CIO Spotlight: Neil Acworth, GRCI Group

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? “Cloud engineering skills are really hard to find… I can see technical auditing of cloud security becoming increasingly challenging.”

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GRCI Group

Name: Neil Acworth

Company: GRCI Group

Job title: Group CIO

Date started current role: September 2012

Location: Ely, Cambridgeshire

Neil Acworth is GRC International Group’s CIO (Chief Information Officer) and heads up the Software as a Service division. This dual role covers responsibility for leading Information Services and the Group's software product development efforts. On a day-to-day basis, this means looking after the hybrid infrastructure, platforms and services that keep the business running, whilst also managing the group’s software teams who produce internal solutions as well as commercial products. Acworth joined the Group in 2012 after working at Featurespace as CTO (Chief Technology Officer).

What was your first job? My first fulltime job was creating e-learning courses in the engineering department of my university, something I fell into during the holidays – at that point I had no intention of working in IT, but one of the professors recognised that I had a talent for it.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I wanted to do something more (whispers) exciting, but I was an impoverished student and I had a friend in recruitment who told me that IT paid well. I think he was after the commission.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I did an engineering degree and then a Masters, since then I’ve gained certifications in a few different areas - including machine learning, TOGAF, ISO 27001 & PCI DSS.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I think my career has been fairly conventional, with the exception of taking a year out to sail round the world. I started out as a software developer, going through various software and enterprise architecture roles. My first C-level job was working for a machine learning start-up as Chief Technology Officer, a job I effectively interviewed for at a friend’s child’s party. I found my current job as a result of a random conversation at the one and only IT networking event I’ve ever been to. Working at IT Governance has proved to be a great education for me – there’s a huge amount of expertise on tap to draw on.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? We’re very focused on automation. We have a complex business covering lots of different products and services and the only way we can manage that complexity efficiently and accurately is to automate as much as possible. So making sure our systems are integrated in a flexible, extensible manner is critical – this is when having background in software development pays off.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? There are a number of business objectives for the next year but the one that affects me directly is growing our SaaS revenue. Alongside my CIO role I’m also accountable for our software division so driving that area of the business is obviously important. We’re also upgrading our core finance package - putting that in place will enable us to consolidate and streamline manual processes through better integration.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Traditionally I think information security has often been seen as part of IT but it’s a whole-business problem. Given the resources, the technical side of it is relatively straightforward - it’s the people and process stuff that’s a challenge. Apart from anything else, if the CIO owns security then to some extent we’re marking our own homework.

Someone once asked me if I thought the Enterprise Architecture Team should report to the CEO but to my mind, the CIO should be the Chief Enterprise Architect. There’s almost no aspect of business that couldn’t be improved by better use of IT but that requires organisational change - we’ve got to be in a position where we can facilitate that.

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? I’m not a buyer of the term digital transformation; it suggests you can transform systems, and everything else will just follow. Any organisation has to evolve continually, but it has to be led by the business otherwise people just feel like they’re having yet another IT initiative foist upon them. Good IT should make life easier; our job is to demonstrate that we can deliver that efficiently.

I also don’t think customer experience, revenue growth and operational efficiency are in any way mutually exclusive. You only have to look at Amazon to see that massive investment in efficiency has led to an incredibly slick customer experience and huge revenue growth. Ultimately, the question is always: what can we do to enable us to serve more customers, better?

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We do have KPI’s but there’s always more work to do. Collating information from heterogeneous data sources that forms a complete and coherent picture of IT to enable data-driven decision-making, and demonstrate value, is a big challenge. It’s something we’re working on automating but balancing delivering work, and doing more work to measure what you’ve delivered, is always going to be hard.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Good cultural fit means being willing to get stuck in and collaborate well, preferably with a smile on your face. We’re all very focused on driving the business forward. Most people want to do a good job, we just need to create an environment where they’re able to.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Cloud engineering skills are really hard to find. IT people typically come from an infrastructure or a software background, but the lines are becoming very blurry and infrastructure technicians who can code to production quality are few and far between. Apart from that, anybody with cyber security skills is probably not going to be out of a job for long. Putting those things together, I can see technical auditing of cloud security becoming increasingly challenging.

What's the best career advice you ever received? I’m not sure it counts as advice, but my first graduate job was for a company that ran payrolls on a mainframe. One of my early efforts to push innovation was met by the response: “the trouble is, no one cares about payroll”. A good reminder to focus on where the value is. 

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I have an amazing team full of very capable individuals working for me but there’s no formal succession plan.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Learn as much you can about the technology but always focus on what matters to the business.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I love what IT can do for people if it’s presented with empathy – bringing a personal understanding of what’s needed and how different people respond to technology underpins a lot of what I do. Every time I’ve managed to implement something and got the response “That’s exactly what I need.” is hugely fulfilling.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Too many things to mention but you don’t learn from the stuff you get right, so I have no regrets. Although buying a few Bitcoin when I first heard of them would have been nice.

What are you reading now? Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, a fascinating insight into Theranos, the blood testing company, and how a billion-dollar business was fabricated on nothing but promises.

Most people don't know that I… think we could all probably do with a bit less technology in our lives – maybe it’s the pandemic, but I really prefer my communication face-to-face.

In my spare time, I like to…as far away from a screen as possible – we’ve got to break the addiction!

Ask me to do anything but… write anything down, it’s pointless, I can never read my own handwriting!