Interview: Charles Ewen, CIO, Met Office tells us his secrets on agile leadership

As the weather is itself a dynamic system, The Met Office is an example of an organisation that has embraced agile working, as a critical component of its processes and services

As a world leader in providing weather and climate services, The Met Office employs more than 1,700 at 60 locations throughout the world. Established in 1854 with a mission to protect mariners by creating a network of observers and devise means by which ships could be made aware of impending dangerous weather, today it still has a mission to protect life and property and delivers a wide range of weather and climate related services to a very wide range of Citizens, Government and Industrial customers. You would be forgiven for thinking that there is not much that is very ‘agile’ in any of that.  

In practice, rapid development in scientific understanding and technology innovation means that in order to remain as a world-leader, the Met Office has had to be very fast in adopting the best that science and technology can deliver.  

At the heart of the Met Office is one of the World’s largest supercomputing facilities. This machine, capable of over two million calculations per second for every person on the planet, delivers simulations of the future state of the atmosphere that are both vast and complex.

In their native state the simulations are not much use to anyone other than an atmospheric or climate scientist and are a long way from a weather forecast or increasingly, an impact forecast that you may be more familiar with.  

To make these, the Met Office has a large IT estate that transforms these simulation models into something that is more useful. Often a weather forecast but also information about future risks; lorries blowing over on bridges, safe flying conditions for aviation, electricity demands for power stations – these are but a few examples of the thousands of daily ‘products’ the Met Office produces.  

The Met Office has over 60 locations throughout the world and connection with the wider family of National Weather Services so that global coverage of weather and climate elements can be maintained 24/7.

These products then need to be communicated to the users, this involves another tier of technologies. Twenty years ago, this was often a fax machine (remember those), or a telex machine (you have to be old to remember those).  Then it was websites, mobile and apps and right now it is increasingly API’s for machine-to-machine applications. All businesses will recognise the last tier, at least if they are still in business! There are those that failed to recognise the need to change, some who didn’t believe that it would happen and others that simply could not make the change. That is the first, and probably most important aspect of ‘agile’.  

At an organisational level, being able to respond to changes in the operating environment, often technology driven, equals agility. This used to be pretty straightforward, good horizon scanning, a liberated and open-minded management team and an informed HR department able to bring the right skills to bear.  

Being agile as an organisation is getting tougher. Change is happening ever-more quickly and being able to respond to what you see happening is no longer good enough. To be successful in today’s world demands leading companies pre-empting or even creating the future. Companies must analyse their value in the market and try to figure out how they might be ‘disrupted’ by new business models that deliver what they deliver ‘differently’, often cheaper or faster.  

Video – What is the Met Office?

So, what is the role of the CIO in an agile organisation like The Met Office?
There are a number of key components:

1 – Technology driven change

The CIO is usually the best equipped at C-level to be able to think of ways to ‘do differently’ – enabled by technology advance. Spend time being a red-team – how would you target your company if you were a hungry competitor?  What of that should your business actually do to itself?

It is your job to make those possible futures clear in your colleagues’ minds. It is not just about lighting fires and being the harbinger of doom, it is about making a compelling case for change that your colleagues and teams understand and engage with. There is much more involved than ‘having a good relationship between IT and the business’, it is about being seen as part of the business

2 – Systems thinking

The heart of agility is being able to recognise ‘systems’ at an appropriate level of abstraction. Any successful CIO has looked at their organisation as a system constructed of black box capabilities. Technology led the way in terms of recognising what core business means.

We have all outsourced or abstracted parts of the IT service (to mixed degrees of success!) in order to do things differently. This is actually quite a distinct skill and one to be applied across the whole business. With an underpinning knowledge of the plumbing, the CIO is often best placed to break the business down into black box capabilities and think about creative ways to put it back together again.

Established in 1854, the Met Office employs more than 1,700 staff.

3 – Headless architectures

Most CIO’s will recognise the term, essentially the concept is to de-couple a capability from the application. It is unusual for a company to completely change its core capability. It is much more usual to change the way that capability is applied, or the application. Many companies are simply not structured this way, there is often little, if any decoupling and product lines have their own ‘hair balls’ of underpinning capabilities.  

Complexity is the enemy of agility and there are many companies that have very efficient architectures honed to deliver a certain thing to a certain customer in a certain way. This model is great if nothing changes – disastrous when it does. Building capabilities out of black boxes will make sure that you focus as much on the lines between the boxes as much as the boxes themselves – knowing how to rewire them is at the heart of the agile organisation.

4 – Platforms

For me, platforms are about finding that sweet spot between being drowned in detail and systems and working with a ‘marketecture’ on a white board that is an entirely unrepresentative conceptual only understanding of the real world.

As an engineer, I can guarantee that you will always get the quickest, cheapest and most elegant direct route from A to B if that is all that is asked for. It is crucial that there is a shared sense of greater pattern and direction and a concerted effort to define, develop and improve existing capabilities rather than create new ones.  

I have always liked the notion of ‘pace layering’, as Gartner put it; systems of record, systems of differentiation and systems of innovation. It is very unusual for any business to fundamentally change what it does, but very common to change the way it does it. This concept can often be applied to underpinning technology and to deliver a technology stack that is stratified to accommodate rapid change where needed and high availability and repeatability where not.

5 – Good, fast and cheap

Whilst advancing technology can sometimes make it look otherwise, and some of the rock-star tech brands look like they do, I firmly believe in the ‘iron triangle’. There is always compromise between good, fast and cheap.  

Good can mean many things but the usual casualties are areas such as security, documentation and extensibility. A guaranteed casualty will be any step towards a grand plan, if you let it.  A truly agile organisation will accept the penalty in the short-term to fight complexity and retain the ability to change in the long-term. A company that treats every project as an isolated build to be completed as fast and cheap as possible will build legacy at an alarming rate. Multiply that by a few factors if it is cloud-based. Even in the marvellous world of on-demand and DevOps, there must still be a plan.

You may have noticed by now that I haven’t talked about scrums, retrospectives, epics or the like. Important though is knowing how to effectively deliver projects, that is ineffective if it only stays at the project level. The CIO role should focus on the agile organisation more so than agile projects.

Not all disruption is technology driven, but a lot of it is and it is the CIO role above any other that should be able to say something about what the future might look like. It is important to have a plan and for that plan to make some judgement about where the organisation may need to move fast and where it probably won’t have to as much.  

At the Met Office, the rate of change and the need for agility is astounding. Exponential change is a way of life and every new supercomputer generation demands wholesale change to downstream architectures.

The Met Office currently uses a Cray Supercomputer that allows the vast quantities of data gathered to inform their forecasts.

The way weather forecasts are used is changing just as quickly and they are at the heart of the emerging Big Data driven information economy. IoT is changing the way that the environment is measured and monitored as is rapid advance in satellite technologies.

So just as the weather changes constantly, so does the Met Office, sometimes both weather and IT trends can be predicted with confidence some way out; and sometimes not.  Ideally predicting but certainly responding to change quickly is at the heart of organisational agility, something that keeps the Met Office at the head of the pack when it comes to predicting the weather.

About Charles Ewen:

Charles Ewen, Director of Technology and CIO at Met Office

I am responsible for the development and implementation of our ICT Strategy and for the internal technical teams within the Technology Information Services Directorate – and work closely with our Science teams to operate our High- Performance Computing capability. I have worked for the Met Office in a number of senior technology roles since 2008 and, prior to that, worked in the Business-to-Business online retail and distribution industry.

Connect with Charles: linkedin


Video – Behind the scenes at the Met Office