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‘One size doesn’t fit all’: Alison Davis on how the role of the modern CIO is almost impossible to define

The role of today’s CIO is near-impossible to define, according to Alison Davis, who believes that today’s tech chiefs need to be “very much situational”.

Alison Davis, chief information officer at The Francis Crick Institute at the time of interview, spoke to Hot Topics about an array of topics, from the parallel between the role of Churchill as a war leader and the role of the modern day CIO, to the challenges of keeping IT up to speed with the demands of scientists.

The Francis Crick Institute (or The Crick, as it is known colloquially) is an independent charity and aims to understand the fundamental biology underlying health and disease.

Named the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation until July 2011, it is a partnership between Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust, Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London.

 

Mass migration

It wasn’t officially opened until 2016, when its central-London-based state-of-the-art building construction was finished and the scientists moved in.

To get it to that point required attaining a hugely ambitious set of goals, as Davis explains.

“We were initially a start-up, getting systems into place,” she says. “Then we went through a merger to bring in about 1,300 scientists from two of our founding partners, the MRC and Cancer Research UK. Then we had to get that done successfully to integrate them into one structural organization. Then finally there was the migration into the new building.

“At all of those stages we had goals we had to achieve and there was a very clear idea of what success was going to be.”

Clearly, the project was a success. To such an extent, that Davis herself earned the impressive accolade of the UK’s CIO of the Year at the Women in IT Awards in January this year. The judges were particularly impressed with how Davis managed that organization-wide 18-week IT migration.

Davis herself has a background in medical and pharmaceutical IT. Before joining The Crick in 2013, she was director, information management division at MHRA (Medical and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency), and before that a director at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

 

Churchillian role-play

“I think CIOs are very much situational,” she reflects. “My own career, not intentionally, but certainly when I look back, has been very much about going into organizations either into greenfield developments like The Crick, or to troubleshoot things. That seems to be where I find my personal sweet spot.”

That sweet spot can be different for different people at different organizations and at different points in time. Understanding how one fits (or doesn’t) into a company is crucial.

“It’s like Churchill being a very good war Prime Minister but less good as a peacetime Prime Minister,” Davis says. “That seems to be the accepted wisdom. And I think that’s probably true of CIOs as well.”

 

Keeping pace

What is undeniable is that working as the technology chief of an organization dedicated to science and staffed by scientists unsurprisingly makes for a demanding job.

“It’s an interesting challenge to ensure that IT keeps pace with the scientists,” Davis admits. “So we try and do it in a variety of ways.”

The main way is by talking to them, she says. “So we collaborate very closely with our scientists, we have a specific computing steering group where we meet with a number of scientists on a monthly basis and talk about what’s coming through. We have a governance process for doing resource allocation and so on, so that we can understand what’s happening.”

Davis admits that the rate at which science is moving means that keeping abreast of developments and the demands of The Crick’s scientists is sometimes a challenge; dealing with mind-boggling volumes of data is also a cause for concern.

“We were told recently by one of the scientists that he was interested in buying a new microscope,” she recalls. “And that it was capable of generating five petabytes of data a week. Given that our total storage is 10 petabytes [one thousand million million bytes], which is already considered a lot by a lot of organizations, this would have filled it up in two weeks flat.”

But fortuitously, the microscope’s manufacturer “realized that this was not going to be a viable proposition for most organizations, so they’ve gone back the drawing board”.

Even so, kit on site includes The Crick’s cryo-electron microscopes, which each generate about two terabytes of data a night.

“So The Crick as a whole at the moment has a baseline generation capability of instruments of about 20 terabytes a day,” Davis says. “Keeping pace with that — we can at the moment but we do have to make sure that we are constantly in the loop with the scientists and what they’re planning to buy and where science is going and where the next thing is going to be. That’s a big driver.”

 

Working within limitations

It might sound as if Davis must answer the needs of an overly-demanding workforce, but she is quick to stress that The Crick’s scientists do understand limitations.

“The Crick’s a charity so we haven’t got bottomless pockets for buying this stuff,” she says. “They’re certainly aware of the limitations and to some degree sympathetic to them. But obviously for them their first priority is the science, so they are sympathetic but they still want us to deliver in some way. So it’s a constant dialogue.”

 

Challenges ahead

There are several challenges on the horizon for Davis and her team. Graphics processing units (GPUs) for machine learning is an areas where The Crick does not yet have capability.

“But we’re just building it into our cluster,” she says. “We have individual scientists working on GPU workstations, but that’s not really cost-effective for the organisation as a whole, so we want to provide that as a service, essentially for the organisation to be able to do more machine learning.”

With baseline data generation capacity of 20 terabytes a day, it is crucial that Davis knows what “sustainable data growth really looks like for the Crick”.

Meanwhile, the charity is looking at growing its archiving capacity.

“So, we’ve got a high availability storage, we’ve got capacity in that, but then we need to be able to archive off into cheaper and cheaper storage,” she says. “Tiered archiving is what we’re looking at at the moment, providing those next tiers.”

Judging where to retain data, how to compress it and how to encourage people to delete data over time is another ongoing challenge.

“Over time it is going to be really important in how we can get to that story of a sustainable cost for big data at the Crick.”

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