How Transport Systems Catapult IT Director Alex Farr and his team add value, helping businesses transform and grow

Matt Egan | March 10, 2017
We find out about the ups and downs of Alex Farr's career in IT.

Alex Farr

Alex Farr is a bright, ambitious digital leader with a fascinating job in an interesting organisation. His commitment to personal development, technical creativity and building successful organisations means he has a bright future. But it wasn't always like this for Farr, despite his lifelong passion for IT.

Early career

These days Farr serves as the IT Director of Transport Systems Catapult, having been inspired to enter the profession by an uncle who was an IT manager. He spent his early years messing around with computer code and, after attaining a national diploma in computer studies took a role as an internal IT support officer.

The company for which he worked developed smart cards, and Farr credits this early exposure to IT as product as well as support service with giving him a wider view of the possibilities of tech. More important for his long term career: Farr's line manager left very shortly after he started. He describes this situation as sink or swim, and says it helped him to become tougher and more adaptable.

"I had to embrace it, and ended up getting involved in some big meaty projects," he says. "It gave me some great exposure to serve as an IT manager early on, which you'd never get in a 18 year old."

Farr develops this theme when describing subsequent roles. After his first employee went bust he found himself working for an outsourced IT company.

"It was really good for me because I'd go into different companies every day," he says. "It was a lonely role - you're on the road a lot, and you're being thrown in at the deep end.

"A company who don't have any type of support needs you to do something: whether that's building a server, replacing a keyboard, or something completely different. It could be such a wide range of stuff. Exposure to different technologies, and different organisations - talking to people at different levels, which was great exposure."

If early challenges lead to ambition and flexibility, exposure to difference company cultures gave Farr the vision to start to manage his career. He took roles in a traditional and cost-constrained newspaper business, and then a data-based marketing firm, before landing his first digital transformation role working for the Netball Association. 

Transforming netball

On the face of it a Sport England-funded governing body largely staffed by volunteers, administering a minority sport, is not a great opportunity for digital transformation. But Farr says that his previous career had given him the skills and the attitude to see the opportunity.

This was Farr's first role as an IT Manager, and the organisation had a mandate to grow netball. The experience clearly still resonates, as Farr tells the story with relish.

"That's one of the biggest transformation projects that I ever took," he says. "Funding came in peaks and troughs, depending on how well you do and also how much money the government were releasing.

"Netball started years and years ago: it was all done by hand and fixtures were organised on bits of paper. They had lots of systems, and lots of data, just data separated everywhere.

"They relied on volunteers and people who had an interest in the sport. You rely on those people that have just got a vested interest. International games were being arranged on an A3 bit of paper.

"They had all these silos of data, they had a membership database, they had people who bought tickets, and then people that played. But we had no way pulling up a list of people who are interested in netball. We couldn't tell whether we were growing netball at all, so we needed to undertake a project where we combined all these legacy systems, some of which were technical solutions and some of which were just bits of paper."

This wasn't a technically complex project. But it did require vision and soft skills to get buy in from the various stakeholders.

"It was a good opportunity to go in there and really change the way the organisation was working," Farr says. "The technical solution we delivered wasn't very complex and it wasn't too difficult.

"The biggest thing was getting people to embrace this change, because we'd have people who were 60, 70 years old and had been working in one way for a long time. To come in and explain, and try and help them understand why we needed to do this and what the benefits were for them, was a different type of challenge, It was the first time I got something back that wasn't just technical. I liked it.

"The results have been amazing. The organisation is growing, and able to do more to support the core mission. And those same people have been able to change the way they work, and can see more people playing netball for longer."

There is a critical message here. In the post-cloud world, digital transformation is not primarily a technical challenge, but a question of understanding a business and its route to customers.

"You hear people talk about digital transformation, and really it is just a new word for what we did back then," says Farr. "It's just a bit of a buzzword. This was something where people could actually see the benefit."

Another key lesson here: bigger organisations are not always better organisations. "We did some great case studies: we would go to the FA and the RFU, and talk to them and see how they managed it. They all struggle with the same thing, still."

The Transport Catapult

Farr's current role is as the IT Director of the Transport Catapult. "The Catapult are innovation centres that stimulate the economy and drive innovation," Farr says. "The UK is brilliant at coming up with ideas, and at making these ideas come to life. We're bad at taking them to market. The concept of the Catapult is that we take these small ideas, and accelerate their time to market.

"We get them exposure to places they wouldn't usually be able to reach. We can introduce people and see where the synergies are. We are an enabler, and an accelerator.

"We also offer resource, which is where the innovation centres come in. The innovation centre is designed in such a way that these SMEs to come in, and use the space and use the technology we have, in order to showcase their products, have conversations with people in large organisations, and work with us on projects.

"It's a really exciting programme. There are a number of Catapults that all sit in different sectors. Transport Systems is my employer, so we sit in the transport industry. We're looking into intelligent mobility. You've probably seen the driverless cars on the TV in Milton Keynes. We partner with a spin out of Oxford University on this.

