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April 23, 2020updated 24 Apr 2020 8:45am

CGI’s Tara McGeehan on IT Spending, CNI Security, and Gladiator

"The hard stuff's left and it's still hard. Will people feel the need to bite the bullet on the big transformational projects to rewrite the back end? Probably not".

By CBR Staff Writer

As crises go, CGI is not having a bad one.

With a majority of the IT consultancy’s customers being either in government or in critical national infrastructure, there has been no shortage of work to do, even as the rest of the economy flat-lines.

Nobody has been furloughed in the UK as a result. (Not bad for a company with 6,000 staff and annual revenues of just under £1 billion).

Tara McGeehan is the refreshingly frank-talking president of CGI’s operations in the UK and Australia. She joined Computer Business Review’s editor Ed Targett on a call to talk IT investment, tearing up SLAs, CNI security, the future of IT amid a pandemic, gardening, and Gladiator. (Our Q&A, below, is lightly edited for brevity, but otherwise largely verbatim).

Tara – a quick intro please, for those who don’t know you.

I’m Tara McGeehan – I run CGI’s business for the UK and Australia. We do systems integration and more traditional data centre managed services, along with other IT work across both the public and commercial sectors.

We have a good mix of clients and a good mix of technology.

We’ve been in the UK as CGI for the last seven or eight years, and before that most of us were at Logica. I’m an electrical engineer by training. I have a very traditional background in IT. I was an analyst, a project manager, a consultant: I’ve done almost every job that the guys who work for me do.

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Let’s do the obvious and talk COVID-19: Were you ready for lockdown/pandemic’s impact?

We got a jump on this, because we do a lot of work for one of the big banks based out in Asia, so we could see that this was coming and started moving perhaps faster than the government did; we started moving our services at the very beginning of March.

We are [now] all home-working, with the exception of a couple of hundred key workers who are working largely for the military, MOD, or other secure government projects; we do a lot of important infrastructure work for government: we have 55 projects that are classified as critical infrastructure and a subset of those [working on such projects] just could not go home.

The rest of us all shifted to home working pretty quickly,  including all my service desk folks – we run the desk for Glasgow City Council and Edinburgh and lots of other clients. That has been a big shift.

We’ve worked out that we can run our businesses more remotely than we thought we could at. We’ve also done a lot of projects very quickly as well; far quicker than we thought possible…

Could you give me an example?

We support one of the NHS trusts, and we’ve rolled out MSFT Teams for them; we got kit out to them and we’ve done a bunch of stuff for them very, very quickly. [There was less training involved than usual] so we got a lot of calls initially, but we got through that and now everbody is using it.

We’re being more light on our feet; agile with a small ‘a’.

We could have had quite difficult conversations about punitive service level agreements, etc, you know, but we haven’t.

We’ve all just sat down and said: “Look, this is what we can do; we can shift things; we can help you do that.”

And everybody, every single one of our clients has said: “Yep, let’s do it”… You know, forget the contract; let’s see what the art of the possible is.

How are you finding overseeing teams remotely?

This is a whole different dynamic, isn’t it: doing Agile work with people sitting in their houses! Yet we haven’t seen a dip in productivity.

I can see some of my workforce coming online at 6:00 in the evening.  But they’re getting their work done. So that’s absolutely fine.

They’re doing their daily standup calls and understanding what’s been expected of them and then working it round the kids.

The work’s productivity is the same.

Do you think organizations are going to want to start tracking staff a bit more robustly? Is that going to be a difficult conversation business will need to have at some point?

We’ve got a very grown up relationship with our staff.

Our sector work to tasks, or a project plan. They’re getting their activities done, the quality is good and the task being completed in a timely manner.

Some industries may have different opinions, need more tracking.

I don’t think we need more checks.

IT investment is largely on hold. Do you think after this pandemic is over, there is going to be a surge of investment from people recognising they need to modernise systems?

We’re going to see an investment in the companies that get through this… I also do think we’re going to see a lot of companies go out of business; and if you are out business, then you’re not really bothered about those things, are you?

[Others] will be looking at how resilient they were, how good their response was. We’ve been rolling out iPads to schools in Glasgow. That’s really important to them because it means the schools can carry on. I think we’ll see more of that. The education sector I think will spend a lot.

I think we’ll see more use of things like RPA (Robotic Process Automation) as a sticking plaster to patch up flaky back-office systems.

A lot of digitalisation (to date) has been at the front-end, not the back end; the hard bit’s left now — and it’s still hard. Whether or not [people] feel the need to bite the bullet on the big transformational projects to rewrite the back end? Probably not! And so they probably will look at sticking plasters, short term fixes. Some industries will fare better than others, won’t they?

I mean, we’re seeing more shopping than ever digitally: I think we’ll see more creative solutions around the supply chain.

You won a contract last year with the DBS to deliver contact centre services [taking over from TCS]… this March. Tough timing! How is that going?

(Laughs) Yeah, we did that on time! Can you believe that? We did the whole cut-over and everything during the clock-change weekend.

And it was a military operation to get it done with all the social distancing. It’s working well and it was important that we did it. We practiced like crazy remotely, then we had the minimum number of people that we needed there. That was of the trickiest things we’ve done in a few years actually.

I was joking recently with the DBS’s CEO that we’d had so many calls about whether we were introducing risk by doing it on the clock change weekend…

You said you work on 55 CNI projects. How has lockdown affected them? E.g. from a security perspective, for example, have there been any concerns about staff reductions on site?

For the most secure projects they [our staff] are still on site, because it would be inappropriate not to be; you wouldn’t get access to networks otherwise. The others? We’ve talked it through with each of the sponsoring government departments and agencies and agreed extra security checks.

Do you think, broadly, security awareness among your clients has improved in recent years?

Definitely. A few years ago, it was almost impossible to get people to patch without getting quite cross with them.

Now we put in strategies for patching and it’s always a discussion on when to do it pragmatically, not if we do it. That’s top down.

A lot of [companies/organisations] now have CISOs who sit on their boards, which not all did before, So you have someone to talk to. It’s become a lot more BAU and less “special projects” than in the past.

Last question: what do you do when not working?

If you’d asked me a few weeks ago, I’d be talking about the cinema, eating out. Now I’m gardening. Until lockdown my garden was like that scene in Gladiator where Russell Crowe runs his hands through his crops – only with weeds. That was my garden.

Now I’ve got the mower out, I’m on it…

See also: The NSA’s Neal Ziring on the Slow Death of Punched Tape

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