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Leading digital strategy at Anthony Nolan

On this week’s Digital Lighthouse, Zoe Cunningham is joined by Danny Attias, Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO) at Anthony Nolan. As the first special episode on digital leadership, Danny takes a deep dive into what it means to be a digital leader and gives some insight into how businesses can thrive in this competitive and constantly shifting digital landscape. From legacy infrastructure and data monoliths to seamless customer journey maps and continuous improvement platforms, Danny takes us through Anthony Nolan’s digital transformation, where merging digital and business strategies has been at the forefront of their success.



Zoe Cunningham: Hello, and welcome to the Digital Lighthouse. I’m Zoe Cunningham. On the Digital Lighthouse, we get inspiration from tech leaders to help us to shine a light through turbulent times so that we can learn, act, and change as a result for the benefit of our businesses. We believe that if you have a lighthouse, you can harness the power of the storm.

Today, I am super excited to kick off our new digital leadership program of content by welcoming Danny Attias to the show. Danny is the Chief Digital and Information Officer at Anthony Nolan, an organization that saves the lives of people with blood cancer who need a stem cell or bone marrow transplant. Danny was named as the top CIO in the UK in 2020 so I’m expecting a lot of light from this interview. That’s my lighthouse pun. Hello Danny, and welcome to the Digital Lighthouse.

Danny Attias: Thank you very much Zoe. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Zoe: Maybe let’s start with where you’re at right now. Can you just describe your role at Anthony Nolan?

Danny: As you mentioned at the beginning, I’m the Chief Digital and Information Officer. That changed about a year and a half ago from CIO, from Chief Information Officer, and I suppose we’ll get into the detail of why did we add the word digital and does the word really make a difference in the job title in terms of your staff and your teams and your output, but my responsibility ultimately, since I joined five years ago is the delivery of the technology strategy, the data and the digital, fundamentally.

I also look after information security and I used to look after data privacy as well, but it’s the bringing together of all of those components and influencing not just the outcomes, but also the culture of the organization to get better outcomes as a result of technology.

Zoe: Yes. Super interesting. What’s the most challenging bit?

Danny: Well, it’s always the culture, isn’t it? The tech is easy, isn’t it? We know that. The tech is super easy, especially when you’ve got amazing people like Softwire to help you, but the difficult bit is unpicking legacy and dependencies, and then also influencing and educating the rest of the organization to be part of that process rather than to expect the technology team to deliver the solutions to them.

Zoe: Fantastic. It’s about making it a collaboration and a conversation?

Danny: Absolutely.

Zoe: You avoid a lot of problems that way, right? I think one of my favorite phrases I hear all the time is, “But surely, that’s easy?”

Danny: We had that conversation this morning. We literally had one of the senior leaders in the business just going, “Isn’t it quite easy? Why does it take so long to build this stuff?” When you’re building software, clearly when you’re implementing software, if software, there are challenges as well, but when you’re building software, that is a different ball game. Just for the record, I haven’t been involved in building software until I joined Anthony Nolan. When I joined, I’d been a global CIO, but really an infrastructure guy.

I walked into this role with these responsibilities, with no experience of application development, and I don’t think I’m stretching it here, no understanding of data, of data privacy, of insight, and even what digital was or what digital means because I kept hearing people talk about digital, digital, digital. I said, “What are you actually talking about?” It took me a good few years to just get my head around what people meant. They all meant different things of course, but it’s been a really interesting learning journey and brave of Anthony Nolan to recruit me without any experience in 70% of what I would be responsible for.

Zoe: Yes. Then a very rapid learning curve for you coming into that?

Danny: I did two things. I did more than two things, but I did two key things in my first few months that put us on the right track and the track, the path of success. One of them is I called up an old friend who I worked with nearly 20 years earlier who had done incredible application development at Ocado. She was pretty much the first tech person into Ocado and led most of the software development there. I just said, “Can you help me because I don’t know what I’m doing?”

Then she brought in a glorious organization called Softwire who then helped us very slowly and very carefully with a lot of guidance, get our head around what on earth we were doing. From there, we went from a team of about eight people in technology to now around 25. We have a software development capability, we have a data capability, digital, customer journeys, and the works. Those are the two most important things that I did at the start of my journey, and interestingly managing expectations. I would say to the board of the trustees and the leadership team would say, “I want this,” “I want this,” “I want a digital so-and-so,” “I want transplant centers to be able to interact digitally.”

