NEW ZEALAND, 10 MARCH 2011 - In a long and varied ICT career, Bruce Tinsley has served industries ranging from banking through dairying and in several countries, before his current post as CIO for Opus, the civil engineering consultancy that sprang from the Ministry of Works.
At points in his career, he made a deliberate effort not to be "typecast" as a specialist in one business field or another. He has also been careful to broaden his business expertise, taking an MBA and carefully acquainting himself with the processes and priorities of each new business, before advancing ideas on how ICT can improve matters.
His first job in ICT was at Databank, starting in 1981 as a trainee analyst-programmer working in assembler code.
It took some learning at first, "but I quickly realised that was what I wanted to do," says Tinsley, who is based in Wellington. "Early in my time at Databank, I thought 'this is my career for life'."
The attraction was not so much the programming, even then, but "designing systems, using these tools to help business to make things happen".
Evolution in the enterprise
The hope in the 1980s and 1990s was that code generators would make programming obsolete "You'd just need to do the business analysis; put the detail into a model and all your programs would be developed for you, we were told. It seems there is still a great demand even for COBOL programmers," Tinsley says.
"To that extent, I question whether the promises of computing to the business have been realised. In other respects, they' have been hugely exceeded. Tools like the iPad, the growth in ability to communicate, the ability to share information, have far exceeded anybody's expectations from [the 1980s]."
A lot of the growth has been consumer driven and the push for business to build on that base is a two-edged sword, Tinsley says.
"I see it driving quite a bit of demand. People are coming to me and saying 'But Bruce, I can do this at home; why can't I do it at work? I can set up a blog, build a website and create applications; why does it take [the IT department] so long to implement or upgrade anything'?"
Some things don't scale well from home to the corporate environment and it's part of the challenge of a CIO to communicate that to management and staff, he says.
"During my time at Fonterra, the procurement manager asked me 'Why can't we use Skype?' I said 'would you do all your procurements through TradeMe and eBay?' It's a matter of understanding the difference between the consumer and the commercial environment -- and being able to sell that."
He spent 10 years at Databank, in a variety of roles. "That was one thing that fascinated me about IT; you could move on from role to role and continue to grow."
His first move was to ANZ-Postbank in applications development, IT strategy and a major bank transformation programme. "In virtually every country we did things a different way; different systems, processes, support functions. The global transformation project was around consistent processes, technologies and so on in all operating locations."
Tinsley led the New Zealand side of the programme from the IT perspective. When he left ANZ in 1999 and joined Azimuth Consulting, he was partway through an MBA. "I was looking for a way to grow as an IT person. I realised I needed more business knowledge and wider experience. Azimuth immediately sent me to the Philippines, to work with PLDT, the country's leading telco.
"That was good for a whole bunch of reasons. It got me used to working with external clients and it got me out of banking where I had been for 20 years. A recruiter in Wellington said 'Bruce, you're typecast. People will only look at you as a banking IT person.' So I went straight to a telco." After 18 months' project work, he and a colleague were assigned to guide the CIO in implementing a new strategy.
"That gave me the nudge to realise this CIO lark was pretty good. It gave me the impetus to move into a more strategic IT role, running my own shop."
Work in Malaysia and South Korea followed, taking him back into banking but also giving him more experience of major organisational transformations.
Transition and transformation
Returning here in 2005, he became chief technology officer for Fonterra; "I was responsible for infrastructure strategy and architecture. We had outsourced all our infrastructure management to EDS. A large part of my job was managing that new technology development.
"In 2007, I saw an opportunity at PGG Wrightson as CIO. Again this was a transformational role. PGG had gone through the merger with Wrightson and had combined the two IT operations. They needed a significant review of capability and rationalisation of applications and infrastructure.
"We migrated off an old general ledger and implemented JD Edwards; we did CRM and data warehouse. We rebuilt the infrastructure and things were going swimmingly until the economic downturn. I had to reduce staff and cancel capital projects. It wasn't a situation I was keen on. So I left. I did a short-term consulting stint with Downers, in Auckland. Then 12 months ago, I got approached to take on this role."
The challenges at Opus are similar to those at PGG Wrightson and the Malaysian bank, he says; "to look at the way we operate and make some quite significant changes.
