Welcome to the next feature in our Leaders in Tech editorial series. Speaking to leaders in the industry to capture their stories, career highs and lows, their trials and successes, their current company and their role, most recent projects, advice to others, and the individuals who they most look up to in the industry.
This week, we talked to Stuart Humes, Head of Infrastructure at RSPCA, to find out more about why he joined the tech industry, what his role entails, what are the challenges he faces as a tech leader, and his advice to aspiring engineers and developers.
What is your current role and responsibilities?
I am relocating to broaden my catchment area for jobs and move in with my new partner. My last role was Infrastructure Manager for a charity. Charities are neither cash nor asset rich and rely on donations to operate and provide a valued public service.
Behind any organisation must lay sound financial functions and spend scrutinization of spend to ensure public money is used in the most appropriate way.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey?
It would be fair to say IT was not my first career choice. I came into IT from a customer service background in the hospitality industry and my first IT role was for a housing association. The company wanted someone who could place more emphasis on customer service rather than provide a technical break/fix approach.
It was in this role that “think customer” became my mantra and customer service and service delivery was to become two of the core values that I would default to along my career journey.
What drew you to the tech industry?
I always had an interest in computers and as a child of the 80’s I started with a ZX Spectrum 48k! As I regretfully aged, I maintained this interest and began to consider how technology works in shops and companies whilst taking technology classes at school to deepen my understanding.
I began to see how technology fits in the workplace and in sectors like manufacturing, industrial, construction, and the larger-scale applications of technology and how it is utilized. This, along with a desire to embed a customer service aspect to IT delivery, motivated me.
Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship?
I find inspiration from entrepreneurs and people who spot a use for technology in sectors that struggle to fund technology or produce open-source applications that benefits a wider audience.
I follow the inventors of VMWare and Citrix, Bill Gates, and read Steve Jobs’ approach to leadership and the more modern approaches to leadership involving the psychology of management and leadership.
You also can be inspired by your teams.
How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles?
It’s often tricky to keep team morale up in times of conflicts and obstacles, especially when taking into consideration personality types that require different psychological and managerial approaches.
Ensuring the team members feel enabled and empowered with the correct tools and support mechanisms in place helps as does making sure you, as a leader, remain approachable and available, to ensure we are working on and focusing on the right conflicts through open discussion on business impact and priorities and ensuring ownership of tasks remain clear and credit is given where due.
My motto – one Team, one direction, one goal; working as one to provide best in class service delivery.
What are your current goals? What are you currently working on?
My current goals involve looking at cybersecurity and prevention, and technology automation in a digital world while giving due consideration to the ethical side of the online world. It is a growing concern that online data collectors use the information collected from our innocent web browsing such as preferences, interests, income, and so on to manipulate or “steer” us in a certain direction.
However, the exact differential between other methods of influencing someone, and how we identify and distinguish from other forms of online manipulation such as persuasion and coercion has not been thoroughly distinguished. This is largely due to the unprecedented capacities that information technologies and digital media enable.
I would like to see a future where technology, people, and services are working in a more harmonic way to deliver a streamlined relevant online experience.
What are you the proudest of in your career so far?
Some of my proudest achievements so far have been the ground-up design of a new data center and P2V migration of 220 servers into a resilient, virtual environment. This had the effect of reducing our footprint, operational costs and becoming more ethically “greener” in our operations.
Also, the migration and successful installation of a central CRM and CMS system migrating from small standalone unsupported multiple MS Access Databases. This required data cleansing of the databases to deduplicate existing records and identify incomplete or erroneous data before a total merge of all databases into the centralised solution. This also linked through to an online store and ticket sale portal and finance/invoicing.
I have also been fortunate enough to work on bringing together the technical elements of annual national events that had global attendance. This involved working with 3rd party suppliers to complete stages to task and deliver on time. Such deadlines simply could not be missed to ensure events were set up on time and were able to go ahead – and most importantly worked!
What is the favourite part of your job?
Several elements really: The customer service and engagement element, fact-finding, and delivering to those requirements. The satisfaction of knowing my team delivered the requirements puts a smile on your face.
Seeing the solution working and benefits realisation is the reason IT is a true business operational department not just a break/fix team or process needed to go through to get things done.
What has been your greatest challenge from working as a tech leader?
Making the decision to downsize my department. Who to let go? What gaps would it leave in terms of technical exposure and subsequent risk? What would a new structure look like? I had to turn the negatives into a positive by using this as an opportunity for the team to train or cross-train and move people into newly created roles and promote this as a new chapter in IT within the company with potential new opportunities arising as the business gets to grips with the new structure.
Any loss of staff is never a good experience to go through, however, one that we as leaders must go through as and when necessary.
What’s the most important risk you took in your career and why?
Changing the way an organisation connected to a government agency. The risk here was that failure by the auditor would mean instant disconnection from the network rendering us in a potential business downstate. You can imagine the risk and look on the SMT faces when this was suggested.
My head was very firmly on the block! It was with a large gulp that commitment was given, and we began the project, design considerations, must-haves, physical requirements, problem issue and risk management, proof of concept, and self-audit against government policy framework.
What have you learned from your experience so far?
You never know enough and to always expect the unexpected as no two days are the same. Prepare for the unknown and do not be afraid to say you do not know something when challenged by other leaders.
If expectations are managed, nobody is going to think little of you for not knowing. It is more likely that you will gain respect for being honest. Make sure you always get back to the person in the agreed timescale though.
Do you have a memorable story or an anecdote from your experience you’d like to tell?
Do not be afraid to add humour to leadership or general workplace collaboration. Used appropriately, humour is often underrated and can break the ice or any deadlock in situations.
For example, I’m not afraid to throw in the odd quip – “don’t you think that’s putting lipstick on a pig?” or “are we may be shooting for the stars to clear the rooftops”. Used in the right context, of course, can diffuse a tense situation whilst not losing any impact.
I find, injecting humour into your leadership approach does not mean becoming a clown, it can show you are confident and not afraid to challenge and take a different approach so you’re not seen as a follower of others. Do be sure to get it right though!
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring engineers who want to grow in the tech industry?
Follow industry leaders on social media outlets and look at how they succeeded, extract what suits your personality style, and mold this to suit your own approach but never copy, be you.
Talk to other engineers and staff across the company. I often learn the most about what is going on within the company from speaking directly with each department – I call it going walkabout creek! It is important to use this time constructively as it’s a chance to raise your visibility and profile within the business whilst picking up departments’ workloads and pressure points that may not have been captured on the service desk yet.
Read and research what the big technology players are investing in giving thought to how this might work for your company, does it even fit or needed. Either way, this will give you a chance to identify technology trends and remain current with emerging technology and trends.