During the 12 years that he spent with the Royal Navy, Chris Cousins couldn't have guessed that some of the skills he was using at sea would one day prove useful to keeping cloud-computing infrastructure up and running in the middle of a global pandemic.
Now back in civil life, Cousins works as a Network Operations Centre (NOC) manager for UKCloud, which provides cloud-computing services for customers, including a number in the UK's public sector. Along with his team of 26 engineers, he oversees the cloud-computing infrastructure for 40 hospital trusts, 34 mental health trusts, and hundreds of GP surgeries.
"Luckily, I'm used to being isolated for months," says Cousins, with reference to his previous career, "and to still have to come up with new methods to enable collaboration and communication."
Given the critical nature of the data he deals with, working from home hasn't been an option for Cousins. While the rest of the country has been getting to grips with Zoom calls and Slack, the NOC manager has kept commuting to a semi-deserted office.
From the start, ensuring that staff felt safe and comfortable was key to the smooth running of the NOC's operations.
Like any other organization, the speed at which the pandemic shut down the country took Cousins and his team by surprise. "But my experience in the Navy means that I'm used to working on the spot and in the moment," he says.
The team uses a booking system to make sure no more than three workers come into the same office at one time; and on top of extra hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial wipes, two-metre cordons have been deployed throughout the office to separate working spaces. Cousins' team has also set up a sanitization area outside their workspace to disinfect equipment before and after use.
Meanwhile UKCloud made other changes like re-allocating capacity for on-demand services to ensure that its cloud services were ready to help the public sector deal with the effects of the crisis.
The pandemic has meant the team had to deal with a big increase in workload, especially as not all clients had prepared or had contingencies in place to enable their staff to work from home.
"Our work patterns have changed," says Cousins. "We are seeing longer hours, a reduced number of breaks, due to the sheer volume of work and the demand for data hosting."
The pandemic took many GP practices and hospital trusts by surprise, and in many cases healthcare services have had to switch to remote working overnight. Early on, the NHS recommended that all practices move to the remote management of patients as soon as possible to reduce the risk of infection.
But according to Cousins, many NHS trusts weren't ready to work remotely, and didn't have the cloud capacity to start tele-consulting.
"We had requests from a bunch of customers to help them change their environments to work more effectively," says Cousins, "and to allow the sheer volume of work to be processed smoothly. We need to keep on top of that to enable the trusts to deliver on the front end."
With little preparation for digital working, it's been a steep learning curve for healthcare organizations across the country.
Moving into the cloud, however, means increasing cloud capacity; and although cloud capacity may sound abstract, it comes in the form of very tangible server racks in data centers. And providing sufficient physical infrastructure in response to a sudden surge in demand from every client, all in the context of a pandemic, is no easy task.
Cousins has been doing a lot of planning and forecasting in the past few months to allocate and repurpose equipment based on the new storage needs of his clients. Luckily, he says, there is already a bunch of capacity waiting to be used; but racks still need to be physically moved around the data halls and repositioned as necessary.
The process, dubbed "racking and stacking", is typically carried out by a couple of high-level engineers, made more complicated by the need for social distancing.
"It's a fine line," says Cousins. "You have to apply social-distancing rules where you can, and minimize the time you spend doing the racking and stacking. You have to apply common sense."
As a manager, on top of supervising unprecedented amounts of work, Cousins has had to keep the team spirit going. This has meant daily calls and the occasional virtual cup of tea, but the NOC manager finds that one general rule should always be applied: never ask someone to do something you wouldn't be prepared to do yourself.
His tip to other leaders? Invest in your team by communicating and showing empathy. The amount you give to your employees, says Cousins, will inevitably show in what they give back to their work. "In the individuals I work with directly, especially as of late, the close engagement and mentorship is really showing," he says.