10 questions with Tracy Willis, CIO & Director of IT Services, University of the West of England

Computer Futures’ Marc Powell asks the questions in this monthly quick-fire interview series with Senior Tech Leaders. This month we hear from Tracy Willis, CIO & Director of IT Services at the University of the West of England.

1. What technology process or activity is the most important in creating superior user experiences to boost user/customer satisfaction?

It’s not so much a technology process as a good practice in business (and in life). Foster and sustain strong relationships. You need to understand what a superior user experience or what excellent customer satisfaction looks like from your customer’s point of view and you need to work together to deliver that. 

2. What are the most important principles when building high performance teams?

Diversity, integrity, curiosity and humility. 

  • Nurture talent. Encourage people to let go of their self-limiting beliefs (most of us have at least one) and set their sights beyond what they know to be possible today. 
  • Create a culture of collaborative excellence.
  • Foster a sense of belonging, so people feel attached to the team and are fully invested in its aims and ambitions. 
  • Use mistakes as an opportunity for growth, not punishment. 
  • Have fun – we (humans) are playful spirits not robots!

3. How do you retain your employees? 

Create a positive working environment where people can be themselves and want to come to work. Ultimately my job is to help people make the most of their talents and that also means being honest when they’ve outgrown the roles available within the organisation. I want people to have brilliant careers; I don’t want to hold them back. I’m pleased many of my previous team members have gone on to become IT Directors and CIOs too. 

4. Tell us about a business challenge you recently solved through technology?

We needed a way for our academic colleagues to review the performance of their degree programmes. The information required, to make a holistic assessment, originates from multiple sources which makes it difficult and time consuming to assimilate and act on. Working collaboratively with Business Intelligence and Academic teams, we designed, prototyped and subsequently delivered an interactive dashboard in response to this challenge. Behind the scenes the dashboard brings together various sources of information, and presents it in an intuitive, interactive single page view. People can quickly see the overall performance of their programme and areas of good practice are easily identified. They can also see areas they’d like to change and have the ability to create action plans for future improvements. The new solution took just a few months from start to finish, including lots of engagement with academic colleagues who helped us design the solution to meet their needs. Everyone is very pleased with the result. 

5. How do you stay up to date with technical trends?

I read a lot – articles, blogs, news reports, journals. Twitter is useful because it gives me a quick sense of topics I want to explore and when I have more time - usually late at night or first thing in the morning – I dive into the detail. I’m naturally inquisitive and future focused so finding information isn’t really a problem, making space to evaluate it is a bit trickier! Many of my longstanding friends are also seasoned technologists so there are always plenty of opportunities to talk trends. This creates lots of debate and none of us can resist the opportunity to start predicting the future. 

6. What is your greatest achievement in technology to date?

There are several and it’s hard to choose between them. I think the greatest was being part of the team who launched the UK’s first online bank – egg.com – and then a few years later completely re-engineering the security architecture using the most cutting edge technology available and delivering it without any downtime or adverse impacts for several million customers. 

7. How will automation impact the job market?

There’s a lot of talk about this and I think it is inevitable that many service and support roles will eventually be automated. For example, Sawyer (a robot barista), is already serving coffee in Japan. I hope we’ll see some of the more unpleasant or dangerous jobs (like dealing with fatbergs) being automated in future. Humans are generally pioneering so I think we’ll see new kinds of work emerge as some of today’s more dangerous or routine activities become automated.

8. What are your thoughts on the recent rise in cryptocurrencies?

As with anything new, there’ll be winners and losers. I’d like to think there’s some potential to disrupt a banking system that’s been around for centuries but if we consider that cheques are only just being phased out, it’s unlikely we’ll see a seismic shift any time soon. Blockchain technology has potential but this is evolution rather than revolution and evolution takes time. 

9. What advice would you give to someone in education looking to pursue a career in technology?

Keep a very open mind and don’t limit yourself to a particular specialism too early on. There are all kinds of careers in technology these days and plenty of non-technology careers that contain a very high degree of technology-based activity. Develop your communication skills and learn how to engage people with your ideas, so you can explain technology to others in a way that makes sense for them. 

10. If you could give your 18 year old self some advice, what would you offer?

There are three pieces of advice I’d give myself. 

  1. Don’t doubt that you’ll achieve things well beyond the realm of what you deem to be possible. 
  2. Raising a child, studying for a post-graduate qualification and being a full-time senior technologist in a bold and pioneering organisation requires tenacity and excellent organisational skills. Learn how to plan because it’s a skill that will prove invaluable in future.
  3. Remember to take some weekends off!

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