"If we can sell products abroad it helps here in the UK. We're not for profit, and we're funded by Innovate UK who get money from the Business and Innovation Skills Department of the Government.

"A third of the funding comes from Innovate UK, a third is from collaborative R and D, and a third from commercial work that we actually go out and win. The idea is that if anyone one of those revenue streams drop, as an organisation you continue to function. Over time we become less and less reliant on Innovate UK. We are a really interesting organisation."

And the role itself is very interesting. "There's a chance for me to put everything I've learnt into practice. Not only build the IT from the ground up, but identify the building, and help put processes, policies in place. We could set the agenda from the outset.

"The Catapult has catapulted my career in all honesty. They really invest in their people as well. So the training, and the exposure they've given, means I am very grateful to them.

"I report to the CFO. I'm responsible for IT, facilities, the virtual dev ops team and visitor experience. Anything that comes into the building comes under my responsibility.

"The facilities and visitor experience side of things is not my background, but it comes hand in hand with the soft skills you need whether you're working in IT, or customer experience, or the facilities team."

Farr has 25 staff in total, in an organisation of around 160. He is keenly focused on creating an optimal business structure so that his department adds value, as well as keeping the lights on.

"The dev ops team is something that I developed recently," he says. "The way the business used to work was that we had this resource pool, so when we worked with SMEs on certain projects we could pull people from this pool to help on that project whether that be technical people, project people, whatever it may be there was a pool.

"They decided to separate it into business units, and to look at specific areas within in terms of mobility, so we had an M&V team that looked at modelling and visualisation, and VR, AR, all that type of stuff.

"We have a customer experience team, a data team, which we call information exportation which is looking at modelling data and using it in clever ways, and then our autonomous team that are looking at the driverless cars, and stuff like that.

"Each of those units has a mixture of project people, and technical people, and there was no consistency. We weren't sharing knowledge or insight. We wanted to stop working in siloes, fighting fires, and start making things better. So we developed a virtual devops team.

"The developers report to their business unit leaders with dotted lines into IT, and we get a certain amount of time each month to get together, and really decide how we code, how we store, and how can we work closer together across the business units.

"It helps me to understand each business unit's agenda. Where their pinch points are, where their pain points are, what's on the horizon."

This is beginning to bear fruit, as Farr's department is now becoming a contributing business unit all of its own. "We're working on something we've named Value Through Data," he says.

"There's loads of data silos in transport. We all get on a train, and then a tube, and then in a taxi, and none of it's joined up. You have a separate ticket for everything and the behaviours and everything that goes in between is disjointed.

"We want to develop a platform which pulls in all these data sets and gives people the tools to be able to manipulate that data, join it up, and model that data in a way that suits their organisation. And we're going to commercialise this. We'll build this platform, open it up for universities and small organisations that have the knowledge to be able to use the data."

The project is fascinating. The motivation behind it will be familiar to any aspiring digital leader.

"We want to shift that mindset from being an overhead and a cost to a business unit with a P and L.

"Rather than just being seen as an overhead, which stereotypically is how IT departments are described, we try to get into our customers' mindset.

"Whenever we're speccing up a solution, or taking on a project, we think about how we can we make this impact us in a minimal way, so that in the future we're not supporting it. We want to deliver something, hand it over, and then not worry about it. We want to move on to the next project." 

Ahead in the Cloud

Farr is passionate about the Cloud as an enabler for IT leaders. A platform which gives the next generation of digital disrupters a toolkit from which to innovate.

"We didn't really have a choice but to go for the cloud, as we started in a short-term rented office space.

"I didn't have time to build back end infrastructure, because I was too busy working on the long term strategy and identifying our innovation centre. I adopted Cloud very early on, with use of Azure, Office 365 & SAP. Cloud technology has kicked on in the past four years even further, and we've been able to design the systems, and again the processes in which we operate on in order to flex. There is no legacy.

"And because we have no legacy, and because I don't need three or four people looking after, or worrying about back end systems, my team can focus on helping our partners, and the people we collaborate with, adding value to the organisation."

The future

Farr is clearly passionate his job and his industry, but he also takes his own career seriously. Admirably so. He has a commitment to personal development, and a clear vision of where he wants to go. And that is as a leader - business and technology.

"I've got ambitions to become a CIO. I need more time where I am, and I need exposure in different organisations, in similar roles. I've been fortunate being able to build stuff from the ground up, but I need to experience dealing with an organisation entrenched in legacy.

"A lot of my personal development is focused away from technical side of things. I've just done my level five in leadership management. I'm doing finance for non-financial managers.

"I think it's important to get that wider view. My current role has given me exposure to other parts of the business without losing the IT bit, which is really what I'm interested in. But it has given me a wider view of the world."

Source: CIO UK