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CIO interview: Alan Hill, University of Exeter on Army to Academia manoeuvre

alan hill“The speed to market is very important,” says CIO Alan Hill.  The last time Hill and I met he was in fatigues and a mortar bomb went off, the then military man hit the deck immediately, whilst the scribe stood and virtually took the shrapnel.  Hill has been Chief Information and Digital Officer for University of Exeter since January 2016, but as our conversation at the campus in Devon reveals, speed to market and responding to the customer’s needs are as critical to a university CIO as they are his rank in retail, media and finance.

“If we get the data in and analysed and then published, that means more research,” Hill tells me as he shows me Exeter’s latest baby, a high performance computing (HPC) environment. Throughout the interview Hill reveals that the role of technology and therefore the CIO in academia has “become more impactful”.

The HPC datacentre on site in the University of Exeter serves two key roles for the university. Firstly universities are reliant on being at the forefront of research and therefore need access to the very best tools to ensure they can out perform other institutes. The second is that academic users of HPC are, to date, used to selecting the services they need as and when they want them. The academics are focused on their outcome, just like any end user, but in a need to deliver results overlook the economics of using centralised and more cost effective resources.

A new HPC at the University of Exeter has been delivered over the last 12 months and is already being used for astrophysics and biobank research. Exeter has 1.2 petabytes and 23 million processors available, which has completed the processing of major astrophysics research in just six months.   Hill’s team show me amazing images of models that demonstrate how a star is formed. They have also used data from fellow Exeter residents the Met Office to model the likely environment on planets in our solar system. In biotechnology genetic markers to identify diabetes have been processed. “These are massive data sets,” Hill says, before adding that having its own HPC means Exeter has the capacity to bring HPC computing into academic areas that may not initially be considered major users. Scientific institutes have always understood and utilised the power of technology, but Hill says the Humanities departments are now embracing HPC for research into flood defence. Hill and his team have created an HPC as a service focus at Exeter to ensure all universities capitalise on the “utility” available to them.

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In the centre of the University of Exeter a plaza has regular high street coffee shops on one side and modern library on the other. The area is packed and so too is the library. All around us students are on devices, Hill joins them, pulls out his mobile and demonstrates the set of Apps that today’s student expects as part of their academic experience, which includes tools for charting their progress.

This data oriented focus is not only for the benefit of the students, but also the institute itself. Students and parents want to know about employability opportunities, library usage is analysed and resources used.

“We are poised on the tipping point of digital and need to get to the added value,” Hill says of the opportunity. Since joining the University of Exeter Hill has been working on not only the HPC environment, but also the modernisation of the technology across the university to meet the demands of students, the National Student Survey and research.

Technology is also playing a major role for universities to combat challenges like plagiarism, but just as the university uses technology to ensure its students are up to the mark, so too is the university marked and technology plays a role in assessing the university. The National Student Survey (NSS) assesses all aspects of the student experience across the institute, with digital and IT services influencing perceptions in many areas.  The NSS output impacts directly on league tables; Hill explains that being persistently in the top 10 in the UK is critical to institutes.

“We are getting onto a really firm footing with our service design thinking so that we have a single view of how we support 4,500 staff and 20,000 customers,” Hill says. A new target operating model and structure have been introduced with the team recruiting staff from industry as well as from non-technology areas of the university.

“The communications channel is something that I have become more aware of. In academia you have to get the attention. So I do a lot of standing on my feet and talking with the research professors,” he says.

New financial and customer relationship management (CRM) tools are being deployed now and Hill plans to tackle the digital services more widely with the University education and research experts now truly owning the through-life capabilities. Hill has an opex of £10 million and a capex of £8 million (from £2 million on Hill’s arrival two years ago) which makes technology more than 5% of turnover and demonstrates the level of commitment by the business to digital services and to creating the ‘digital edge’ over the University’s competitors.

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“I wanted to stay as a CIO and there was no more space left in the military,” Hill says of leaving the armed forces. “IT is IT and it is the bit around the edges that defines the sector. The big difference is what to wear everyday,” he jokes of life out of uniform.

“There is a difference in scale, but your skills are transferable as a senior military officer.It has been a lot of fun and you can move sectors. Academia is not a black art.  I have been really welcomed by the university and looked after. Everyone is curious what a Brigadier is and they have only seen one on Blackadder. I don’t use my rank other than tongue in cheek!”

“I think everything I learned in the military about understanding a problem and formulating a plan and executing it has been a huge investment and I have used all the methods, buy they would not be recognised as military thinking.

”The military mindset is about clarity, and that is ingrained. You then have to be more flexible. I am applying military thinking and then adapting it particularly around problem solving and I enjoy that. There are some really important leadership aspects of the military such as delegating to the point of discomfort.”

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About Mark Chillingworth 209 Articles
Mark Chillingworth has over 20 years of journalism and editing experience across all media platforms including online, live events, print magazines and television.
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