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Podcast: Georgina Owens – How to lead a 300-strong technology team

“Here’s a really fun question for you to go and ask anybody really in any organisation, especially at the executive level: Who owns the customer?”

~ Georgina Owens

Georgina Owens knows a thing or two about leading successful technology functions. Having held senior leadership roles in organisations across finance, telco and utilities, she now heads up the 300-person technology function at William Hill.

In her chat with Zoe Cunningham, she reflects on how you can successfully oversee teams at this scale, while instilling a culture that fosters creativity and innovation. There’s also a revealing chat about many of the unseen jobs a CTO must do to succeed.

For anyone currently in a senior tech leadership position, or who aspires to take on such a role in the coming years, this podcast gives a candid account of life at the top of a large tech function.

Listen to the full podcast on this page, or wherever you get your podcasts, or read the transcript below.

Digital Lighthouse is our industry expert mini-series on Softwire Techtalks; bringing you industry insights, opinions and news impacting the tech industry, from the people working within it. Follow us to never miss an episode on SoundCloud now: See all Digital Lighthouse episodes on SoundCloud

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Transcript

[music]

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 shine a light through turbulent times. We believe that if you have a lighthouse, you can harness the power of the storm.

Today, I’m super-excited to welcome Georgina Owens, who is the Chief Technology Officer at William Hill. Hello, Georgina. Welcome to the Digital Lighthouse.

Georgina Owens: Hello Zoe, thank you very much. And I love that saying, that’s so good.

Zoe: Could you start by telling me a bit about your current role and responsibilities?

Georgina: Yeah, certainly. So I’ve joined William Hill as Chief Technology Officer. And my portfolio of products is the UK retail outlets, which is all of the various shops that we have. Plus there is the sports book trading platforms, both of which are responsible for providing all of the features and functionality for betting and gaming for William Hill. And there is also player safety, account management, and a whole bunch of other stuff that forms part of the ecosystem of the William Hill systems.

Zoe: Have you always had a gaming background? Gaming/gambling was one of the first things to move online and really beef up their technological content.

Georgina: I don’t have a background in gambling or gaming. But I did work at DAZN, which was a live sports streaming organisation, which was very much in the sports and data sector. So I have that background.

My other areas that I’ve worked in have been finance, utilities, telco. So I’m not one of these people that stays within sector. I like to move across sectors, I think you gain a whole lot from understanding different businesses.

Of course, there’s a common thread through all of those businesses that is relevant to leadership roles, around commercial acumen, people management, that kind of stuff. But it is good and enjoyable to work across different sectors.

Zoe: How are you finding gambling compares then?

Georgina: So it’s a business-to-consumer business. And I think really, across all the different sectors that I’ve worked at, B2C, compared against B2B, is very different. I would call those two things out. You have to think very, very differently when you’re in a B2C environment.

The thing that I will say to people is that technology is the easy part. Get some really bright, smart people who understand tech. Get them working well together. Get some good plans, and some good requirements for things for them to build. And that will all go really smoothly.

It never works like that, because you’ve got so many other things that you have to think about. Right? You know, very often, there’s changes that come along, either in regulation or organisational changes. There’s people issues that you have to deal with. There’s politics that you have to deal with. [There are] external factors. And it’s all of those other things that you have to manage and deal with on a day-to-day basis that really… they are the storm around the lighthouse, right?

They’re the things, the unpredictable things, that you have to somehow navigate your way around to ensure that the team can just get on with the tech stuff, which is what they’re really good at, right?

Zoe: Exactly. So what would you say is the key part of your current job that you most enjoy?

Georgina: It’s a very exciting industry to be in for sure. Because it is sports, we’re event-driven. When we have something like a really massive horse racing event, you’ve got thousands and thousands and thousands of bets per second, that you’ve got to be ready for. That’s really exciting.

I think just generally, there’s so much going on. Because if you think about it, we’ve got three different areas. We’ve got the betting that’s happening in retail, at the side of the course, or the match, or the grounds. You’ve then got the online stuff that’s happening. And then you’ve got the gaming around that, so we’ve got casino, we’ve got poker, we’ve got slots. From a product perspective, there’s a lot to be excited about.

