My Way: London Borough of Hillingdon
How the London Borough of Hillingdon transformed its IT systems into an easily managed virtual environment.
E&T: How did the Hillingdon council IT overhaul come about?
Bearpark: Like all the successful things I've been involved with, it was pure chance really. Up until that point people had gone out and bought 'random' technology every time they needed an application or service instigated. That resulted in several rooms full of servers - incredibly, no one knew exactly how many servers we had - and, in a building dating from the 1970s, with 1970s power supplies, we sucked every last Watt of power - literally - that the building could handle.
E&T: So, no power, no further expansion.
Bearpark: If we were going to put another server in, we had to look to putting more power into the building; which meant basically the London Electricity Board digging up roads and laying huge cables in - not very eco-friendly!
E&T: So, an alternative approach was required.
Bearpark: Yes. We decided to look at alternatives, and at that stage virtualisation was gathering momentum in terms of people using it in test and development environments. We decided to be brave, and see if we couldn't introduce it big-time into a live environment - which is what we did [with a Compellent SAN and VMware].
E&T: You make it sound like the project seemed more daunting than it turned out to be. Was it a straightforward implementation for you?
Bearpark: I've got a very simplistic view of life, and to my way of thinking, yes it was quite straightforward. We had a requirement; we put out a tender looking for someone to do a fixed-price proof of concept with us. We identified 30 servers initially, and it took us just six months from putting out that tender to having the first virtual machine operating.
E&T: But it wasn't just treated as another IT expansion?
Bearpark: It was the first thing I'd led in Hillingdon where we weren't following a well-beaten path, so there was a certain amount of trepidation amongst the team and a certain amount of excitement as well. No one was really sure what the outcome would be, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
E&T: How did you deal with managing staff concerns?
Bearpark: I got them fully involved. The team has purposely been structured so that we didn't have any project specialists, we just had one ICT project manager. The idea being, any projects we tackle we would put together specific teams for that project, so they could be representatives from the desktop support team, from the business analyst team, and so on. We probably over-specified the team to give lots of people lots of opportunity to see an angle of the business that they wouldn't see ordinarily.
E&T: What was the sum effect of that move?
Bearpark: That gave them ownership of the programme. With that ownership, I think they got an early opportunity to voice any fears. The partner we worked with - Insight - was very good, and confidence soon grew.
E&T: Do you find 'pushing the envelope' a bit for your staff is a good way to work?
Bearpark: Yes. The one thing that I always find frustrating is when people are a little bit reluctant to take risks. I think that leads to a very stale environment. I'd rather be accused of making a bad decision than no decision at all. I think getting the team involved, getting the members to think positively about how they can effect change, helps broaden their careers, gives them something different to do, and they generally bind to that very well.
E&T: Are the benefits quantifiable?
Bearpark: I think that's reflected in the attrition rate we've had. In the six years I've headed the team up we've had three people leave, which out of a team of nearly 30 is not bad.
E&T: With your experience, do you find the way the public sector works much different from the private sector approach?
Bearpark: No. There are people within the public sector that seem to think it should be different. Now, possibly because I come from a private sector background, I just didn't see the difference whether you're supporting and supplying ICT where the bottom line is of interest to the shareholders, or whether you're doing it so that the final bill is to the tax payer.
E&T: So no difference at all, then?
Bearpark: Although I think one huge benefit within the public sector is that you're not in competition, and people are that much more willing to talk about what they're doing. I think the bottom line and the ethos behind it is that you do things for the right reasons whether that's public sector or private.
E&T: Have you been able to take mindsets and skills that you've got from the private sector and bring it into the public arena and to your staff?
Bearpark: Very much so, both to colleagues within ICT and people in the business, as well.
E&T: What form did those conversations take?
Bearpark: The notion that ICT is just something that's there and doesn't have a cost, is something I've discussed. I think we now have a much more mature engagement with the business where they will look at what they want to do and therefore what they need to do to support it. So, again, traditionally I think maybe my predecessors would have looked at just doing IT for the sake of it; if something was new and sexy, and they liked it, they would do it; then they would find the business rationale for it. We don't do that now. It's very much driven by business needs, and we do that efficiently and in partnership with the business.
E&T: Presumably the virtualisation project was a big project for you, but what are the day-to-day challenges?
Bearpark: The day-to-day challenges are not specific to the public sector or us; it's just doing more and more as the business comes to rely on ICT. We've really rationalised and improved the way we work, adding automation now where we can. Where we've introduced the virtualisation for example, the management is more efficient than ever.
E&T: So you are satisfied that virtualisation has met its objectives?
Bearpark: What we've implemented over the last 12 months gives us a great deal more flexibility and efficiency to do things. We've got 100 per cent year-on-year data growth, and all the ancillary bits that surround that, yet we handle that with the same team we ever did, and we're also involved with more business related projects than we ever were.
Our contact with the business is also wider and deeper, but our daily dealings with users who have ICT issues, we simply do in our stride. Some things now that we do which we consider part of the day job were either not contemplated, or considered a pipe dream three or four years ago