by Tracey Caldwell

BBC CIO Tiffany Hall is setting standards and building platforms

Feb 24, 2010
CareersIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

Tiffany Hall rose through the ranks in the back offices of the BBC, spending many years as head of business systems in news before making the news herself with her appointment as CIO in October 2009. The 15-year veteran of the Corporation is now charged with creating an IP fasttrack for the business, robust enough to handle the corporation’s transition from tape to video. At the same time, she is faced with the double whammy of driving innovation at the BBC and among its suppliers while having to pay attention to refreshing the legacy business systems infrastructure, which has been sliding down the list of Corporation priorities in recent years. Hall appears unfazed by her to-do list and brings heavyweight experience to the role. “I have been embedded in the programme-making areas so I am in touch with the way in which we are using our technology to make our content,” she says. “As we go forward into a much more IP-enabled world the extent to which the BBC is using its IP infrastructure for programme-making purposes is increasing quite significantly and I think that was a factor in my appointment. Hall joined from Shell in 1995. “My background, before I joined the BBC, was more in the traditional IT space. I worked on business systems, financial systems and the like, which is perhaps more relevant to some parts of my role now,” she says. She was taken on as an IT project manager at the Beeb but was soon appointed head of business systems in News. In 2006 she became the technology controller, BBC Nations & Regions and focused on tapeless broadcast environments, launching BBC Northern Ireland’s Digital NI project. The role of the CIO at the BBC is a slicing and dicing of many of the traditional CIO functions. “Though it is a CIO job title the scope isn’t necessarily what you would traditionally see, so within Future Media & Technology, there are colleagues of mine on the senior leadership team who deal with all the audience-facing technologies and I deal with all the technologies that are delivered to support the BBC staff in making the content and running the business,” says Hall. “The other key distinction between this role and other CIOs is that there is a CTO above me. IT and IS are a very important component of what the BBC does with its technology but so are studios and cameras and graphics and all the other stuff, so I am subsumed within that CTO function.”