Zoe: And how big is your team that you’ve got delivering all of this?

Georgina: 300ish people?

Zoe: So how do you decide how to allocate your time across all these different areas?

Georgina: My team is only a small part of the role, to be honest. Because in the wider team, being part of the senior leadership team within technology, I pick up a lot more than just the day-to-day job.

So managing the team, ensuring that we’ve got the right number of people, that we know what we’ve got to build, when we’ve got to build it, removing blockers, those are the internal, team-y kind of things that I need to focus on.

But really, then there’s the regulation stuff, so I’m a licence-holder for a number of countries. So being on top of all the regulation issues and

understanding, from a compliance point-of-view, what we need to do. These are big responsibilities. You need to dedicate the time to make sure that you are undertaking those responsibilities and take them seriously.

And then there’s the, ‘What is our strategy, in general from a product and technology point of view? How are we driving that forward? How do we want to collaborate? What do we want our culture to be?’

So I think, people would look at a senior technology role, from where they’re sitting, and they go, ‘Oh, I could do that so much better.’ And [they] just don’t realise all of those other plates that you’re juggling, you know?

Zoe: Yeah, exactly. It’s all invisible work, isn’t it? And it’s only noticed if it goes wrong, it’s not noticed [that] you’re quietly working away to make sure it doesn’t affect and derail anything.

Georgina: Yeah. I like to share with my team, my plus-one management team, my plus-two management team as well, a lot of that other stuff that I get involved in. Because I think it’s relevant to them to know about that.

And through doing that, it’s quite interesting, because there’s quite a bunch of my direct reports who have that conversation, ‘Well, what is it that you want to do, where do you want to go [next in your career]? Where do you see your next move?’ It’s very often a case of ‘Oh, yeah, I want your job.’ And through sharing all of the other elements, there’s quite a few of them turn around and went: ‘I don’t want your job. Actually, I really don’t want your job. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing right now.’ So I think it’s great to be transparent like that.

Zoe: There’s loads to unpack in that answer, because I’d like to start with one of the things you mentioned, which is responsibility. And I think when you enter the workforce, and you’re working in a junior role, a lot of what you’re measured on and what you’re there to do, it’s about the actual day-to-day doing of things. And as you become more senior, it’s much less about what you do, which often, like you say, is what people want to ask you. They want to say, what do you do? Well, I have meetings and do emails. But actually, the key part of the role is what you’re responsible for, and what you’re accountable for.

How do you deal with that and your job? Because I think that can be quite a challenge.

Georgina: Yeah, I think you’re right. Early-days career, it’s very output-driven, it’s easy to set an objective, it’s easy to set what an on-target objective is, it’s easy to set what an exceeded objective is. As you move up in the organisation, and take on more senior roles, it becomes a lot more difficult. Because it’s almost like your day-to-day job, you’re not rewarded for that, you just better get that right, OK?

So, I guess you can exceed at it, but you can’t really exceed at it. What you exceed at is the things you do outside the day-to-day job. It’s where you extend yourself and use your abilities and your experience, to help others, to move the business forward, to step in when something needs doing and there’s not somebody else there that can do it. So it is very much outside the day job that is how you exceed your performance, [and] what you deliver to the organisation,

Zoe: And I guess coming up with creative solutions. Because like you say, there is a process to building technology. If you have the resources, any piece of technology can be built. It’s actually having that understanding of the business so that you’re matching the right technological solution. It’s easy to say, ‘You have to understand the business.’ But that’s obviously a complex environment that’s changing all the time, with lots of different parts.

Georgina: Yeah, and it’s internal and external, right? You’ve got to know what your competitors are doing. You need to know what stage they’re at and how you measure up against them. And creativity, I think is a really, really key and important part of the role. You do need to think out of the box. And I think in order to be able to do that, you also need to be able to think strategically: where we’re going, where we want to go, what are our North Star metrics?

And then at the same time, you need to be able to dive right down into the detail if you need to, so that you can have a conversation with practically anybody in the team, about what’s important to them, how they’re going about things. And you know what, some of the best ideas that you can get are from the people who are on the ground, heads down, working on a day-to-day basis on doing, I don’t want to say ‘grunt work’, but grunt work.