I’m looking at what we’ve actually got and thinking, “You’re a million miles away from that.” The project was not to build anything specific, although we were building something specific. I simply set the objective of, “We’re going to establish a software development capability.” That’s it, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to spend this year just establishing a capability to develop software properly. They accepted that and therefore it gave us the time. It reduced the pressure so we could do this properly.

Zoe: You’re not failing before you even start? I think that’s important.

Danny: Yes. I had looked at what had been attempted over the previous decade probably, and it was just a series of false starts. False start after false start. “We’re going to build this solution, build that solution, build the other solution,” and they could not stand up on their own two feet. They weren’t supportable, they weren’t reliable, and we’re just going, “We cannot continue like this. We’ve got to get rid of these monoliths, we need to start becoming data-driven. We need loosely coupled API architectures.” I had no idea what that meant, I probably still don’t, but it sounded good, but we need the ability to deliver.

In fact, I’ve literally just come out of a meeting where we were looking at the fact that we’re now 80% through the decommissioning of our legacy. We are very much there, we’ve got a clear plan to get to the end of it, and we’re now decommissioning monoliths and replacing it with continuous improvement platforms. One of our platforms that is now five years old, if you look at it today, and we just tested this with a business owner, if you look at it today, you look at it and you say, “That is fresh and up-to-date,” “That is relevant to me right now.” Not, “That’s five years old,” “It’s a little bit long in the tooth,” because of that continuous investment and that continuous improvement. It’s so essential.

Zoe: That’s incredible. You’ve captured the whole challenge from the start to where you are now. You’re succinctly there. A lot of other people are going to be going on a similar journey to this, or already need to be going on this journey, so what are the key things you brought with you because you obviously had this new mountain to climb, but what are the key lessons and experiences that you brought with you when you started at Anthony Nolan?

Danny: I suppose partly it was a mindset, partly it was the confidence that I can get the technology, I can understand the pieces. I don’t need to understand the nuances between this JavaScript and that JavaScript. It doesn’t matter to me, we have people who can understand that, but I have a confidence that I can look at the technology and piece it together and really ask the questions to test whether it makes sense in the whole picture rather than in isolation. I think often, people aren’t always looking at the big picture, they’re just looking in isolation.

I tend to take a bit more of a 10,000 feet view and look at the whole. I brought 20 years worth of infrastructure project management experience, which was pretty handy because the quick wins were to be had by introducing Wi-Fi and stabilizing the email platform, and all of those very simple hygiene infrastructure things that meant that difficult now to get their email on their mobile devices. Just the real basics, but you’re able to get a lot of buy-in from the organization and confidence and trust. Then because I’d spent a lot of time historically working with infrastructure, I was used to deconstructing complexity, simplifying, reducing dependencies.

When you say, “I have a data center with 1000 servers, move it to the cloud,” maybe you can do that now with the new tools, but certainly before, that was really hard. It still is hard, don’t get me wrong, but if you can start to remove dependencies and you can simplify it and start to look at your infrastructure, look at your software architecture, your digital product, your organization, and make it as simple as possible, that’s the key thing that I brought in. Then the only other thing that I brought in was, I’d done one of the earliest Google Apps roll-outs.

It was just after Jaguar and Land Rover. It was about a decade ago, and it was super early days. Very few organizations were doing it, and I had buy-in from the CEO and he said, “Why does my email keep falling over?” I said, “Well, because you’ve got a neglected archaic email platform. We can either rebuild it and reinvest in it, which is beyond our capabilities or we could just flip a switch and put it in the cloud and consume as a service.” This all seems very obvious now. It’s 2021, but in 2011 or 2010, whenever it was, this was super early days and the CEO said, “Great, let’s do it. That makes sense to me. I don’t produce my own electricity. I get it from the grid. Why should I need to manage my own emails?”

Big mistake of course, was that we then just announced to 25 companies globally, that we’re going to switch to Google Apps. I don’t think they ever recovered from it because they were not part of the process. They didn’t really understand why it was happening. We did the migration, but even two years down the line when things were so much better, many people still just didn’t accept it. They didn’t like it. They complained about it. That was the big learning, huge learning. It’s obvious I know, but I was quite junior at the time.

Zoe: I think that’s fantastic because I think it just shows the transferable skillsets across different branches of tech. Actually, there is a mindset and a way of doing things and key foundations that you can build on. Rolling forwards from the start of just setting the strategy of building this application capability, how is the strategy of what you’re trying to do at Anthony Nolan, how has that changed over the last five years?