Hall reports to CTO John Linwood and will oversee the open technology strategy he has instigated, intended to give technology suppliers more insight into the BBC’s plans. These include meeting evolving demands in the back office and business systems as commissioning, scheduling and production systems are playing an increasingly important role in developing new audience-facing services as well as performing their primary function. Outsourcing will continue to feature heavily, along with meeting employee demand for accessibility and flexible working with open, modular and IP-based technologies. The strategy calls for technology innovation to be encouraged, with consumer innovation strongly influencing new services. “We are being much more open than ever before with our suppliers, with the industry, around our technology priorities and where we are taking things so we have published a technology framework for that new direction. The thinking behind this is we want the market to be readier to meet our needs and sharing with them what we want and where we want to go should position them better to be so,” says Hall. She views the brand and size of the BBC as a double-edged sword. “We risk swamping small suppliers, and yet they are the people we want to work with because they are small and innovative.” At the same time, Hall feels a sense of responsibility arising from the BBC’s position as national institution. “People, partic-ularly in broadcasting, do keep a close eye on us which is both a privilege and a bit of a responsibility. When the Norwegian state broadcasters ring me up and ask me about a particular decision I feel, ‘don’t do it just because we did it’. “I have also got the guys who go out and refit the Islamabad bureau and those who project-manage the change of the backdrop on the news channel set, so it is quite a different and interesting mix because of the type of organisation we are.” That team came into the CIO function last July when, prior to becoming CIO, Hall was appointed to lead the newly created Development & Delivery team of 120 people as part of the restructure of the Broadcast and Enterprise Technology area within the BBC’s Future Media & Technology division. She had covered this role until Mark Jones took it on at the end of 2009. “They were embedded out there with the programme-making areas and we centralised them into my function, partly again because of this idea about IT coming closer to the broadcast function, and partly for efficiency reasons. “When you bring together people from different departments you often find fantastic opportunities where somebody who is working on something ‘over here’ is relevant for this lot ‘over there’. [For example] ideas from the English regions are being trialled in overseas bureaux.” The restructuring at the BBC reflects the fact that, as video becomes increasingly IP-friendly, IT and broadcast technologies are beginning to merge. Hall has been involved in moving content off tape and on to the desktop for some time and is now extending that to longer-form programmes “where the content is more demanding of the IP infrastructure because it is richer, thicker and fatter in terms of the picture quality and the pieces are longer so you get enormous great video files”. Bringing the video to the desktop has brought numerous business benefits, enabling greater sharing among project programme teams, faster turnaround and more efficiency through executives being able to view the rushes more quickly without having to wait for the tapes to be shipped from the location shoot. The transfer of video onto the IT infrastructure is revolutionising the production process while keeping the CIO on her toes. “Because these chunks of video are increasingly held as IT files a couple of things are happening. Firstly, you can associate the descriptive text around those files with them much earlier up the production chain which saves the effort of having to re-label something when we are publishing it on the iPlayer or out to the net. “[That metadata] takes it through the production chain right through to the audience sites and on to electronic programme- guides, billings and so on. Just the fact that we are producing the content as a file in the first place means you don’t have this whole tape transcode thing to enable things to be published. “You still have to transcode for different platforms because mobile phones take a different codec from the iPlayer and Virgin is different from Freeview and Freesat, but you are not coding from a tape that has been lovingly handed from one person to another. It is all whizzing around the wires instead, which means that the wires have got a lot more important,” says Hall. That dependency mandates a robust infrastructure and the BBC is consulting with outsourced technology provider Siemens to look at the network, capacity, management and support. Storage is another issue as the number of large video files increases exponentially, which also involves examining datacentres. “We are looking at where is the best place to site that capacity, depending on where the big content pots are going to be used. You can imagine that when the natural history unit comes back from a big overseas shoot and goes to Bristol, they come back with hours and hours of HD tape and the most sensible place at the moment to ingest it is right there in Bristol. “Those are the factors that are determining some of our thinking around that datacentre strategy and the fact that we are about to move huge chunks of the BBC up to our Salford Media City site – that is another focal point for us.” The BBC has been through a period where it has focused very much on putting its money into content, perhaps at the expense of investment in its back-office systems, but that is set to change. “We have reached the stage in the lifecycle of our legacy business systems when we are having a good, long, hard look at that and seeing whether now is the time to divert some of our priorities back into the business systems infrastructure,” says Hall. “This hasn’t been a great focus for my predecessors over the last few years, simply because of where the BBC’s priorities were. I am getting a very clear steer from my stakeholders out there in the BBC business that, much as they want to put the money into costume dramas and all the rest of it, we do need some better back-office functions. Traditional back-office stuff around Outlook, when are we going to Windows 7… all of that stuff is very much on the radar.” However, Hall also has a remit to innovate. Her team runs an innovation centre – the Blue Room – where it demonstrates the technology that the audience is using to consume content. The Blue Room is for blue-sky thinking and ensuring links between what the Beeb develops and what viewers use. “If you are going to understand the demands of editing something for an iPhone form factor you need to know what an iPhone looks like.” Also, Hall describes her ‘Edge’ group of innovators as “having a slightly skunkworks feeling about it”. “[We talk] about how you connect to the edge of the BBC and the ways you can innovate around that. Working closely with BBC R&D we keep an eye on new developments in the consumer space, and the mobile space in particular, that we could potentially use for the content gathering process where we are in difficult places out in the middle of nowhere.” This includes making 3G coverage less flaky outside urban conurbations and looking at a technology called GoSIM which allows simpler roaming capabilities. The theme of consumerisation pops up again and again in Hall’s work. “Most people have got more powerful and more capable devices that they have bought for themselves and their homes and their families than they are using in the office and the challenge for those managing this infrastructure and trying to drive down costs is to see whether there is the possibility to allow them to bring that equipment into the office and use it in the enterprise. That has HR challenges in terms of policies and process but it also has lot of information security challenges and application and licensing challenges.” One of the barriers Hall identifies to consumerisation is simply what you can and can’t put on the enterprise systems. “If the people at home have got Macs I have got a central system that won’t run on a Mac so with the best will in the world if they are going to come to work and carry out certain functions then they are not going to be doing it on a Mac. “It is cost as well though, and doubling up. It doesn’t make sense for the planet in terms of the green agenda for there to be multiple devices. For a piece of relatively expensive equipment to be sitting at home unused while you are in the office using another one doesn’t make sense.” The BBC’s new technology strategy has a clear recognition that it has to respond to the demands of its employees, not just for the consumer technology but also the flexibility of location and time that the technology affords. “We are beginning to see the workforce coming through now. They don’t necessarily expect to come to the office and they find some of the ways in which we work a bit of an anathema,” says Hall. “I have got some web developers who sometimes want to work from home and then bring that good work in and plug it into the office and carry on. Well, it is much easier if that technology is much more seamless in terms of whether you are plugged into Starbucks, your home WiFi or the BBC intranet and LAN.” Hall describes her management style as friendly and collaborative. “I very much work as a team and try to join up things.” Outside work, she enjoys water sports, although the challenges of kayaking the white water rapids must sometimes remind her of her role as CIO, steering through multiple responsibilities in a rapidly changing national institution.