That is not derogatory in any way whatsoever, ever. But these are the people that are moving things forward. And they’re going to be the ones that know what’s causing them problems, challenges, what’s blocking them, and they’re going to have great ideas about how to do things better. So talking to people all throughout the organisation, and then pulling that together in a way that it’s going to deliver the best value for the business, is how to be successful.

Zoe: And making those links and those connections and going, ‘Oh, hold on, there’s this piece of information over here that isn’t getting over here. And that’s what would make the difference.’

Georgina: Absolutely. And it’s amazing how many people don’t do that. They just keep in their little boxes with their heads down. And they don’t lift their head up and look out and see what other people are doing.

The number of conversations I’ve had with people in my team. And they’re working on a problem and trying to solve it. And I’m just like, ‘Well, hey, if you went and spoke to so-and-so over there, they could help you.’ And they’re

like ‘I’m OK, I’m doing it.’ And I’m like, ‘No, you’re better together if you collaborate than if you just try and do it on your own all the time.

Zoe: Right, exactly, exactly. So what are the biggest challenges you’ve seen at the technology leadership level that maybe block progress or really stymie people in trying to deliver?

Georgina: Oh, so many. I think, the executive not recognising the value of technology and seeing it as a cost to do business. That’s changing significantly now. Because I think it’s really, really difficult to look at a business and find where technology doesn’t touch the business. And we saw that, of course, through COVID.

People had to get online much more quickly than maybe what they had planned, and use technology in a very different way to what their plans were. So there was a lot of last-minute strategies of, ‘How can we pivot our business? And how can we do things remotely? How can we do things without cash?’ There were so many things that had to be considered in businesses during the COVID period.

And now, there’s a situation of like, ‘OK, we made some of those decisions really, really quickly. Maybe we didn’t think them through, how do we now ensure that they’re not going to cause us problems? And oh my God, we need to talk to the tech people to get involved in our strategy.’

So I think that is definitely changing. And in fact, I spoke to a recruitment organisation this morning. And we were just talking about leadership and pipeline of people, and that kind of stuff. And they mentioned that what they’re seeing now in their search for chief execs, is that there’s much more of a, ‘Can we talk to the existing CTO, not just the CFO?’ So they’re building pipelines of candidates from the technology organisation, which I think is really interesting, because three years ago, no chance would that have happened at all.

So I think that change at the top table is something that has overcome one of the challenges and problems that us technologists had.

One of the big areas of challenge that every organisation has got is data. The, ‘What do we do with all this data?’ And we’ve seen industry grow up around data, and data roles, and consultants, and tools. And actually, that just makes it even more difficult, because there’s more choice and more things to consider.

Zoe: Yeah, absolutely. How do you deal with data? Do you have a separate team? Or do you try and work it through all of the technology team?

Georgina: We have multiple teams dealing with data. So as an organisation we’re just 12 months into an integration of two companies, so 888 and William Hill. There’s no doubt that we’re still understanding where we’re at in a lot of

areas, and I would definitely classify data as one of those. So it’s still very distributed across the organisation.

And I think, that is frustrating from a board and executive level, because it’s just like, ‘Well just tell us how we do this in one way! How many customers do we have on all of our platforms?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, we count them like this over here. And we count them like this over here. And we kept them like this over here.

And, you know, I’ve been in two organisations where I’ve built data platforms from scratch. And it is most definitely one of the most complex things that you can do. And again, I don’t want to say the technology is the easiest bit, because it’s not, when you’re trying to look across all the different systems and the sources of data. But actually getting the business to take ownership for the categorization of data and the understanding of how it’s used within the business is really hard.

Zoe: Right, because that totally dictates how you’re going to store the data and how you’re going to report on the data…

Georgina: …And how long you’re going to keep it for and quality issues…

Zoe: I was just about to say, because it’s not just about how the data is used now, but it’s actually how the data is going to be used in the future. So actually, it’s making sure the business understands that you can’t just suddenly turn around, say, ‘Oh, hold on, we also need this information,’ if you’ve not been storing that already.

Georgina: Yes. Here’s a really fun question for you to go and ask anybody really in any organisation, especially at the executive level: Who owns the customer?

