by Jennifer O'Brien

Updated: Man of ‘change’ leads IT transformation at Telethon Kids Institute

Sep 13, 2016
Technology Industry

Veteran IT leader and innovative thinker, Chris Nurse, has a wealth of experience leading change in transformational projects – his latest venture sees him building a research institute of the future.

Nurse, who’s head of technology transformation at the Perth-based Telethon Kids Institute, has been involved with five strategic transformation projects including: brand; people and culture; research systems, value chain; and technology.

“I am leading a transformation of information management and technology that contributes to Telethon Kids Institute becoming the blueprint for research institutes of the future,” Nurse tells CIO Australia.

Hailing from Bradford in Northern England, Nurse ventured to Australia in 2002 to chase some new life experiences. While new to the Australian tech leadership scene – he had to start on the “bottom rung of the ladder” as a coder in order to re-launch his career – he already had a lifetime of experience and some major career highlights in the UK, including building systems for the Halifax Bank and Post Office.

NASA even came calling, which led him to other European shores.

“In 1997, I was recruited to a project for NASA, developing decoders for flight recording systems. At the end of that project an opportunity came up to relocate to Spain and lead a research and development company,” he says.

“So my first managing director role was 1999, in a company where I developed 12 patent applications and delivered a fully integrated portable computing system – a briefcase with a built-in printer, scanner, camera, modem and mobile phone.”

Today, firmly settled in Perth, he is leading a transformation of IT services and information management systems for one of Australia’s most iconic child health research institutions.

“My role ensures the research and operational objectives, drawn from the Institute’s strategic plans are met and that technology inspires and creates exciting opportunities for global research collaboration,” Nurse says.

“The Telethon Kids Institute has recently adopted cloud technologies to support research and operational objectives and is now preparing to relocate to the Perth Children’s Hospital (PCH) in 2017. The technology transformation and relocation to PCH involves a significant portfolio of projects and initiatives.”

Calling it his “major focus for the next 12 months,” he said the Institute will relocate to sit side by side with Perth Children’s Hospital, and create a cutting edge collaborative research space that will focus on the health and wellbeing of children in Western Australia and beyond.

It will involve designing and building the network, implementing the IT services, supporting the transition of about 400 people, and also maintaining two operational locations for about three to four months while the transition project enfolds.

Nurse is working alongside NEC, an Institute Focus Partner, who is engaged to design and build the network for the new home, which will provide what he said are significant opportunities driven by co-location with the hospital to enhance collaboration and research translation with clinicians.

“We often use a term ‘bench to bedside’, taking the research out of the laboratory and translating it into clinical practice, or other outcomes such as policy advice and so on. Co-location will increase the potential for more clinicians to engage in research, and to move efficiently between our research space and the Perth Childrens Hospital environment,” he said.

“Our new home will be cutting-edge, with a world class IT network, audio visual and teleconferencing facilities. We will also be able to stream events from our seminar room and internal meeting spaces, increasing communication with partners in the community. It will also comprise an exhibition space, so community engagement and involvement will deepen even further as we showcase how research makes a difference.”

Asked what it has been like leading transformational change at the Telethon Kids Institute, and with his ongoing tech projects, he said “highly rewarding.”

“Even after 30 years in the game, it is always a growing opportunity, largely because of the constraints. . . It was really learning to have very robust and challenging conversations and then working within the constraints of the not-for-profit, purely budgetary requirements. But motivated by the objectives of child health research you can move mountains – and that’s what we did,” he says.

“Our reward is the breakthrough of supporting things that really make a difference to kids, be it their biological health or even psychological.”

Well-rounded career

In addition to his tech transformation role at Telethon Kids Institute, Nurse also sits on the board of an IT services company, NamSource, which provides cloud and software development services to small business, using a model of shared risk, and payment on success. In 2015, he also filed for a music technology patent and formed In8Beats as a music technology company that will inspire the inner musician within everybody.

So did he always envision a career in IT? He said his father, who was a lecturer in electronics and microelectronics, inspired him to pursue an IT education – and to dream big.

