As a world leader in weather and climate services, the Met Office is widely recognised for supporting an array of sectors including transport, with a major focus on aviation, insurance, retail, banking and environmental sectors such as agriculture and the extractive industries.
The organisation works closely with the UK government and the general public, and has over 60 locations worldwide, meaning that global coverage of weather and climate elements can be maintained 24/7. The Met Office is known as one of the world’s most accurate forecasters, using advanced technology to create 3,000 tailored forecasts and briefings a day.
We spoke with the organisation’s Director of Technology and CIO, Charles Ewen, to hear his views on the state of technology in Europe and how it’s set to evolve, as well as other technology development trends shaping the continent.
An overview of the role
I am Technology Director at the Met Office which is located in Exeter, South West England. I have the only technology-based role on the Executive Board and as such, have three primary aspects to my role. One being that as CIO, I am responsible for ensuring the Met Office has an ongoing IT strategy and set of delivery programmes that are aligned with the Corporate Strategy (we call it a Corporate Plan) and delivers technology capability, projects and services to the wider organisation. Another is as SIRO (Senior Information Risk Owner), to ensure that the information we consume, generate, analyse and produce is handled safely, efficiently and effectively. Finally, ‘technology’ can be defined as anything that is new and in that regard, I am the senior change agent for the organisation.
The importance of versatility as a CIO
As indicated above, my focus changes according to the needs of the organisation and there are periods where I spend a lot of time looking externally, times when things are much more introspective and might be focused in any of the three broad areas I have indicated. For the last year or so, my focus has been on developing and delivering a cost efficiency programme for the wider organisation that, while it had some impact in technology, was more focused on other parts of the Met Office such as account management and corporate overheads. Having completed that, I am now heavily involved in the planning for our next supercomputing capability which we hope to deliver around 2021.
The current state of the technology landscape in Europe
The big omission I would point to is the lack of a European hyperscale public cloud company. Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google, along with Alibaba in China, now offer a capacity and capability of compute and storage that, in my view, is ahead of the pack. While all these organisations run a regionally-distributed model and do have physical estate in Europe, none of them are European organisations and I lament the lack of balance in that. As has always been the case, invention and innovation in engineering and scientific excellence are in good shape with Europe leading the way in many important areas, but a lot of that innovation is acquired or naturally migrates to the hyperscale public cloud companies.
Changes companies/CIOs should be making to improve the current technology threats across the region
On the threat front, my view is that most organisations need to put significantly more focus and investment in cyber and information security. Many ‘traditional’ organisations are moving to cloud-based capabilities but in doing so are not recognising the importance of changing the security approach. Cloud offers new ways to ‘design in’ security and resilience that really need to be considered up-front and demand new skills such as security architects. All too often, organisations take existing threat and vulnerability models and approaches to mitigate them ‘as is’ to the cloud and this is often ineffective.
Developing the skills of others and putting this into practice
My personal driver for my career is to ‘make a difference’. This is why I work at the Met Office where the mission and purpose is so important despite earnings potential not being what it would be in the private sector. Another way that I can make a difference is to help develop and encourage talent and I try to do that in a variety of ways. I am a long-term and active STEM ambassador where I spend time encouraging young people to learn to enjoy and maintain STEM subjects. I am an industrial adviser to schools which is about helping to ensure that in addition to meeting attainment targets and league tables, young people are equipped for the workplace and have a realistic understanding of the kinds of skills that the present and future employer requires. I am the executive sponsor for apprenticeships and industrial placements and I work hard to ensure that there are a variety of ‘ways in’ to the rewarding and purposeful STEM roles that we have at the Met Office. Perhaps surprisingly as a middle-aged white male, I am also a strong advocate of the diversity agenda. My career has taught me that adopting a blinkered and constrained view of getting the ‘best’ people to undertake challenging work is fraught with danger.
Experience suggests that while of course you need people with requisite base skills, a diverse team looking at a challenging problem will always out-perform a single perspective group of ‘experts’, at least in terms of value generation. This view of diversity encompasses the more measurable aspects such as gender and ethnicity but also includes less visible aspects such as neurodiversity and emotional intelligence. I am also currently a mentor to five or six early/mid-career people, doing my best to help them avoid or at least learn from the many mistakes that I have made.
The most important career lesson
The most important career lesson I’ve learned is probably to temper the arrogance of certainty about anything in the future. Any prediction of something that hasn’t happened yet can only be an opinion and therefore it is important to both recognise that and to think about the quality and provenance of that opinion and how wrong it might be. Others would call this better at managing risk, however, it is equally about the realisation of opportunity. This helps me understand when uncertainty about the future is such that I should maintain a few threads of activity akin to backing more than one horse in a race. There are other times where I may feel confidence is so high that I should simply back a single horse. Too many times, business and investment cases and projections are made to look like fact when of course they are not, regardless of how well the management accountants have done their jobs and whether the numbers look compelling.
Advice for aspiring CIOs
It is important to understand the line of sight to the senior team or board. Personally, I will not work for an organisation that does not have a technology role on the executive board as I think this says something about that organisation in terms of its perception of technology. The opportunities to exploit technology and/or the threat from technology-driven disruption are now relevant to all organisations and data, and information is the lifeblood of all companies. So, my advice is be prepared to be flexible about how the organisation has chosen to think about technology.
Should CIOs seek to become CEOs?
The answer to this is all about context in terms of the skills and experience of the individual and the nature of the company. That said, I think it’s fair to say that I would expect this to be the case in the future more than it has been in the past where the typical route would be from a CFO or COO.
Certainly, many CIOs will have a firm grasp on the realities of P&Ls and balance sheets and will be accomplished at leading and managing people, partnerships and so on. As per my advice to aspiring CIOs, technology is increasingly the part of the organisation that can spot threats and opportunities in the market driven by technology as well as the most accurate estimates of how achievable execution will be. CIOs are also typically mature in terms of dealing with complexity and uncertainty in the operating environment; something that appears to be more common in all business. So yes, why not.