You’ll get either complete silence, because nobody wants to do it. Or you’ll get everybody putting their hand up, ‘I own the customer,’ ‘I own the customer,’ ‘I own the customer.’ And it’s like, ‘OK, well if you do, tell us what that means.’ That’s a really good way to kick off the discussion around data.

Zoe: Right, and working out who has responsibility for which aspects of the data, and then obviously, ultimately, the technology as well…

Georgina: Yeah. So you ask who owns the customer, and somebody will put their hand up, ‘I own the customer.’ Right, great. How many have you got? What’s your retention numbers? What’s your acquisition strategy? What’s your onboarding strategy? Again, in the B2C business, that’s different to a B2B business. But it’s still a really interesting set of questions to ask an executive team.

Zoe: Well, sticking with this theme of responsibility, I’d like to ask you, who do you think owns the responsibility for the culture, I guess within your department? But is that simply the same as the rest of the organisation? Is that something that you want HR to be responsible for? Or is it something that really lives with you?

Georgina: I think anybody that says that HR is responsible for the culture should immediately be fired!

Zoe: [laughs] Well, that’s it then, a straight answer…

Georgina: There’s no messing about with that one! You own the culture within your direct organisation, and you influence the culture in the wider organisation.

Of course, the company is going to have values, set at the top level: values, goals, vision, mission, strategy, and you should use those to drive the culture within your own teams. But I’ve been really, really clear with my teams [on] how I want us to operate within the walls of my organisation. But then, that then filters out to other people. And it’s all about respect and collaboration, and no-blame culture, and fun, and learning, and innovation.

You know, these are all the words that I use every single time we have any kind of town hall, all-hands meetings, where we pull everybody together. And it’s what I use on a regular basis with my management team as well. These things sit deep inside me, right at the heart of my values. And so for me, that culture is definitely something that you as a leader, or an individual, as a leader should be driving.

Zoe: And those are all values that I recognised, from working within technology for so long. I think a lot of things you said, like fun, or no-blame, you can see how that’s valuable for everyone in a workplace. But I think for technology, it’s kind of non-negotiable. You cannot get the level of output that you need, and the level of creative thinking that you need from technologists, without these values as bedrock.

Georgina: I agree. And I think a lot of people don’t understand that. It’s hard work, OK? This stuff doesn’t just happen, you really do have to work at it. And if I see toxic behaviour… everybody in my organisation currently, and where I’ve worked before, knows that if they identify toxic behaviour, they can reach out to me, and I will get involved, and I will do something about it immediately. Because it can take months and months and months to build a culture; it can take weeks to destroy it. And it happens so quickly. So quickly. You know, one or two toxic people will spread badness throughout the organisation really, really quickly.

And when you start looking at work, remote versus office, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, is the culture better if you’re all in the same place?

Is it better if you’re remote? Is it hybrid? You know, what is it? And some of these behaviours, I think both the positive and the negative, work across all environments.

If you’ve got a toxic person, they will find the people at the coffee machine that they can go and have a moan at. They’ll find the people online that they can talk to and have a moan at, and that’s the same with positivity as well. If you join a meeting and you’re positive about it, or if somebody says something in a meeting that requires support, and you give them that support, then it doesn’t matter whether it’s virtual or whether it’s in-person, it’s the behaviour that you demonstrate…

Zoe: What a positive note to end on. Could I just ask you to maybe share… Have you got maybe three top tips you would say for dealing with your team, or dealing with other stakeholders?

Georgina: Open, honest and transparent. That is me through and through. I tell people that constantly and that is the behaviour that I absolutely live by and demonstrate. Sometimes I think maybe that causes me to be naïve, because I like to think that other people are always like that, and they’re not.

So from a top tip point of view, don’t always think that everybody is going to be like you, sadly. You will know already that I’m a very positive person. And I don’t like to think bad of anybody and I don’t like to think negative. But the reality is that you do need to be eyes-wide-open. So treat people like you want to be treated and hope for the best.

Zoe: That’s fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Georgina. I really appreciate you coming on and helping us to shine a light for others.

Georgina: Thank you. It was great. I really enjoyed it.

[music]

ENDS

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