View from the top: Why this CIO's job has changed for ever

Christine Sexton has been in her job for long enough to have witnessed successive waves of technological change reshaping the CIO's role.
Written by Toby Wolpe, Contributor
Sheffield University CIO Christine Sexton: The role of the CIO changes all the time.

Of all the technology shifts she's seen in 17 years in the post, CIO Christine Sexton picks out two recent ones that have changed her role beyond recognition.

First, as head of IT at the University of Sheffield in the UK, she has felt the impact of consumerisation on technology more acutely than most.

Some 25,000 students arrive each year with assorted devices, and their experience as consumers has taught them to expect access to all IT services.

"You now use IT all the time. You use it in your consumer space, whereas students used to come to university and be impressed that they got an email account and a computer they could use," says Sexton.

"Now that's nothing because you've all got this and you expect it to work and you expect it to be available 24 hours a day and on every device. Consumer demands are driving what we do."

The effect of that change is not limited to the delivery of the technology itself, but has altered a fundamental aspect of the CIO role.

"With that comes what some CIOs will have found difficult, which is the loss of control. We don't control what people do anymore," says Sexton.

"There are still IT directors and CIOs who see that very much as a threat and are fighting a rearguard action to keep that control — wrongly. You've got to give up and go with the times. Things change."

She cites video as an example where consumerisation has profoundly affected the IT department's role.

"A few years ago, if you were a lecturer and wanted to make a video for your students, you'd book a slot with our TV people, which would probably be three months away. They would do all the video for you. We'd encode it and upload it to one of our media servers and tell you where it was," she said.

"Now, you can get your own little camera and you can go and record it and upload it to YouTube in an afternoon and you bypass the IT department."

She also recalls her network manager banning Skype when it first came along — something that seems inconceivable now.

Sexton says she has no problem with the changes wrought by consumerisation on her role, which has inevitably become more facilitative and collaborative.

"Our job now is to help people use things, to tell them what is good to use, to educate people. We're never going to ban people from using Dropbox — because we haven't got anything that's as good," Sexton said.

"But we can educate people on, for example, the risks — what you might want to put in Dropbox, what you might not want to — and help them use the software that's available rather than telling them what they can and can't do. That's been a big change for us."

Cloud: a no-brainer

The second big change for her role has been delivered by the cloud. Six years ago she moved Sheffield's students to Google Apps, with the university's 6,000 staff following in 2009.

"The University of Sheffield doesn't gain any competitive advantage through running a good email system. I'd rather my staff concentrated on looking after supporting teaching and learning, and research. Those are the things where we add value. If someone else can run an email service better and more cheaply than I can, to me it's a no-brainer," says Sexton.

The university is using the full suite of Google Apps and, like many educational institutions, has found Google+ useful.

"It is used a lot in education because it's a really good internal social network. It's not Facebook, so we're not invading the students' space and it's got a lot of controls in it. We've got a lot of communities on it across the university," says Sexton.

The success of the migration to Google Apps has led the university to weigh up cloud services as a viable alternative to existing systems where appropriate.

"Whatever system or service we are looking at replacing, we will always look at cloud as an option," says Sexton.

"So, for example, our library has recently replaced its library management system and has gone for a cloud service. We will always evaluate cloud now — cloud outsourced or whatever — against our system, which is different to how it used to be."

That change has affected the skills needed by the CIO and department — and not just their technological expertise.

"One of the things we're doing more of, which we didn't use to do, is vendor and contract management. If we are outsourcing things, we might not be running that service anymore but we have to manage the relationship with our supplier," says Sexton.

"If we are outsourcing things, we might not be running that service anymore but we have to manage the relationship with our supplier."

— Christine Sexton, CIO at the University of Sheffield

"That's a skill that if you went back 10 years we probably didn't have and we have to have now. We have to be quicker to respond."

That speed and flexibility has knocked on into areas such as software development, where Sexton is trying to get teams working more quickly.

"Going back 10 years, if somebody wanted a system developed, we thought nothing of saying, 'Oh yes, we can put some developers on that. It will take us two years. It will be fine. Give us all your requirements now, we'll write a spec and then we'll spend two years writing it and when we deliver it to you it won't actually be what you wanted'," she says.

"We can't spend that long writing things. We have to have things developed in weeks and months, not years, and that does require a change, a different set of skills for how you project-manage and how you develop systems."

The CIO's changing role

Another major area of change that emphasises IT's facilitative role is the university's digital strategy, which was signed off in the summer. It's a collaborative effort between IT and marketing and involves the appointment of digital and social media managers.

Sexton doesn't subscribe to the view that such initiatives diminish the importance of the CIO role.

"The role of the CIO changes all the time. It's absolutely vital that IT is not just seen as infrastructure. We're not just bits of tin and wires — IT has to be seen as an enabler," she maintains.

"We can change the way the university does business and we can help the university achieve its business objectives and that will require us to work collaboratively with a lot of other departments. I don't see that as a problem at all."

"Whether it's me pushing something or the digital officer or the marketing department pushing something, I'm not that bothered because what matters is whether the university is successful."

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