CIO interview: Sean Green, University of East Anglia

Sean Green’s career has gone a full circle from IT through marketing, back to IT at his local university, where he is now heading up IT.

Before taking up what he describes as a “pretty rounded CIO role”, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Green had been on a journey through different sectors and a number of diverse roles, which all began with a masters in IT at the University of Warwick.

After graduating, Green started his working life as a trainee graduate at British Gas, where he received IT training. During this early part of his career, he took on various analyst programming roles across the IT sector, working with technologies such as SQL and Oracle.

But it was after he joined Churchill Insurance, which was a startup at the time, as one of the company’s first 50 employees that his career reached a major turning point.

He joined the insurance company in an IT role but then moved into marketing within the business: “I know this sounds strange, but that is the type of company it was – creative.” In this role, Green was writing and developing business cases for new insurance products.

Green said he embarked on a “fully blown” marketing career, before he was given another opportunity at insurance giant Aviva in the late 1990s, which pushed him back towards IT. He became the company’s first customer marketing manager and was involved in building a marketing database of 15 million customers to support customer retention, cross selling and providing insights. This led Green to work as programme manager on a data warehousing project at the insurance company, where he found himself back in the IT department. “By that time, I had done a full circle,” he says.

After leaving Aviva, Green became self-employed doing project management roles on IT projects in the financial services sector, before stepping into the outsourcing sector as IT manager at Pearson Government Solutions, working on a managed contract with Southwark Council.

He says his work with Southwark Council gave him “a taste for working in the public sector”, and he remained in the sector with contracting roles at various councils in London and his home county Norfolk.

But Green felt it was time to get back into a permanent role and he landed a role at The London Borough of Tower Hamlets, before leaving to run an IT shared service for the City of London Corporation and the City of London Police, where he spent over five years.

At the time, he lived in Norfolk and so was communicating and staying over in London. When a job came up nearer home, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), his head was turned. “It is a very prestigious university and one close to my heart because I live in Norwich and use its facilities, such as its sports park, as a customer,” he says.

He took on the role at a time when the university, like many institutions in the sector, is experiencing financial challenges. UEA recently revealed a budget deficit of £30m for 2023-2024, which is expected to rise to £45m in three years’ time. The university blames the combined effects of Covid, the tuition fee freeze, pressures on student numbers and rising costs.

The natural response would be that this doesn’t spell out a good time for someone trying to get investment in IT. However, Green says that rather than cutting its IT investments, the university has identified IT as a means of riding the current storm and coming out the other side stronger. The university is willing to “drive creativity and use digital technology to solve problems”, he says, adding that this is what gets him up in the morning.

The demands of a small town

The CIO role at the UEA includes heading up all the data, IT and information compliance functions. It was just over a year ago when he began work at the university, which has round 17,000 students, 4,000 staff and a large estate, which all require IT support from its team of around 200 IT staff.

The UEA site is set across more than 300 acres and includes two datacentres. “It is like a small town, so you could imagine the amount of demands we get,” says Green. The campus includes cafes, a sports centre, halls of residence, and an art gallery, all of which requires IT.

Green says it is the most challenging job he’s had in IT because of the diversity of its technology needs: “You are managing the IT for a small town in terms of geography, and managing a mixed community.”

He’s had a busy first year. In his time at the university, Green has completed its data and digital technology strategy while being in the middle of creating the operating model for his department. He is also programme director of the university’s digital transformation, which needs to be completed by July next year.

Green says the digital transformation project covers the whole university. “We are currently working through a number of areas of tech debt, which is seeing us replacing and renewing infrastructure. We are also focused on technology that can support our research community, students and staff,” he adds, with around £20m to be spent on the programme over three years once completed.

One project is seeing the university moving its student information system to a hosted cloud service. “Because it is a core system, there are many integrations with other systems are required, including finance and academic departments” says Green.

The system holds data including information about each student’s courses, attendance, individual needs and payment records. “The student information system is a key platform for students from ‘cradle to grave’,” says Green.

