12 Nov 2009View Comments
TalkTalk’s chief information officer (CIO), David Cooper, is now busier than ever as the company – which has become the UK’s largest broadband provider – embarks on an ambitious project to revamp its IT.
Since joining the firm in the summer, Cooper has overseen the integration of recently acquired internet provider Tiscali, as well as TalkTalk’s spin-off from parent Carphone Warehouse – both are major IT programmes.
The integration of Tiscali – bought in May for £236m – requires enhancement of the TalkTalk core platform Trio to accommodate new functionality such as IPTV, as well as other undisclosed products and price plans.
Tiscali’s point-to-point architecture dates from the start of the decade, according to Cooper, so the migration requires careful analysis and planning – with a view to enabling new features, migrating customers and shutting down old systems in favour of a more robust structure.
“In addition, Tiscali faced some IT issues in the past and worked pragmatically to fix them, resulting in some discontinuities between the systems we are repairing this now,” he told Computing.
The new features added to TalkTalk’s Trio platform are inherited from Carphone Warehouse and based on technology provided by customer relationship management (CRM) vendor Chordiant Software, billing specialist Single View and integration specialist Tibco.
The systems consolidation, which is expected to be completed within 18 months, will enable the company to free up space at its two datacentres for new initiatives.
“There are various new products and services coming up, so that will probably mean a growth in our IT footprint,” said Cooper.
The datacentres are currently managed by IBM, under an infrastructure IT services deal that includes servers, storage, desktop, network and site management.
The separation from Carphone Warehouse is another key project for Cooper, involving the detaching from the parent company of common systems such as sales and logistics.
“This is a fairly major project as TalkTalk grew out of Carphone Warehouse, so there are a lot of shared systems. However, our core system Trio, which supports services that include CRM and billing, was developed as a totally separate new solution for TalkTalk while we were part of Carphone,” he said.
According to Cooper, software and hardware specifications of many of TalkTalk’s systems, such as its billing platform, make it difficult to introduce new technologies such as the cloud to some areas of its IT setup.
“The technical specifications are limited but these are determined by the vendors – until that changes, some applications can’t be run in the cloud. We are working around that by consolidating and simplifying our setup, but it will take a while,” said Cooper.
“Our strategy is about changing things very rapidly, but big infrastructure changes take more time. So we have a number of cycles running, with agile development at the front end and an architecture that supports that slower rate of change for the fundamentals,” he said.
TalkTalk is also revisiting its outsourcing contracts, which include deals with Indian suppliers Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Patni and Tech Mahindra. “We already use a lot of offshore services. We won’t reverse that, but we will move to a more outcome-based approach,” said Cooper.
“It all started off as a lot of ‘body shopping’ – buying in people resources as and when needed – which is OK to get started, but we want to move to a position where suppliers are paid based on what they actually deliver. We have some of that and it is working well. When you give [suppliers] ownership and responsibility, they are normally successful.”
The IT reorganisation at TalkTalk will see it changing its relationship with the vendors – it will expect them to have a better understanding of its business. The firm’s in-house IT team will be expected to have a similar understanding (see below).
Cooper expects his department to have carried out a “dramatic simplification and consolidation” of its technology setup within 18 months, making it easier to run, more flexible for the launch of new products and more cost-effective.
“I don’t think anybody would have predicted TalkTalk would be in this position a few years ago – we are the same size as BT in terms of residential business, which is an immense achievement,” said Cooper. “We can work to bring our systems and processes together and there is a huge opportunity in that space. In fact, we will be so fleet of foot that BT will face a considerable challenge.”
How Cooper set about building a new team of motivated IT professionals
David Cooper joined TalkTalk as chief information officer (CIO) this summer from mobile operator Hutchinson 3G, where he was IT director, chief technology officer and later head of operations and technology.
As well as leading two crucial IT projects for the company, Cooper has had to use his leadership skills to bring in staff from different areas of the Carphone Warehouse group to create his own team. “Some of my IT staff were working in different areas of Carphone such as AOL and TalkTalk, and I have had to work out where the natural synergies are,” said Cooper.
While formal succession planning has not yet been introduced, Cooper joked that his recent car accident highlighted the need for management continuity within the team.
“It is all about putting the right people in the right places so that if I am suddenly not around, it will carry on. Within a year, our aim is to be able to deliver everything the business needs – we will have the structure, career roadmaps and teams in place,” he said. “My team will be sustainable – we should be able to survive if someone leaves.”
According to Cooper, the key leadership skill is to communicate well and gain trust from staff.
“This is a bit like the Army – people will follow you, but they want to believe you know where you are going, that you know how to get there and that you have the experience to do it,” he said.
“It is dangerous if staff get mixed messages, or they can’t see the end of a project. But it takes a little while for everyone to buy into the sort of management style that is required to deliver this.”
Future IT leaders do not need to be steeped in technology, said Cooper, who holds a physics degree. However, they must be able to solve problems, to think laterally, analyse technical detail and put it into a business context.
Although IT professionals should always look after their own careers, Cooper said that one of his goals as a CIO is to offer a stimulating working environment. “If [staff] want to move internally, we will plan for it and find someone to fill their positions. If they want to move on elsewhere, they will – but we try to make this an exciting place to work, somewhere people will choose to stay.”
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