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\u2019s departure in March, but also owing to complex business operating across five departments and more than 20 companies.\n\nHis 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\u2019s internal capabilities. He also wanted to increase the visibility of IT \u2013 with the COVID-19 pandemic giving him a helping hand.\n\n\u201cPrior to [the pandemic], most organisations were probably looking externally to drive technology change,\u201d Garvey-North said. \u201cThe pandemic forced organisations to focus internally.\u201d\n\nPlaces for People held up against economic and social difficulty. Group turnover hit \u00a3816.5 million in 2021, compared to \u00a3866.7 million in 2020 and \u00a3827 million in 2019, with 50% coming from a growing affordable housing business, even as the business\u2019s 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.\n\nBuilding a cross-functional IT department\n\nThe onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with Dove-Edwin\u2019s 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.\n\nThe company introduced DevOps\/SRE teams and were working to agile methodologies, but IT was falling down on alignment with the wider business.\n\nPlaces 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.\n\nThe technology office \u2013 comprised of product managers, architects, and engineers \u2013 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. \n\nTeams get more proactive\n\nThe restructuring helped to improve IT\u2019s 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.\n\nThe 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.\n\n\u201cThe main thing was taking us from this back-office function to having some real business value,\u201d Garvey-North said.\n\nDespite this new approach to IT and business collaboration, which extends to Garvey-North regularly meeting with the firm\u2019s 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.\n\n\u201cYou've got to think of your IT department as its own business unit,\u201d Garvey-North said. \u201cYou\u2019ve still got certain deliverables. It can\u2019t stagnate. You've got to continue to innovate and change your own technology and technology teams.\u201d\n\nGarvey-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.\n\n\u201cThere is a technology strategy that is a bit selfish, because it's your department but it\u2019s 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.\u201d\n\nCloud transformation starts with platforms, hyperscalers, and infrastructure-as-code\n\nOver 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.\n\nGarvey-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.\n\nIt\u2019s part a core platform strategy across connectivity, data (where the organisation is working with Google\u2019s Big Query), collaboration and productivity tools (including ERP, Office 365 and Microsoft Teams), as well as CRM (Salesforce).\n\nDespite this multi-cloud approach, Garvey-North doesn\u2019t 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.\n\nGarvey-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.\n\n\u201cA lot of teams will say that they need something new, because they've heard of some new technology, but actually most will find they\u2019ve got the capabilities in their technology stacks,\u201d said Garvey-North, who adds that cloud investments and geo-distributed teams are linked to the firm\u2019s sustainability targets.\n\n\u201cIf 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\u2019ll always look locally first.\u201d\n\nAs 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\u2019t fit for purpose and came with higher overhead costs. \n\nIn 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.