The existing system, which had been in place for 20 years, will be fully replaced in December this year after a 15-month project is completed.

Green says a challenge for large IT projects at the university is timing: “When you are doing heavy lifting of some of these big systems you only have various windows when you can do it. One of our windows is around the summertime. We could have tried to finish it in the summer window, but there was too much risk involved.”

Beyond students, Green said the other important community is the university’s 4,000 staff. To this end, the university is currently investing in the automation of staff processes including the roll-out of Microsoft’s low-code robotics tool Power Apps, which enables developers and nontechnical users to build custom applications for business needs.

“[UEA] is like a small town, so you could imagine the amount of demands we get”

Sean Green, University of East Anglia

“We already have active and eager users of Power Apps in some of our learning and teaching communities, but we want to roll out the skills further. In my experience, the technology is not the hard part – it is culture and skills and buy-in and engagement from staff.”

To encourage staff to use this tool, Green’s team have established communities of excellence and encouraging “citizen developers”. The university is also running a hackathon in the autumn where groups will use the tools available to solve problems such as automating processes.

“We want to do digital skills training with our staff, and the hackathon is something good to get started, it’s exciting,” adds Green.

Power Apps is not the only Microsoft tool the university will harness in its transformation, having decided to be an integrated Microsoft shop that wants to get the best out of Microsoft tools.  

The university is also using core Microsoft AI technology to launch its first IT assistant on its helpdesk. This is a “game changer”, according to Green, adding: “When you contact the helpdesk, the first interaction will be with the chatbot, which will link back to all the knowledge databases we have to help solve the problem. We hope to eventually link it up with automated tools to set things up, which is normally done by tier two of the helpdesk.”

This AI chatbot will first go live in the IT helpdesk, but Green plans to roll it out across other department helpdesks and then onto the university’s website.

“Most of our students don’t want to use the telephone, they would much rather do it online straight away. Everything is done on their smartphones, so this will be a game changer for our customers – the students,” he says.

He adds that he expects 50% of calls to be dealt with at the first point of contact by the chatbot, with the IT helpdesk currently getting around 1,000 calls every week.

Security and the cloud

As with organisations in all sectors, security is a top priority – and for the UEA and other universities, it is a particularly challenging area.

“We have an open campus with lots of buildings and there plenty to protect in terms of physical access points, which is a challenge. We need to balance accessibility with security,” says Green.

He says he receives good support from the university’s leadership team in this regard: “We have just completed the roll-out of multifactor authentication for access to all systems.” This uses an authentication app, or a dongle can be used, and was rolled out in less than 12 months. “Its’s a major change with lots of technical challenges.”

Another area of major planning is going into what can be moved to the cloud. Around 80% of the UEA’s IT is currently on-premise, but Green is putting together a business case for moving to the cloud, utilising his experiences from working at organisations that have moved everything to the cloud.

“When you do a business case for cloud, you have to deploy sensors to get three to four months of data and then you can work out the pricing model to look at affordability and how you would configure in terms of different contracts,” he says.

A study of sustainability

Green’s planning does not end there. Despite the challenges he faces, he finds time to do his own studies in a subject close to his heart – sustainability. He is completing a masters in strategic sustainability management at the University of Derby. “I am very passionate about sustainability and how I can bring the ideas into the world of IT,” he says.

This study will also help his work at the university. “We are currently running a £100m campus development programme to refresh 1960s buildings. This is a great opportunity [introducing] sustainability,” adds Green.

It is also the perfect time to create a smart campus model – the university will soon pilot internet of things (IoT) and integrate campus management systems., and is about to start work on transforming its network.

But perhaps the most rewarding part of Green’s job comes in managing IT for the university’s research departments, which includes taking charge of high-performance computing. He has a dedicated team supporting this and is about to invest £1m in upgrading high-performance computers.

“My view of my role is that I am not only educating thousands of the next generation who will do great things, but I am also contributing to world-changing research on things like climate change and biodiversity. Contributing to these is really meaningful,” says Green. 


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