“My interest in technology began at the age of 12. My father built a Z80 based microcomputer and showed me how to code using a ‘monitor,’ a piece of software that enables one to input streams of hexadecimal numbers to form a computer program.

“When I look back, I learned early on about troubleshooting, debugging and the patience and drive that are required in order to really master a technology and get maximum value from it. I made my first money from software development aged 15, writing a program to teach people how to ‘read’ morse code. So I was hooked as soon as someone was prepared to pay me for this stuff.”

Meanwhile, his interest in business management was also sparked early on.

“I gained my first management position at the age of 23, leading an IT support and software development team, after I had developed a form of computer language that quickly enabled novice developers to build business systems. It became a cross platform development tool for UNIX and PC that was later used to deliver business systems and computerise sports centres. All that was back in ’87.

“So fast forward to today where we are using cross-platform tools to build mobile-apps that run on Windows, iOS and Android, PC and Mac, that’s all really been a continuous flow for me,” he says.

And while a technical person at heart, his leadership skills and flare for consultancy flourished in Australia.

“I took a job with Unisys and was quickly made team leader and I developed a suite of software generation tools that were driven by a visual model (we call it code generation these days). My manager from Unisys transitioned into consulting and pulled me with him, and guided me to leverage my people skills in order to extend a technology practice in one of Perth’s larger independent consulting companies.”

Additionally, he was head-hunted into a new consulting company as the CTO, and was able to quickly garner support for building new intellectual property.

“I quickly built brand and awareness in WA and ran some major projects for BHP Billiton, when I was then invited to Singapore to do a large digitisation project there, integrating decades of exploration data,” he says.

But a sea change was in the works. Nurse had carried a lot of responsibility and done a lot of travelling with work for many years and in 2011, he decided to change pace.

“I contracted direct to BHP as a solution architect and worked on autonomous fleet, WiFi systems and insourcing their IT systems from an outsourced service partner, resulting in complex data centre migrations.”

Pivotal moments

Then his life changed in 2014 when life with the Telethon Kids Institute was born. While he initially offered to volunteer as a technology advisor, a few months later he was invited to apply for the new head of technology transformation position.

Reflecting on his time at the Institute, he is particularly proud of the massive tech overhaul that he performed early in the piece.

“I arrived to find data storage systems that were 10 years old, out of warranty with spares that were no longer available, in racks located in a data centre that had been flooded a couple of years previous due to a burst water tank on the roof. So I had my work cut-out and I could see how underfunded researchers were in Australia, and how hard they have to fight for funding,” he says.

Given his consultancy background, he said he was able to garner support from technology companies in Perth.

“Five months after joining, I had the Telethon Kids Institute in Office 365, with all our email done in the cloud, and we built the first Office 365 Intranet in Australia. . . In August 2015, I launched “Reboot The Institute”, when together with Perth’s best partners, we upgraded our infrastructure and fast forwarded it 15 years, in a weekend.

“We migrated 60TB of information and didn’t lose a single byte of data. My team put blood sweat and tears into the project, and we have a leading technology platform now. I was able to leverage the goodwill of technology partners bringing in around $1.5 million worth of kit for around $350,000.”

Lessons learned

Looking back over his varied and colourful career, he said some of his biggest lessons learned – particularly as it relates to transformation and what resonates with CIOs – is the importance of good communication and having executive sponsorship.

“Without those two things you can’t cause transformation. If you don’t communicate with people, they don’t know what’s coming and what’s in it for them. If you don’t have executive sponsorship, then you can’t dismantle the resistance to change.

“Many of the CIOs and IT managers don’t necessarily have the executive sponsorship – they are really just running a ‘business as usual’ operation. . . With executive sponsorship you can drive innovation, leverage cloud platforms and accelerate business transformation,” he says.

“Don’t just focus on the budget and dollars, but instead ask, ‘how can we innovate, how can we disrupt with technology. Where are the next wave of great ideas coming from?’. . . If you are focused on keeping the lights on, then you are going to be doing the same thing everyday, and probably get involved in a race to the bottom on cost and budget as opposed to, ‘What is the next big bold idea and what can we do differently to differentiate.’”