by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: Barry Smith’s leadership by design at Foster partnership

Jan 23, 201411 mins
CareersConstruction and Engineering IndustryIT Leadership

‘This is an incredibly creative organisation; we are fast paced and operate in a deadline-driven environment,” says Barry Smith, Head of IT at the UK-based but global architecture house founded by Lord Norman Foster.

Lord Foster’s architecture firm has given the world some of its most ground-breaking buildings, such as Masdar City in the UAE, and the awe-inspiring Millau Viaduct in France, while in the UK buildings such as the Sage in Gateshead, St Mary Axe, City Hall and the Millennium Bridge have reshaped our city skylines. The London-based firm also designs furniture and yachts, amongst many other special projects.

“We’ve produced some amazing designs in terms of products and buildings and we are incredibly innovative,” says Smith.

“People work really hard here and always want to do better, which makes it a very challenging and rewarding place to be,” Smith says of the organisational and design ethos.

“Creativity and collaboration are at the core of what we do and, therefore, drive the IT strategy. Our role is to develop a very close relationship with people to understand their needs. So we are fast adopters of new technology and have a lot of Beta across the business; we liaise with a lot of software creators, Adobe for example, and we give them guidance. We like to deliver software very quickly to the business,” Smith adds.

Architecture has become a very competitive business sector in the last decade. Lord Foster’s organisation has been at the forefront of that competition and intends to remain there. The rapid adoption of technology by the organisation has enabled this, Smith explains.

Building information

“We are massively deadline driven as an organisation as we always want to deliver our best, so there are iterations to a design right up to a deadline. Technology underpins everything we do, whether it is the design, video material or email communications. To do that the organisation needs constant access to software and data, so my team is very used to a 24-seven working pattern.”

On a tour of the Thames riverside headquarters, the wide variety of outputs involved in design and architecture today are all evident. There are detailed drawings, a video walk-through of what a finished building will look like, and 3D printed models all around.

The pressure isn’t just internal, the architecture business has some of the most demanding clients. McLaren, for example, is well known for the levels of detail demanded within its Formula One team and engineering company. “McLaren are a client we work with well,” Smith says. “Clients like McLaren have the same focus; there are a lot of synergies where quality is really important.”

Rapid culture

“We have to live and breathe agile, and have geared the IT team to be able to deliver very quickly and to deal with rapidly changing demands. This is a dynamic organisation and we will make investments if it helps win business. That is the benefit of being privately held, so the decisions can be very fast, with very few people involved. If you make a good business case, you get a lot of support here,” he says of the environment.

As a result, Smith describes his role as being one of transforming the way IT is delivered into the business. But talking to Smith and touring the company, it is easy to see why he does not describe his role as being a business transformer, in that the projects it delivers transform communities and landscapes.

For the organisation to remain transformative, it needs an IT operation that supports this vision and flexes with demands.

“We are a facilitator for people, so they have a platform to perform their role. What my department does is provide a platform for the business. As an organisation we have specialists in video editing, special effects and 3D modelling,” he says of the varied demands placed on them.

“Sending a job to the 3D printer requires several different technologies; the challenge comes through having the right software, used by skilled people to send clean jobs to a 3D printer,” he says.

“So our role is to develop a very close relationship with the organisation to really understand its needs,” he adds.

Shadow IT

“I embrace shadow IT. If someone has identified a good technology that helps them, I want to help them use it securely and let other people use it.

“What is shadow IT? It is people using technology to try to get their jobs done, and who am I to stand in their way?” To this end, Smith has set up an internal technology forum that brings the organisation together to discuss technology. One of his reasons for this is that the organisation has, in Smith’s words: “very capable people outside of the IT department.

“The aim of the forum is to share ideas and best practice, and it is a platform for us in IT to talk about technology in a physical meeting at our Materials Research Centre. It is a really nice environment to work in and there are representatives from all the teams in the organisation. There are a lot of good ideas about the applications that we should be using in the business. We get internal presentations, but we also bring people in from outside the market to share ideas.”

At the time of the interview Smith was part-way through the adoption of Microsoft Office 365. Smith describes himself as a keen advocate of the cloud. “Our cloud appetite outstrips supply at present. Office 365 and Lync Online will make a massive difference and the strategy is about how our people communicate and work together on a drawing set, for example.

