CIO Spotlight: John Lee, NovaFori

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? “It is vitally important that the CIO can contribute to and fully support the business strategy.”

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NovaFori

Name: John Lee

Company: NovaFori

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: February 2021

Location: London

John Lee is an IT Executive, with 30 years’ experience in Financial services with global exchange groups, and start-up ventures. Lee has served as Group CTO at the London Metal Exchange, CIO at PayPoint PLC, Global Head of PMO at NYSE Group and Director of Systems Development at the London Financial Futures Exchange.

What was your first job? My first full-time job was as a graduate software engineer with Hawker Siddeley Dynamics Engineering (HSDE). HSDE produced full authority digital engine control systems for gas turbines and I joined the software team for the Lycoming T55 engine powering the Chinook helicopter.

Did you always want to work in IT? I was always interested in computing from an early age, when the first home computers became available, but I was also interested in how things worked, perhaps because my father was an engineer. During my teenage years I wanted to become a pilot with the RAF. I started the selection process but discovered during the medical I was colour blind, which I did not know at the time and unfortunately this put an end to this ambition.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I went to Stamford School in Lincolnshire for my secondary education before gaining a BSc first class honours degree in Engineering with Business Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. I was awarded the Sheffield Metallurgical & Engineering Association sorbet prize in my final year. I have undertaken the Senior Leadership Course and Advanced Management course at Ashridge Business School and the NYSE Executive leadership programme with Insead.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Following university, I started as software engineer with Hawker Siddeley. I then worked briefly for a medical software house start-up and a small financial services public company.

I joined the London Financial Futures Exchange (Liffe) as an Analyst Programmer in 1988 which is when my career gained focus and started in earnest. Liffe was a new, innovative, go getting derivatives exchange business that was growing rapidly. This was back in the days of open outcry trading with traders wearing bright jackets shouting at each other in trading pits.

At this time there were not nearly as many clearly defined technology roles we have today, it was a very dynamic environment, and you wore many hats. You would be business analyst when speaking with the business, developer and tester while building the solution and support specialist out of hours to resolve production issues, fixing bugs as needed. I quickly progressed to technical lead and established myself on a technical management career path.

I lived through floor to screen trading, the takeover by Euronext and the sale of our trading technology to other exchange groups. I became Director of Systems Development with responsibility for Business Analysis, Development, QA, support and implementation for Euronext markets and delivering to external clients including the Chicago Board of Trade and Tokyo International Financial Futures exchange.

I had a break from my exchange career to become the CIO at PayPoint PLC, a successful retail payments business. This was a completely new experience and challenge for me as my first CIO role. During my time at PayPoint we expanded rapidly and undertook three Acquisitions, two internet payment service providers we combined to form PayPoint.net and a Romain payments business.

After leaving PayPoint, I took a career break to project manage our major house refurbishment re-build which involved living in the garage for a year.

I then returned to the city to work for the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), initially as a consultant before undertaking a new permanent role as Global Head of the Project Management Office, reporting to the group CIO. When the proposed NYSE and Deutsche Börse Group merger fell through, I became the Programme Director for the technology delivery to launch a new Clearing House for the NYSE.LIFFE derivatives market a very ambitious project.

The Intercontinental Exchange bought NYSE and after helping them with the business transition I joined the London Metal Exchange (LME) as CTO which was a combined CTO/CIO role and became Group CTO. This was a significant period of change for the LME business having recently insourced IT and built their own Clearing House. We undertook a major technology change programme moving datacentres, upgrading our trading system, moving premises, delivering new technology for voice trading, significant IT security upgrades, MiFid II and launch of a new precious metals market.

After the LME I decided to change direction and look for interesting new challenges as an independent IT consultant. I worked with Airbus Industries to help them setup a new UK subsidiary Skytra, to establish new indices for the Aviation industry and build an MTF to trade derivatives on these indices. Following this I worked for NovaFori as an IT consultant before joining them permanently as CIO in February this year.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? NovaFori is at an exciting juncture as we look to build on our past success, as we continue to grow the business. We expect the ‘new normal’ following the covid19 pandemic will lead to an increase in digitisation as companies adapt their existing digital marketplaces, or indeed look for business extension into this space from a more traditional business model. This is where NovaFori can help with our considerable expertise and success building digital marketplaces for our clients.

