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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.

IT Leaders: HarperCollins’ Laura Meyer on the power of data and the expanding role of the CIO

HarperCollins, the UK-based publisher, has a distinguished history that will have in one way or another played a part in many of our lives. The company’s modest beginning dates back to 1817 when brothers James and John Harper opened up a printing establishment in New York City. A couple of years later Chalmers & Collins Bookshop and Printing Works opened in Glasgow, printing its first book.

Since then, the ‘Harper’ and ‘Collins’ businesses, and their many merged entities have been printing a flurry of famous books that range from the Collins English Dictionary and The Exorcist to The Devil Wears Prada, and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The publisher has so many well-known titles, it’s impossible to list them all.

The company as it stands now has also been an innovator; J & J. Harper was the first publisher to adopt the process of stereotyping, using papier-mâché moulds to forge reusable metal plates of entire pages back in 1830. Meanwhile, Collins was the first major publishing house to create its own font back in 1936, and in 2003 HarperCollins became the first major trade publisher to partner with an e-book loan service catering to public libraries.

Innovation today is different to what it was back then, and much of it takes place behind the scenes in the IT environment. The CIO of HarperCollins, is CIO Laura Meyer, and she explains that the company has a number of projects ongoing.

The power of data analytics

The company has been building its own data analytics platform.

“It is for our data scientists and analyst who want to drive the benefits of data-driven and predictive decision making. This is difficult to do with huge data sets if you’re just using desktop tools,” she says.

The company is consolidating what Meyer calls “the first point of data ingest across the organisation”, so that it can have a closer relationship with market data providers and then apply technologies from web analytics and the enterprise.

“This includes distributed processing platforms like Apache Storm and Apache Spark and then extensive use of unstructured document databases like MongoDB which allows rapid ingest of new data queries in a scale of billions,” Meyer explains.

She said that the decision to use many of these tools is based on research into the market, trust in an architect that has used many of the tools in the past, and sharing expertise with fellow News Corp subsidiary News UK.

Another aim that the publisher has is to create a single view of data, pulling in data from many different legacy systems.

“There is a need for any of our staff that need information about the company, such as finance, to have all of this information on one screen rather than having to go through various different systems,” Meyer explains.

HarperCollins is creating a seamless web-like experience so that its internal customers have a similar experience to that they’re used to with their consumer devices. However, attempting to do this with legacy systems has been tricky.

“We have used a single page frontend architecture to give a responsible agile end user experience using angularJS and reactJS. We’re essentially wrapping legacy systems to gain access to the data without being hampered by an outdated user experience,” Meyer explains.

Like many of the IT leaders that NS Tech has spoken to in recent months, Meyer believes that ‘digital transformation’ is an overused term. However, she believes both the data analytics and ‘single view of data’ projects can be considered as transformative.

“The data analytics platform is real transformation because it’s allowing us to do things we couldn’t before; we can process over a billion records and that gives my internal customers data from data streams that they wouldn’t be able to get,” she states.

“The second project is also transformation because taking data from numerous legacy systems requires people to go to four or five places to make a decision, but if they can get all of the data in one place it transforms how they work and the decisions they make,” she adds.

Responsibilities and recruitment

Meyer’s role as CIO is not just restricted to the IT department.

“I have responsibility for technology, distribution of our books, supply chain and production and this is a trend that I think we’re seeing with CIOs, in that they can have extended operational duties,” she says.

That means that Meyer looks after a team of several hundred, 40 of which are in the technology department, and this is likely to increase as the company is currently on the lookout for DevOps specialists.

“It’s hard to get DevOps people; we’ve found having a DevOps person to be very useful because they can build tech and release software faster and with more reliability than what was being done previously so I think that’s definitely an area that everyone including us are on the lookout for,” she says.

In addition, Meyer suggests that HarperCollins is looking for cyber security expertise, and particularly developers who have a good understanding of security and developing secure code.

Meyer is driving transformation at a company that has continually been transforming since the 1800s. Her challenge is to get the most out of existing systems with the help of new technologies and expertise.