CIO Spotlight: Julian Pimm-Smith, Zellis

What will be most significant business or technology initiatives for you this year? “Stabilisation, automation, and insights.”


Name: Julian Pimm-Smith

Company: Zellis

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: December 2019

Location: Leamington Spa

Julian Pimm-Smith is Chief Information Officer at Zellis, one of the UK and Ireland’s largest payroll and HR solutions companies. Prior to joining Zellis, he held a range of IT roles, including IT Director of Data and Information Services at Bupa and Group Head of Business Intelligence at Pret a Manger.

What was your first job?  I worked in various marketing communications roles in California and London, where I learned how to use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint to create gorgeous presentations for our clients. It is remarkable how important presentation, attention to detail, and a cohesive narrative has been to my career and leadership.

Did you always want to work in IT? I wanted to work in Business Intelligence from the second I started working in a performance analyst role at Airwave, the emergency services communications network. Working as a CIO is giving me the opportunity to demonstrate that the ‘I’ in IT is the most valuable asset we are responsible for.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I went to some fabulous schools and dipped my toe into university, but I was also young, had a band, and had a desire to figure things out for myself. In my professional life, I have gone through formal training such as TOGAF, ITIL, and the marvellous Global Leadership programme at Bupa, led by Duke University. I have also learned so much from transformation programmes at the businesses in which I have worked, including ERP implementations, mergers and carve-outs, GDPR programmes, and diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. When I began in Business Intelligence, I suspected that I would never be the best at the reporting side of things, and certainly not even a contender on the data warehousing side. But I had a gut feel that I could run teams of people who were incredible at those disciplines. So, I guess you could say I blagged my first “Head of” role in an interview, and quickly proved that they had made the right choice. Each team I have worked with has been more like an extended family than purely work colleagues.  We have always felt so grateful to enjoy our careers, to wake up every day electrified to go into work, and to be able to help people across the business get access to the information they need.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Stabilisation, automation, and insights. Our strategy is focused on IT always working, on driving efficiency and accuracy through automating our processes, and in creating a data and insights platform that will deliver a true digital feedback loop for our internal services and for our customer products.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT?  We have substantial investments in Microsoft applications and platforms, NetSuite, and ServiceNow. Our CEO would like us to drive value from these platforms with better integration, slicker processes, and enhanced colleague and customer experiences. We also have a significant product transformation in progress to our new HCM Cloud platform, and our CEO will be looking to IT to make that stable, scalable, and secure.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I am hoping to show that the CIO of the future will be one who understands data, and the value that information brings to their business. So many data and Business Intelligence practices that sit in IT directorates make access and requests for data difficult and arduous for their colleagues. The CIOs who deliver data and insights platforms that reflect the end-to-end processes of their business will drive true differentiation in their sectors.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? We are leading a digital transformation across all fronts within Zellis IT.  From networking and hardware, to the services we consume and the devices on which we consume them. From the point of view of our colleagues, a true digital transformation programme will ultimately end up delivering a simpler, more efficient, and optimised IT estate; it will bring their digital experiences at work much closer to the slick and intuitive experiences we have on our phones, with our TVs, and with internet retailers. IT at work doesn’t have to be boring anymore!

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT?  I am less than a year into my role at Zellis, but we have a 2-year roadmap, and an aspirational 5-year roadmap with KPIs at every stage. And, whilst IT KPIs are important (uptime, patching coverage, network latency, etc.), we ensure that our roadmap aligns with the corporate plan, and is focused on our customer experience and managing our costs and cash. We’re not just here to be great at IT. We’re here to make sure our IT enables fantastic experiences for our customers and colleagues, and delivers on Zellis’ strategy.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Empowerment and autonomy. We have a handful of managers in IT and, whilst they have plans and strategies, real change comes from the totality of our staff. Everyone is brimming with ideas for fixing that problem that people forgot about, changing the way this process works, or delivering something for our colleagues that will make their lives easier and more productive. Our IT principles help cultivate our ways of working, and principle number one is “Everybody has an equal voice”. 

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill?  I think the difficulty around filling roles in emerging technologies is getting people with experience. Some of these technologies or disciplines have only existed for a couple of years, and we still want people with multi-year experiences across different industries.  Balancing self-learning on the job with bringing in highly experienced new starters and contractors is the key to a high-performing IT team.

What's the best career advice you ever received? At a certain point in your career, you will be given control of an area that has higher expectations of it than the resources available to deliver everything perfectly. And you have to manage that. You have to deal with disappointing some people through lowering their prioritisation. You have to let some exciting initiatives slip in order to deliver on the basics. But through relentless optimisation, automation, and a lot of spinning plates, you’ll get closer to that perfect delivery.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I have a strong leadership team, and so many star players throughout IT. If the individual is willing, passionate, and talented, then we’ll meet them halfway with support, motivation, and training. 

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Listen to your customers. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your teams. Then be decisive.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I can’t take full credit for it, but in the lead-up to lockdown, we had to mobilise 1,200 of our desktop-based staff in the UK, Ireland, and India to a work from home solution. The team applied 700 new laptop builds in a single weekend, spun up additional VPN solutions, and built a VDI interface for our Managed Services colleagues - all within two weeks and on a reasonable, but constrained, budget. I don’t know how we managed so much in so little time, but we delivered something to be truly proud of.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently?  I would have been better at PR for the teams I have led. I get so caught up in the moment, in what we are delivering, that once it has been delivered, we are already headlong into the next piece of work. If I could have taken more time to demonstrate the value of the work and to communicate that upwards and sideways, then I think I would have done more justice to what we had achieved.

What are you reading now? I am reading so many books in parallel, including The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers on the plight of a Yemeni-American getting Yemen coffee into the best coffee shops in the US, and Always Day One, a round-up of the internal workings of the Silicon Valley giants (learn from the best, right?). But the one that I am currently gripped by is The Divide by Jason Hickel, which explores the structural inequality that exists today between thriving Western societies and the global poor. It is a painful daily reflection that in a world that grows enough food to feed us all, there is hunger on an unprecedented scale.

Most people don't know that I… will walk several miles out of my way to a meeting if it means going via an incredible coffee house for my daily latte.

In my spare time, I like to…head to North Africa, rent a little car without air conditioning and drive to the coast.

Ask me to do anything but… if it is my technology, then it’s going to be Apple.