Danny: We are very strategy-led organization. When I started, the CEO was saying, “Look, you’re at the board now, you’re at the adult’s table. We want a technology strategy.” I’m thinking, “I don’t really know what that is,” and I certainly don’t know how to write one, but after a while and a bit of help from our chief strategy officer, we got something done and ended up standing the test of time, but the difference was is we created a technology strategy, not a digital strategy. We were establishing a software development capability here and had legacy upon legacy.

Talking about super fancy digital stuff just wasn’t going to cut it. We started that journey in 2016, I published our first technology strategy. That was largely about consuming services where you can consume services, but underpinning it all was a hybrid approach. Whether it be patient donor search algorithm platforms or your telephone system, the idea was to have the old and the new being able to run symbiotically side-by-side. That way, you could manage the migration with the users much more carefully and much more gently. That integration was the hardest part. Integrating backward into legacy platforms is super hard.

Whether I were to do it again, whether I would do it that way, I’m not sure, but that that’s where we started. Now, we’re talking about a digital strategy. Now, we’re talking about data. We’re talking about customer journeys, customer experience, insight, hypothesis testing. Completely different. The language and the approach has changed, but it’s had to go at a certain pace to keep up with the cultural change of the organization. I have one trustee who is a super digital entrepreneur, hugely successful.

He said to me recently, “I always thought you didn’t go fast enough. We kept offering you money to go faster, invest in more people and really get this legacy done, throw more people at it.” He said, “But now five years down the line, I get it. You were going as fast as the organization was capable of maturing, as far as the organization was capable of learning.” You’ve hit that right balance of getting the change made, but getting that change accepted, and then building upon that change and improving it further.

Zoe: It reminds me of the quote, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” As you just said, you’d obviously learned the lesson already of going on your own. Doesn’t actually work out in the long run.

Danny: Exactly.

Zoe: How would you define digital leadership?

Danny: I think it goes back a little bit to the first thing that we were talking about, which is about the cultural change. It’s not about just one person being responsible. I’ve had conversations even this week saying, “We’re still trying to put technology into a silo of a conversation. We’re going to go off and we’re going to think about our operating model. Could you think about the technology things and the things that we don’t know about AI and automation and just let us know what we don’t know, because we don’t know what we don’t know?”

I’m going, “You can’t talk about them separately.” Digital leadership to my mind is about joining the dots. It’s about educating and empowering all of the workforce. Getting them to have access to and value the data. Data is a really good example. We started by doing some apprenticeships with our software developments, courtesy of Softwire but we’ve just signed up 15 staff, non-technical staff, non-managerial staff to data literacy apprenticeships. We’re trying to now spread out that knowledge and spread out that experience across the organization.

You don’t have this IT or technical function, you have a whole environment, a whole business that gets it, that understands that we have to focus on the customer. We focus on patients and patient outcomes, but we are also engaging with different types of customers, from hospitals to donors, to volunteers. It’s how do you engage with those people and really get their input? Digital leadership is not about just going out and delivering products, but it’s about getting the leadership team to understand that it’s joined up and getting the rest of the organization to develop those skills.

People have taken to it incredibly well. One of them asked me, “Why are you doing this? Why are you providing this pretty expensive digital literacy apprenticeship opportunity to so many of us? 5% of the workforce have signed up to it.” I said, “It’s to inspire curiosity and give you the tools to play with that curiosity and start to answer those questions.” That’s what we’re trying to achieve and we’re already starting to, we’re really engaging well with that cohort across the whole organization.

Zoe: It’s maybe even just asking the questions because there’s a whole area that you can’t even access unless you know what there is there to be asked about. It’s very different to say, “Oh, what could we do with this specific piece of data?” Versus, “You’re the CIO, what should we be doing in general?” It’s a very different conversation.

Danny: It’s actually that. That’s the inspire curiosity bit and it’s just saying, “What are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve?” Start with the problem. I think we’re too often trying to jump to solutions. I think Amazon uses mindset quite a lot in their development, but it’s “Start with the problem.” Don’t keep coming up with ideas and solutions until you’ve clearly defined the problem you’re trying to solve and then how you can measure it because this stuff’s expensive. Investing this time and effort is expensive and you can only do so many things.

Charities are notorious for not being able to prioritize because everything that they do is good. How do you choose between this good thing and that good thing? So they try and do everything. It’s a behavioral streak throughout the not-for-profit sector and that’s not a bad thing. That’s representative of the people that we are, but we do need to be more focused on the actual value and the actual impact.

