separate function but a key part of everything we do. Perhaps because of the ‘digital’ nature of the way we interact with our customers and the transition from traditional paper-based approvals and repro to all-digital online systems over the past decade, we have a fairly receptive audience.
That’s meant the biggest job has been not so much to educate them, or our customers and the wider sector that digital is part of the “non-digital” offerings, but to provide expert guidance on emerging technologies and what they might mean – for example sponsoring through AI/ML initiatives which have served as a proof of concept and justified further investment, or funding investment in VR through the digital P&L despite the eventual offerings sitting under our graphics banner.
How have you worked with the technology and IT vendor market to achieve your business goals? How have you been able to influence IT suppliers and successfully manage your partnerships/relationships with large IT companies, SMEs and startups?
We’ve worked very closely with Insight and leveraged their supplier and partner network; from implementing Dynamics CRM to putting Microsoft’s StorSimple appliances in to replace a legacy a SAN through to optimising our licensing spend, we’ve taken advantage of our close relationship with Insight and their massive buying power to make sure that we’ve got the best services available on the market at the best prices.
Symantec have partnered with us to provide security services which we simply couldn’t hope to deliver ourselves, given our size constraints, and we’re particularly proud that we’ve got some of the best network and server protection available in the world despite being “just an SME”.
Microsoft too have been key to our journey this year; we’ve worked very closely with the account management team there to get SBS into the position we wanted it, are delighted to sit on their ISV Partner Advisory Council, and are looking forward to a strengthened partnership in 2017 via the Developer Experience team as we bring to market Azure ML based services, Hololens products and further increase our adoption of the Azure platform to help us punch well above our weight.
In all these instances, we’ve taken the approach that a true partnership is the only way we can deliver the kinds of things we want to do with the size we are; we don’t have the spending power to force our way to the negotiating table, and we’re very proud that we’re sat at it anyway despite being an SME ourselves.
How have you tried to develop the diversity of your team?
Diversity’s hugely important to us – our customers are retailers and consumer goods companies, and the services we provide all centre around getting product on shelf in stores; the buyers of those products are a hugely diverse group which represents the whole UK population. Despite that, our workforce has traditionally been white males aged 30-40. As a board we’ve all taken steps to address that; we have an in-house training and development programme in our graphics team which is having some success in broadening our appeal outside of that demographic, and in our technology teams we’re trying hard to recruit apprentices and to advertise through local schools and colleges to build a more diverse team.
I’m chairing a University Technical College (a STEM-based, non-selected school for 14-19-year-olds) bid in the region to try and get more young people into technology careers, and more specifically to try and encourage more female and minority students into the field. UTCs are a great way for employers and education to come together, but they’re only a part of the solution – we’re also working with Engineering UK, the LEP and the regions’ councils to address the lack of entrants to the profession.
Describe how you organise and operate IT and how this aligns effectively with business strategy and operations
We have a central, HQ-based IT function at our Bradford head office, and staff on site in London and India to complement them – we’re also able to draw on some of the personnel from our parent company (Sun Chemical) in the USA, as well as a set of local IT services providers that we rely on for short-notice onsite help in the remote offices like Ireland which are close enough to be supported by HQ staff for the most part.
IT (and our other technical teams) ultimately report in to me, but we don’t rely solely on board-level conversations about strategy to ‘filter down’ – we have a bi-monthly get-together of the whole business’ senior management team across all divisions, which offers the board the chance to address and listen to the management team as a whole, James (my IT manager) the chance to inform the group of what he’s working on and any potential impacts, and most importantly to let the rest of the group share their plans, challenges and timescales with the technology teams and allow them to suggest solutions or ways they can help.
What strategic technology deals have you made in the last year and who are your main suppliers and IT partners?
In operational terms, the biggest strategic technology deal we’ve made is with Symantec; we used to operate our own in-house network security teams, but frankly it’s a losing battle – we don’t have the knowledge or skills to be expert in the field of security given how fast it’s moving (and I say that as someone who’s mid-PhD in cyber security!), and we don’t have the capacity to keep sending people off to retrain. Handing the “keys to the kingdom” to someone else is a pretty scary thing to do, but we’ve been tremendously impressed with Symantec’s offering and have no regrets – they look after our security far better than we were ever able to do, and it’s a real point of differentiation when we’re compared to our competition.
