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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

“Procuring technology for eight years’ time is the biggest challenge,” says ex-HS2 CIO Stephen Potter

When Stephen Potter was recruited as HS2 Ltd’s interim CIO back in October, he had a specific brief to find a permanent successor, as well as ensuring that HS2, from an IT perspective, was moving along in the right direction.

By June, when Potter left his role as interim, he had managed to tick both of those boxes.

The challenge of working at HS2 is quite different to other organisations, as it’s a visible government project costing taxpayers an estimated £56bn.

Potter describes the challenge as “making the right transition from what was effectively a very large start-up and having to scale this up pretty quickly to ensure we have a modern organisation capable of delivering the project”.

This meant having to put in enterprise-level capabilities required for that mandate. One of these technologies was Oracle Fusion, a new ERP system.

“It was a decision made before I arrived, but we went through a rigorous validation process [to decide on Oracle],” says Potter.

The system is one of the ways HS2 Ltd can show the Department for Transport (DfT) and the government that all of its operational processes and systems are ready. The implementation of the organisation’s stack is still ongoing and Potter states that the programme will deliver capability which is mission critical for HS2.

Data challenge

HS2 Ltd is an arms-length body of DfT, but HS2 itself is being built by external companies and the organisation therefore has the challenge of ensuring that the right information is accessible through the entire HS2 ecosystem.

Potter says that building a railway, buying land and providing infrastructure all generate huge amounts of data, and it’s HS2 Ltd’s job to get the most value out of that data, both internally and externally. One of the most difficult issues has been locating and extracting valuable data. It’s no surprise therefore that Potter believes that data skills are the toughest to recruit for.

“Data skills in all areas: data science and management are golden at the moment,” he says.

“At this stage, we’re building the right data capability internally in terms of acquiring the right information and building the data structures, and then enabling the analysis of the information is a project further down the line,” he adds.

This is where the likes of artificial intelligence and machine learning could prove useful in the future, and Potter suggests that these technologies could be implemented around the Microsoft stack as HS2 uses Azure as its cloud environment.

But while emerging technologies are very much in the thought process of the HS2 team, there is one big concern and challenge – the time scale involved.

“Many other organisations have an IT strategy that covers 18 months but HS2 because of the scale of the programme, means it is eight years until the first train is used,” Potter explains.

“So starting to do procurement now for eight years’ time and trying to predict what ticketing systems you need and what you need to underpin all of that is a major challenge,” he adds.

This means having to predict what the company can implement in time, that will work and be on budget. It’s likely that the technology will already be deemed ‘legacy’ as the industry moves so quickly but Potter suggests that the organisation would have to ensure it has the right infrastructure in place to be able to update the systems swiftly and adapt to new technologies.

The huge challenges that HS2’s CIO faces are now left in the hands of Robert Kirkwood.