Zoe: What do you think makes it so hard for lots of organizations to really get to grips in the third sector, as you just said? Doing everything is a challenge, but it’s not just third sector, organizations that struggle with how rapidly the digital landscape is changing. What is the difference between a successful organization and a less successful organization in terms of digital leadership? What are they getting right?

Danny: You’re right. It is true of the fourth sector, fifth sector and sixth sector. I think that what makes it difficult getting to grips is change. Change is hard. No one wants change. We’re wired to not change. For all the people like me who say, “I love change,” how much do you love change being done to you? You don’t. You love making change happen and so that’s the hard bit and it’s getting faster and faster and faster. People are just used to maybe through their careers, having to deal with a change. How often does the supermarket moves the stuff around the shelves?

How often does a new finance system get implemented? It’s occasional and it’s frustrating, but if stuff is changing every two weeks, how do you keep up with that? It’s this continuous improvement mindset. I think that the thing that differentiates is that organization that uses data to understand what they’re trying to achieve and whether they’re trying to achieve it, but they are continuously improving what they’re doing. They’re continuously looking and tweaking. They’re not afraid of failure. They’re not embarrassed by it, but they also approach things in such a way so that they are just making incremental changes.

We recently had a very big project that we’re doing and we’re proposing a fundamental change in the way that we’re going to deliver it. Fundamental. I sat there with the team and said, “That’s fine.” If changing it is what we need to do based on the information that we have now and the experience, that’s fine. As long as we consider it properly, then that’s okay.

I think that organizations that are adaptable to change, that are not afraid of failure, that test hypothesis, that use data to drive decisions, they’re going to get it better. Even if you look at the correlation, if you were to read the state of DevOps annual report, there are correlations between those that get DevOps good and those that have good business outcomes. It’s not because, “If I do automated testing, I’m going to make more money,” it’s because culturally, I am more comfortable with continuous improvement, continuous change and business involvement. Therefore I am more adaptable as an organization.

Zoe: I think we’ve moved from the situation maybe 20 years ago where to be able to work in this continual improvement fashion, was a business advantage, it’s now a business necessity. It’s not an option anymore to try and plan everything out and work in monolith.

Danny: Yes, I think survival dies is key.

Zoe: The way you were describing it just then made me think that perhaps something else that is a new key skillset, that again has always been there, in a way it’s given you an edge, but perhaps now is even more essential, it’s actually a better level of emotional intelligence and someone said to me recently that our brains can actually go much faster and implement things more quickly than we’re actually comfortable with on an emotional level. If you look at, evolutionarily, what we would have had to deal with, actually we can now make ourselves uncomfortable. Then we wonder why everything is so challenging. Is that what you’re seeing?

Danny: I suppose it’s a progression from IT Director to CIO, to CDO. If you use the 20-year-old skillsets of an IT director, you’re not necessarily using a huge amount of emotional intelligence because you don’t necessarily need it to sort out your networks and your storage and your data centers. You do need that to function in the boardroom to engage better with your stakeholders, to get the trust. Trust is one of the key things here. The board of trustees, the leadership team trusted me to deliver. They trust me with their teams.

We have hybrid teams that are spread across the organization, but they have to trust that even having a senior leader talk to a more junior member of another department can potentially make the other leader uncomfortable. “What are they talking about?” “What are they planning?” “I set their priorities,” but if you’ve got the trust there and that comes from the emotional intelligence and the engagement, then you can run a lot faster together as you described.

Zoe: It’s an exciting time isn’t it to be in technology or indeed in digital.

Danny: Yes, I’ve always, right from the day one that I started in this field in 1998, I thought to myself, “This is great. I’ve chosen a career that every single organization on the planet needs.” That’s a great starting point, isn’t it? You’re not siloed, you’re not limited. You could work for every company and then over time, you can be more of a chameleon, you can start to develop as you say, emotional intelligence, but you can just develop other skill sets and other interests and get involved in so much. Then if you compound that with the steady digital acceleration over the last decade, and then the incredible exponential digital acceleration over the last two years, there is no better time to be part of the solution.

Zoe: Amazing. Well, thank you so much Danny for coming on the show and helping us to shine a little bit of light for other people on this amazing digital journey with us and with everyone in the industry. To hear more content from Softwire about digital leadership, please do stay tuned as ever to the Tech Talks Podcast and also follow us on Twitter @SoftwireUK and check out our website, Thank you, Danny.

Danny: Thanks very much Zoe.

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