"Our ICT infrastructure has developed incrementally over time, but without a real strategy. Our organisational structure is very decentralised; regional IT staff report to regional managers, not to myself. I have been working with management and regional IT managers looking at how we reshape IT support."
Opus (number 48 in the 2010 MIS100 report on the top IT using organisations in New Zealand) has expanded rapidly, particularly in overseas work. "If growth patterns continue, in five years' time we will have more people offshore than we do in New Zealand," Tinsley says.
"We'll be double the size we are now. We have to make sure the business processes and infrastructure are in place to support continued growth and a whole change in operating environment."
Looking back over his career, there have been similarities and significant differences in each new business area.
"The transition from banking to telco was not as big as I thought it would be. They both process large volumes of transactions every day. Fonterra was totally different. It was manufacturing, supply-chain and logistics - and my first real exposure to a large international operation based in New Zealand.
"PGG Wrightson was a big retail operation; it had probably more strings to its bow than any company I have ever worked for," he says.
Coming to Opus was a different game again; being a project-oriented, professional services company in the engineering space.
"You have to spend time learning those differences when you first come onto the job," Tinsley says.
But fundamentally there is a common thread: "It is about provision of IT services to the business and strategic growth issues; you are hopefully seen as an advisor to the business in terms of how IT can be used in a strategic fashion.
"Hopefully" doesn't sound an optimistic word, CIO suggests. "I don't want to talk out of school," Tinsley replies, "but in a couple of roles I have had, people have not been willing to listen; to them IT is a commodity service provider. All they want is for me to ensure the machine on the desk works and bandwidth is sufficient to give them a decent response time. They don't look for strategic value out of IT.
"That comes back to one of the key roles of the CIO; selling the IT value proposition -- that we are more than just PCs on desks; we are about providing a strategic capability to organisations."
A key element of his approach is engagement with business general management, he says. "I have spent a lot of this year travelling around New Zealand and Australia, meeting with managers and staff, understanding what they do. I have also met a number of my peers in the industry, for instance Robin Johansen [CIO] of Beca; the guys at Fulton Hogan and at Downers." This helps make sure when that when the companies are collaborating on a project, the total team can work together and communicate information, he says.
Opus has bases in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Canada. "We have IT teams in each. At the moment they're set up to support their regions. I believe [that's] quite an inefficient model; we have excess capability in some areas and we don't have the capability in all regions in other areas. All up, I've got about 50 IT people worldwide.
The challenge for me is how we make more efficient and effective use of them. We are working through that process at present."
In the formal structure of the organisation, Tinsley reports to the chief financial officer -- a structure that is often criticised as distancing IT from top management. The reality at Opus is different, Tinsley says
"If I want to talk to the chief exec I can just go and knock on his door. Hierarchically I am separated, but in terms of communication I am not. One good thing is that our CFO is very technology-literate and keen to drive the strategic agenda as well."
While IT should be close to the business, there is danger in letting the distinction fade completely, he says.
The conduct of IT operations demands rigour around process -- change management and capacity planning, the good operational disciplines; if you start embedding that out in the business you lose the potential for those good practices to continue and to be driven centrally.
"If you devolve responsibility you start losing control. It can be like herding cats; especially with the growth of IT knowledge among the engineers in this business."
What advice would he offer to IT practitioners aspiring to a CIO role?
"Understand the business, know what drives it. Learn about the financial and business drivers; learn about marketing, learn about business operations and driving efficiency.
"I came to this a bit late myself," he admits; his first major move was the MBA. "I think I spent my first years at Databank almost in ignorance of what the banks actually did and the underlying processes that utilised the technology. I was focused on the technology itself. Anyone who wants to be a CIO absolutely has to understand what it is that drives the business to succeed."
Another piece of advice: "know the IT industry. You don't have to know how to pull a PC to bits to be a CIO; in some ways I think that is a detriment. It is knowing the various components of the industry -- operations, infrastructure, applications, the strategy component, project and programme management. There are a whole lot of things that happen within IT and if you want to be a CIO you have to understand what they are and how they interact with each other.
"The other thing is: know your peers -- in similar industries and in the vendor arena -- because for better or worse they're the people you'll grow with throughout your career. I see people I met 30 years ago who have risen through the ranks alongside me. It is remarkable how many I still keep engaging with, especially in the New Zealand market."
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