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April 1, 2011

A good CIO needs to be passionate about change: Q&A with Mark Leonard, Colt Group

CBR talks to the executive vice president for Infrastructure Services at Colt about the firm's new cloud-based approach

By Cbr Rolling Blog

Mark Leonard, Colt

Colt Group (formerly Colt Telecom) is a FTSE 250 firm founded in 1992 that provides enterprises, midsize businesses and wholesale customers with a resource that combines network and IT infrastructure with IT managed services, networking and communication services.

The company operates a 13-country, 25,000km network that includes metropolitan area networks in 34 major European cities with direct fibre connections into 16,000 buildings and 19 Colt data centres.

In September 2009, led by its CIO Mark Leonard, the firm made a public commitment to become a leader in managed services and secure cloud computing, seeing this as the future for the company. Amongst the services it is now starting to offer its clients is secure cloud-based computing.

Leonard and his team set out to improve their own IT infrastructure using the technologies and offerings they would offer clients of Colt; CBR recently talked to him to find out how things are progressing.

Can we start, please, with a bit of quick CV?
Sure. I was CIO last year but this year have been elevated to Executive Vice President for Infrastructure Services, as my job is now to also encapsulate all the technology across all of the company.

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That means I’m responsible for all areas in tech here, from strategy to product development all the way through to our external service delivery operations and service management, both internal and customer facing.

How long have you been with Colt and what were you doing before, then?
I have been here just over three years, previously being the CIO for Vodafone’s UK business and before that various telecommunications IT leadership riles, such as at NTL. I also spent some time at IBM Global Services, addressing the telco market there too.

I wonder if you are one of those CIOs who is primarily a technologist by training and inclination, or a more business-oriented one?
To be frank, I don’t see how you can avoid being both. In fact, I’d say you need three core skills to be a good CIO; you need to be a good technologist, a good business person and also – and I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but still true – a people person.

Why do you put technology first there?
Because I think if you don’t really understand the technology and what it can do, I don’t think you can really help your peers in the business take advantage of IT. I think you have to be as much a business person at the same time, as we all know, do we not, that IT can tend to go off on its own and not listen to anyone else if it’s let. So that’s why I think a strong technology background is always the best basis for an effective CIO, but not the only requirement.

What about the last element – the people bit?
Running and delivering IT effectively into an organisation is absolutely about people, about understanding them to be able to effectively manage and motivate them. It’s about helping your people in the team understand what the rest of the business wants.

So what brought you to Colt?
I wanted to make a difference to the business, and I think I’ve started to do that. I wanted to be a big part of the change agenda.

What’s happened, then?
It’s been a very interesting journey. I think we’ve come a long way from the users throwing requirements over the wall at us. In the past three years, more specifically, we concentrated in year one on making the technology more efficient, in year two on getting IT properly fixed to the strategic direction of the business as a whole and last tear we majorly started using Cloud, both for our own and customer uses.

Who better to ask to run a virtualised data centre than a company like ours that does it for itself? Now, for instance, our entire Windows and Linux estates are virtualized – as of 2008 – and in 2009 we did the same with our proprietary UNIX estate. I think in some cases we’ve even gone beyond what our ISV partners thought was safe and predictable with all that.

It sounds exciting. I just wonder what advice you have for CIOs who feel they can’t make that much impact – who feel they are expected to ‘just keep the lights on’?
To avoid that box, you just have to be really passionate about change, about helping the business. Beyond that, networking is vital – with your peers in and out of the business but I’d also say with key vendors too, as well as key thought leaders in the industry as a whole. Keeping up with what new technologies can offer – the cloud, whatever – is very important, I believe.

Thanks for all this. Maybe we can close with a look at what you think your next milestone is with technology at Colt?
I want to completely integrate our compute and our network on to the same cloud-based infrastructure, which we will then be able to deliver on an end-to-end, SLA-based basis to customers. I am looking for the right mechanism to help automate that – which isn’t quite there yet, but soon will be.

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