The other big strategy decision we’ve taken for 2017 is about bringing on apprentices (a decision that’s been prompted in part by the apprentice levy coming up, and in part by the difficulty finding multi-skilled staff at reasonable rates); we’ve paired up with Firebrand and a couple of local colleges and universities to try and develop our own pipeline of skilled staff. It’s not a quick process and we’re still waiting to see how it pans out, but we’ve had some good experiences with placement students and apprentices and we’re optimistic that a combination of formal training and workplace experience will bring big benefits over the next few years.
What are your key strategic aims for next year?
2016 was very much a foundation-building year; we’ve done some impressive things and developed some exciting products, but 2017 is about translating that into revenue. Sunrise, our flagship SaaS product, is in active use and has a promising set of tenders and RFPs for 2017 as well as some customers to migrate off the Odin product it replaces.
VR and 3d printing will become a core part of our graphics offer, complimenting the existing “2d” services we provide, and AI & Machine Learning will span several of our brands. In both instances, this represents a significant opportunity to not only pursue new revenue streams and protect our market share but also to take a set of new technology offerings out of incubation and into production.
From an infrastructure perspective, the last remaining strategic project we’ve yet to complete – after a hugely ambitious 2016! – is replacing our various telephone systems around the world with a single unified comms platform for delivering instant messaging, presence and fixed-mobile convergence across the five offices in the UK, three in the USA, four in the EU and two in India... all while opening another couple!
How are you preparing for any impacts Brexit might have on your organisation?
The biggest immediate impact upon us from Brexit has been the falling value of the pound against the dollar; cloud pricing pegged to the US dollar has had an effect upon us, as have the near-simultaneous Office365 price increases (despite their being allegedly unrelated to the dollar value!) We’ve worked hard with Microsoft and our licensing partners Insight to mitigate those increases as much as possible, and have succeeded in fixing our pricing for the next few years for most of our ongoing purchases – at the cost of losing some of the flexibility.
Longer term, it’s hard to predict what effects Brexit will have. Our customers are retailers and global brands, and they’re going to be affected more directly than us, which will have knock-on effects. Our expectation at the moment is that changes to the supply chain will drive new packaging activity (which is good for us) which favours UK suppliers and manufacturers, but that changes to the workforce and market may offset some of that growth. We’ll have to wait and see.
When did you start your current role?
What is your reporting line?
Sit on the board, report to CEO
Are you a member of the executive leadership?
Are you a member of the board of directors?
What other emerging roles does your organisation have and what is their relationship to you?
None; my remit includes what would traditionally be called CTO, and responsibility for innovation and digital
How often do you meet with your organisation’s CEO or equivalent?
How many people at your organisation does your function supply services to?
What is your annual IT budget, or your spend as a proportion of the organisation’s revenue?
budget confidential, spend as proportion of revenue c. 20%
What percentage of your budget is operational spend (ie keeping the lights on) and how much new development (ie innovation, R&D, exploratory IT)?
Approx 50/50 split (varies by quarter)
Rank the following sources of advice/information in order of importance:
- CIO peers
- Industry bodies
- Analyst houses
Has your organisation detected a cyber intrusion in the last 12 months?
Are you expecting an increase in budget specific to security in order to tackle the cyber threat?
Does your organisation have a designated security professional – CISO or otherwise – and what is their relationship to you?
Are you finding it difficult to recruit the talent you need to drive transformation?
Has recruitment and retention risen up your agenda as a CIO?
Does your IT organisation operate an apprenticeship scheme?
How many employees are there in your IT team?
9 “IT” (infrastructure / maintenance), 38 non-IT technology
Are you increasing your headcount or planning to bring skills and the ability to react to needs in-house?
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next year?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- enterprise applications
- Machine learning/artificial intelligence
- 3D Printing.
Which technologies or areas are you expecting to be investing in over the next one to three years?
- data analytics/business intelligence
- enterprise applications
- Machine learning/artificial intelligence
- 3D Printing.
What emerging technologies are you investigating or expect to have a big impact on your sector or organisation?
AI/ML and VR
Does your organisation do a significant amount of trade with the EU?
Does your department include technology staff from the EU?
Are you or have you been looking to the EU to recruit key skills?