Places for People technology officer Dean Garvey-North joined the property management firm in 2020 to lead infrastructure and technology teams. It was a daunting challenge, not least with technology leadership being restructured in the wake of CDIO Norma Dove-Edwin’s departure in March, but also owing to complex business operating across five departments and more than 20 companies.
His immediate focus was on shifting to remote work for staff and on infrastructure, developing digital, data, and technology strategies for Places for People while benchmarking the organisation’s internal capabilities. He also wanted to increase the visibility of IT – with the COVID-19 pandemic giving him a helping hand.
“Prior to [the pandemic], most organisations were probably looking externally to drive technology change,” Garvey-North said. “The pandemic forced organisations to focus internally.”
Places for People held up against economic and social difficulty. Group turnover hit £816.5 million in 2021, compared to £866.7 million in 2020 and £827 million in 2019, with 50% coming from a growing affordable housing business, even as the business’s construction and leisure sites were forced to close temporarily. Throughout this time, Garvey-North has focused on four areas of business: to improve IT operations, simplify employee and customer experiences, build a performance and governance team to deliver projects and improve IT governance and ensure strategic technology and digital delivery is aligned with business objectives.
Building a cross-functional IT department
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with Dove-Edwin’s departure, saw Places for People reevaluate technology leadership and delivery. The growth of the affordable housing business meant the IT department needed to work harder, faster, and smarter, and to collaborate with business departments to achieve better customer outcomes.
The company introduced DevOps/SRE teams and were working to agile methodologies, but IT was falling down on alignment with the wider business.
Places for People subsequently developed three cross-functional areas within IT, to improve accountability as well as how digital, data and technology services were rolled out across the organisation.
The technology office – comprised of product managers, architects, and engineers – would be responsible for technology, project delivery, new ways of working, and data analytics, while operations sought to keep the lights on. The performance and governance team was introduced to work with the business to understand project needs and the issues IT teams needed to resolve.
Teams get more proactive
The restructuring helped to improve IT’s own circle of influence, Garvey-North said. IT teams took a more proactive part in business planning days and project check-ins, while the performance and governance team saw programme managers and business analysts work collaboratively side-by-side.
The team took this approach for a new telephony project, where contact centre and IT staff worked as a unified team under the supervision of the strategic delivery office to consolidate multiple telephony platforms into one across 10 independent contract centres.
“The main thing was taking us from this back-office function to having some real business value,” Garvey-North said.
Despite this new approach to IT and business collaboration, which extends to Garvey-North regularly meeting with the firm’s director of business strategy, the technology officer believes that CIOs and IT directors must view their department as its own entity, with its own goals.
“You’ve got to think of your IT department as its own business unit,” Garvey-North said. “You’ve still got certain deliverables. It can’t stagnate. You’ve got to continue to innovate and change your own technology and technology teams.”
Garvey-North has innovated through aligning product managers to core tech platforms, introducing UX/UI teams and putting service owners in operations, all of which has improved service delivery while reducing costs.
“There is a technology strategy that is a bit selfish, because it’s your department but it’s fundamentally needed. There is a business strategy, and technology and data make-up parts of that strategy. They’re even enablers, or for those who want to be truly digital, a way to get new digital products.”
Cloud transformation starts with platforms, hyperscalers, and infrastructure-as-code
Over the last year, Places for People has embarked on cloud transformation as part of its Available Anywhere strategy, moving all applications and its contact centre to be cloud-based, connectivity-agnostic and securely available, over SD-WAN.
Garvey-North said the strategy allowed the business to mobilise and increase talent pool reach through a difficult year, but also leverage the expertise offered by the three cloud hyperscalers.
It’s part a core platform strategy across connectivity, data (where the organisation is working with Google’s Big Query), collaboration and productivity tools (including ERP, Office 365 and Microsoft Teams), as well as CRM (Salesforce).
Despite this multi-cloud approach, Garvey-North doesn’t believe concerns on management and training are warranted. He said teams can manage such environments through infrastructure-as-code (in this case, using the open-source Terraform), configuration management, and monitoring services for cloud spend.
Garvey-North also believes in looking inwards to achieve greater efficiency and value with IT teams at Places for People, often finding solutions to problems in their existing tech stack. This means, he said, that funding could be better utilised elsewhere, such as to improve connectivity or user experience.
“A lot of teams will say that they need something new, because they’ve heard of some new technology, but actually most will find they’ve got the capabilities in their technology stacks,” said Garvey-North, who adds that cloud investments and geo-distributed teams are linked to the firm’s sustainability targets.
“If you’ve got a clear vision, and a clear outcome of what you’re trying to achieve, your team will go and find the solution. And they’ll always look locally first.”
As one such example of looking for efficiency, the move to cloud with AWS, Azure and GCP meant winding down outdated technology stacks such as VDI, because it wasn’t fit for purpose and came with higher overhead costs.
In the months ahead, Garvey-North plans to continue investing in a diverse tech team, get closer to customers, and simplify their experience through advances in CRM and data platforms.