CIO Spotlight: Nick Dearden, OAG

What's the best career advice you ever received? “One of my old CEOs said that whilst you aren’t going to be successful with everything you do, if you succeed seven out of ten times, that’s real progress.”

Headshot of Nick Dearden, CIO at OAG

Name: Nick Dearden

Company: OAG

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: August 2019

Location: United Kingdom

Nick Dearden joined OAG in Aug 2019 and leads our Technology & Infrastructure teams. Dearden drives the technology strategy to ensure we are leveraging emerging technology to deliver the best possible products & services to our customers. Dearden has a wealth of experience building, scaling & leading technology teams across a variety of businesses and sectors. This includes experience of acquiring, integrating & carving out technology businesses.

What was your first job? My first “proper” job was working at a local fish and chip shop during my gap year before university. Believe it or not, I think it set me up for the rest of my career - the job enabled me to lead a team of people, giving me a strong understanding of customer service and management. I've been able to take these two skills and build on them over the course of my career

Did you always want to work in IT? I initially considered dentistry due to its high-earning potential, so I studied maths and various sciences through to A-Level. However, when I finally got to medical school and saw the bodies used for studies, I instantly decided it wasn’t for me. That’s what led me to look into computing, given my qualifications and ability to problem-solve.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a degree in Maths and Computing. I also hold a number of Microsoft Certified Professional diplomas from early in my career.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I’m lucky to have had a varied and interesting career so far. It started with a placement year at a software company where I worked on energy accounting software, focusing on customer configuration and support. The role also gave me my first taste of aviation - British Airways Airport Authorities were a customer of ours. As such, I spent a lot of time with them and received fascinating insight into how they managed their resources, such as the airport's energy consumption.

After graduating, I moved into a software developer role for an IT reseller. This was an internal development team responsible for building systems to run the business, including a web-based b2b commerce site. Within my first 18 months, I took on a management role after inheriting a team of 12. Many on the team had been there for several years, so weren’t overly impressed when a young whippersnapper was asked to lead them.

My next role was at a PE-owned software company, which saw rapid growth. As such, early on I was asked to oversee the technical due diligence activity for the target acquisitions. Once acquired, I either assisted or led the integration plans. I then spent five years managing a large, global team building IPTV solutions - by far the most complex thing I’ve ever worked on. When that company finally divested, I left to join OAG.

I always wanted to take on a C-level role at a PE-owned firm and achieving that with OAG was something I was very proud of. I feel that a strong, diverse commercial and technology background, coupled with the operational focus of running systems either for internal or external users helped me to get to this goal.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Further developing our cloud-native data platform, METIS, is one of our key goals. Data acquisition is a major driver for this. We’re constantly looking for new data sources to enrich the services we already provide our customers. Being a cloud-native solution, we expect our platform to continue to grow and mature. And as adoption of the platform continues to accelerate, our investments in cloud applications and infrastructure will similarly grow.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? As a private equity-backed organisation, our ultimate goal is driving business value in as sustainable and growth-focussed way possible. At the same time, we’re developing products and technology that can not only be monetised quickly but also support lifetime value. So, my priority is to continue to build out the METIS platform for continued growth that will support our ongoing business plan.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? This is a difficult one. Given that OAG’s product is data, I don't have a conventional CIO role, which works well for our organisation. I focus heavily on internal data security, a key requirement when you deal with the amount of data we do. Security should always be a top concern for a CIO, which is why we’re seeing a rise in CISO roles. It’s a move being made by businesses that want to emphasise the importance of security by integrating it into the CIO’s responsibilities.

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? METIS continues to be at the core of our digital transformation. I have had a leading role in this initiative since I joined the business in 2019. It will remain an important growth driver for the business, widening our customer base and allowing us to branch out into new sectors. The METIS platform drives opportunities globally, through traditional sales approaches as well as on a self-serve basis.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We do, but it’s more in terms of product technology deliverables, as opposed to our internal IT deliverables. A lot of our internal IT drive and spend is focused on our cloud consumption in order to meet the business deliverables. Our business plan is focused on our incremental product deliverables and the technology investment required to deliver those. 

We also track standard technology metrics, such as system up time, system performance and in terms of product development, the DORA (DevOps Research & Assessment) metrics that look at flow of development activities through to the production environment. 

Metrics help maintain the high standards we hold ourselves in terms of the management of data and security, this is one of the things we are proudest of in terms of the organisation’s tech stack.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? The culture at OAG is all about trust and agility. We balance trust with complete accountability, especially if there are challenges. We have full transparency across the organisation, or in my case, over everything that is happening from a technology perspective. Each agile team tracks and publishes their commitment, deliveries and challenges. As our CEO reminds us: a culture of empowerment is key to moving at speed.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? The most challenging for us seem to be DevOps and automated QA roles. We’re hiring for these roles in the UK and Lithuania, but it has been a struggle. Thankfully, that’s where the School of Code and junior hires from university have really benefited us. 

The School of Code aims to get more people from as many different walks of life as possible into tech. We’ve had some amazing success since beginning our partnership with the programme, having hired many brilliant people, and we hope to continue the relationship for a long time to come.

What's the best career advice you ever received? One of my old CEOs said that speed is of the essence and that, whilst you aren’t going to be successful with everything you do, if you succeed seven out of ten times, that’s real progress. The takeaway from this is not to be scared of failure - that can slow you down immensely. In a similar vein, you also don’t need to aim for perfection, speed is more important.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. With every leadership role I’ve had, my aim has ultimately been to make myself redundant. To achieve this, you have to grow your team, push them out of their comfort zone and delegate everything you can. If you take this view week in week out, you will make yourself redundant overtime and succession takes care of itself.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? It’s important to get a good breadth of experience across as many different business and technology domains as possible. The more senior the role, the more transformations you will need to lead & you need battle scars in order to navigate these in the best way possible. So, try not stay in the same role too long, ensuring you are always being challenged.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I’ve got three achievements that I’m really proud of. The first was early on in my career when I had the opportunity to lead on the technical due diligence and insight to support acquisitions. The second was leading the technology stream for a company divestiture, meaning setting up the entire technology infrastructure for the new standalone business in a period of 4 months. The final (and biggest achievement) was defining the technical strategy and subsequently delivering the METIS platform at OAG, and seeing the successful monetisation of this in a very short timeframe.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I think when you’re running large teams, opportunities arise to address problems through organisational change, and that can be the easy option, instead of getting into the detail of the specific technical issue within a certain team or product. I probably made mistakes by jumping to organisational change as opposed to getting into the specific product or people issue.</p

What are you reading now? Team Topologies. It’s one of the latest books about how to structure and design organisations to maximise the flow of work through technology teams. It’s a fascinating book and I’d highly recommend it.

Most people don't know that I… have a pair of Technics, 1210s and 400 12’’ from the early 90s, that I've carried around with me over several years!

In my spare time, I like to…Wind down by going on my Peloton, cooking and spending time with my family. I have a pretty stressful job at times so it’s important to decompress and these things help me relax and take my mind off work.

Ask me to do anything but… Speak to a psychologist. While I definitely see the value in what they do, I find it easier to unwind by talking to friends and family over a home cooked meal - often one that I’ve made!