We continue to invest in our technology and improving our Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capabilities. This is important for us to optimise business transactions for our clients, to help them grow their business and ultimately be more successful.

We are also working to develop new products that will allow us to deliver new B2B digital marketplaces for our clients more quickly. To achieve this, we continue to invest in our staff, technology, tools and processes. We partner with our existing clients as we grow the business with new clients.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? IT is core to our business given we are a technology company, so technology and business are intrinsically linked, work hand in hand and support one another.

There are the usual areas that CEO’s like CIO’s to focus on, ensuring we operate as efficiently as possible as we grow the business and increase our headcount. We also focus on evolving our technical architecture, processes, and ways of working to underpin our business growth.

Then there are the sexier areas, how we invest in new products and AI technology to deliver increased value for our customers.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Personally, I have always worked for companies where technology is fundamental to the business, absolutely at its heart, directly supporting the business revenues. This perhaps brings a different and wider perspective from what might be considered more of a conventional CIO role and these responsibilities.

In the companies I have worked for the CIO reports directly to the CEO and perhaps in other business where IT is more of an internal, support function it may report to the COO. In these organisations’ technology still has a key part to play to drive innovation and help the business become more agile and innovate but I am imagining it may be more difficult to do this where it is considered more of a cost centre.

It is vitally important that the CIO can contribute to and fully support the business strategy. Identifying how technology can support and help businesses achieve their business goals will always be important and perhaps more so in the future, as businesses look to adapt and exploit new opportunities such as e-commerce which is a key focus for us all at NovaFori.

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? This is really core to what we do for our customers at NovaFori given we provide digital marketplace technology. Our primary focus is to help customers utilise digital business opportunities and support them launching or growing existing marketplaces.

Internally we are organised and operate as a digital company with high levels of collaboration across geographies. We have invested in various workspace and channel-based messaging tools for teams to collaborate and work efficiently together, which is fundamental to how we work as a business.  

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We have KPI’s to measure the quality of our service we deliver to clients for the products and services we provide. We do this from the delivery efficiency of our agile methodology through to the operational service we provide, and both are important for us.

Given we are a relatively small organisation circa 70 staff and technology staff make up the majority of the company the metrics for how we deliver to our clients are our primary focus.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? This is a really important area for us given we are a small company, and thus focus a key part of our recruitment process on this.

We are a very client orientated organisation, working ethics are important to us as is adaptability and team working. We support and care about our staff and strive to create an environment where people buy into the goals of the business and are motivated to help us achieve our goals.  

We undertake regular customer surveys both formally and informally to seek feedback on our performance. We have eight values areas that we consider very important for us at NovaFori, and these are part of our performance management framework.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Artificial intelligence and machine learning skills are very important skills sets for us and they are in high demand. So, this is one of the difficult areas for us to fill.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Focus your career on what you really enjoy doing and I think you will have the best chance to succeed. Work hard and play hard and success will come. It’s important to have balance in your life outside of work.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Not yet as I am new to the role, but I agree this is an important area to address for the reasons you raise.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Hire the best people you can find, and you can afford to hire.

Ensure you have the right mix of skills in your direct reports. Have people that complement your skills, with strengths in areas where you may be less skilled.

Regularly walk the floor (physically or virtually!) to understand what is happening within your team. This helps to build relationships and trust.

What has been your greatest career achievement? While at Euronext we migrated the Amsterdam derivatives market onto our LIFFE trading system and had to take the capacity of the system from 3mm incoming orders per day to 30mm per day, to support the Amsterdam fully quoted Equity Options market.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? In my career as a whole, trust my gut instincts, as I have found through experience these are usually right.

What are you reading now? Limitless, Tim Peaks autobiography.

Most people don't know that I… Support Leeds United and am a great admirer of our manager Marcelo Bielsa.

In my spare time, I like to…Take advantage of my private pilot’s license and I am currently training for my instrument rating. I also enjoy looking after my small holding.

Ask me to do anything but… Do not bring me bad news on a Friday afternoon!