“We looked at Google Apps, but it was too different for our organisation in terms of user interface. A change of the tools without buy-in is a strategy of failure. We did a pilot of Google, but Office 365 comes with a lot of familiarity. We need to drip feed change,” he says.

“We could have continued with the Microsoft enterprise agreement, but in my time we have had a big shift towards managed services, including our telephony and security perimeter.”

As you can imagine, access to programme data is one of the key challenges for Smith and his team. Foster has offices in 18 nations which work on blue chip projects across the planet, and each project is likely to draw on skills from across the globe. Crucial to Smith’s team being a facilitator of all this collaboration is the use of advanced file caching over the wide area network (WAN), which guarantees that any change to a file is instantly updated so that everyone is working from the latest file.

“Real-time data collaboration was a massive change to our organisation and we no longer need to check in files. That was a real business enabler and a good example of the value that we bring to the business, which is a big motivation for me,” he says.

Within every project are very high levels of intellectual property, so security is a major issue for the CIO. Smith counts Secure Data Europe as a core provider to his organisation’s security, while Bentley and Adobe are the key design application providers, and Lenovo and HP the hardware partners.

“I’m looking at how we can use Amazon Web Services and other cloud-based high-performance computing,” he says – currently between five and 10 per cent of the applications used by the Foster partnership are in the cloud. “What we do is very processor intensive, so WAN needs to get cheaper,” he adds.

Information management

As well as bringing Office 365 online, Smith and his team are busy with an information management strategy to enable the Foster partnership to harness 40 years of work and 20 years of data.

“Today’s projects have tens of terabytes of data because we are continually evolving our projects, so you create a lot of data with iterations. My team’s challenge is to sort the wheat from the chaff. So we are looking at data archiving our low-use data and putting it on low-cost media. We are delivering a project information management system that indexes all the data. It’s a key technology that we delivered in the last year. As an organisation we generate a lot of emails, all of which are captured, and if data is being sent to a client it comes from the information management system so that the transmission comes from a central source.”

Document management, contracts, tenders and project management will all be coordinated from the single system.

Real change

“This is an environment where there is a great deal of scope for real change. We deliver high-quality technology and my primary role as CIO is sustaining and developing the team,” Smith says. As a collaborative company.

Smith adds that communications is a focus for him and his team members. “I’m really strong on having good communications around the department and we communicate well. Communicating comes naturally to me; I’m quite extrovert and I like to help people and to see that as a team we are doing a good thing for people.”

The project-oriented nature of the business adds pressure to Smith’s team, but the CIO says it also has benefits as there is constant change. “A change is as good as a rest and that can give people a new lease of life,” he says.

“I’m really interested in team dynamics and how they work together. I do a lot of outdoor activities out of work and the thing I always enjoy is the team element.” In Smith’s five years with the partnership he has focused on developing a team that is agile and able to deal with the high-speed, high-pressure environment of design and architecture in today’s economy.

“We have installed an ethos in the team to change things and not get hung up on something. However, we have a very rigid change management structure around the infrastructure, but changes in the programmes or support mean we need to be very reactive.

“People who do really well here have worked in environments of delivering technology on time, so generally come from the media or finance sectors. They are people from high-pressure environments who are used to working with smart, demanding people and, as technology experts, they respond well to high pressure. And I also want people on the team that want to grow,” Smith adds.

“My job is about relationships with my team and the relationship of my team with the business,” he says of his 35 staff, most of whom are in the London headquarters, but with additional team members in Hong Kong and New York. Smith splits his department into an infrastructure team, data services, project management office and productivity services.

The productivity services team, an idea Smith borrowed from Microsoft, circulates throughout the organisation helping employees to get more out of technology.

“They go and see teams to discover what they want to achieve. We created this team as we recognised that our aim was to be more productive. They fill a gap between the technology delivery function and people who want to use technology to do their job well. It is about putting people in the right position to have the right relationship.”

Capex to opex

Smith’s operating expenditure is 2.5 per cent of turnover and as he moves to increasing levels of software as a service, he continues to reduce the capex in favour of opex.

Smith’s strengths in communications aren’t restricted to his working hours – he also uses them in his equally busy free time. “I like to go to extreme places and I teach wilderness skills and how to survive. My favourite environment is camping in the Arctic Circle. I like it as you have to work well as a team, living in a basic and simple way. “I also run a local scout group, so I try to put the skills back,” he says.