The flipside of Alistair Vickers' business card features a rugby ball -- and a reminder how MetService plays a role in the victory of the All Blacks at a final game at Eden Park."

"All Blacks strategy hangs on last-minute MetService weather briefings," it reads. "Direction of play, kicking style, sprig length, territory or possession? Can't claim 'full-credit'. Honoured to be selected."

No wonder Vickers, CIO of MetService, has a ready smile each time he hands over his business card.

A cursory look at the card also reveals another one-off -- he is also CIO of MetraWeather, the offshore company of MetService.

Across New Zealand, MetService is the weather authority, delivering the official forecasts and warnings 24x7, 365 days a year. But overseas, it is known as MetraWeather, a major provider of innovative weather information services for a range of organisations.

Its customers vary across markets and geographies, and range from energy operators, hydropower operators, retailers and network managers, television stations, print media and mobile communications operators.

 

"Our forecast for New Zealand is exceedingly accurate, to the minute," says Vickers. "We can also provide this type of forecast for absolutely anywhere in the world."

Related: MetService is in the quintessential information business.

Balancing act

"MetService is a unique balance for being a fully commercial operation with provision of second to none public weather services," says Vickers. "We try to be game changing -- and be agile."

He explains MetService does a lot more than meteorological services and their challenges are around supporting a global business, meeting and delivering to customer needs, managing a rapidly changing environment and controlling IT spend to maximise value to the business.

Its counterparts across the globe will have different business models, but they also compete on certain fronts. The UK meteorological office, for instance, is largely government funded but has commercial contracts as well. So MetraWeather competes in the UK weather market, as well as private weather companies, some of which are funded by venture capitalists.

In the United States, the National and Atmospheric Administration gives away its data. Therefore, any developer can take the American model and present it for free, which is why people can download many weather apps on iTunes.

Being able to cost model your investments, capex, opex, what is the return on investment, the weighted average cost of capital, are really important as the bottom layers of IT become more productised.

The problem with this is the data is not always accurate, he says. Last Christmas, for instance, the Accuweather site predicted thunderstorms for Wellington when it was a "beautiful 35 degree sunny day" in the capital.

"Where MetService is different," says Vickers, "is we take other people's models, put our smarts both from our meteorologists and also from scientists, and bring these together."

MetService is a state owned enterprise, but does not get government funding. "I can't go to the government minister and say, can we have a supercomputer? "Everything needs to be justifiable, so we have to provide a business case if we want more investment," he says and this proposal goes to the board.

"Everything is very, very commercial," he says. "So in some respect, we are more like a small private company than a government agency."

It is a model that impacts the way the information services team works across the organisation.

MetService has around 240 people across the globe, of which about 180 are based in New Zealand. Its international offices are in the United Kingdom, Sydney and Hong Kong. The service desk, which runs in three shifts, is based in Wellington. The role of the CIO and the role of technology in MetService has grown and changed quite a lot over the years, says Vickers.

"The analogy I use for my group is a town planning perspective," he says. "The architects decide with the business whether we want roads or trains or something else and where to build; whether it is a two-lane road or a 10-lane road.

"Then the infrastructure team builds the roads, with servers and storage and networking and everything. The application support team keeps the roads open."

Taking on the hat of an entrepreneurial CIO is a critical part of his job at the state owned enterprise. Recently, he and CEO Peter Lennox went to Europe to meet with a number of companies they are doing business with, including the BBC.

MetService provides weather information that can impact operations and decisions both in the corporate and consumer markets. For example, one of its subscribers is a local photographer who needs to know whether it will be a good day to schedule a photo shoot. There are also food manufacturing and consumer companies that need to know when will be the first "barbeque weekend" in summer so they can stock up on related consumables like sausages and steak.

In the pipeline with their development and product teams are several new and enhancement of products that can be supplied 'as a service' across the globe. One of these is Weatherscape, software package that can be used in different ways by television companies. A television station, for instance, can personalise the programme by assigning a weather presentor, as all information, including graphics, are provided by MetraWeather.

Related:How entrepreneurial IT leaders can impact revenue

These commercial services mean the IT team is also becoming "product focused". The service desk has moved out of IT and now report to the general manager of communications. "They are in the front line of the business," explains Vickers. "That way we have a consistent message across the public and our customers."

Latecomer to IT

Alistair Vickers has been CIO for nearly three years, moving to this role after a year-and-a-half as IS operations and support manager.

He manages an information services group of 20 people who are assigned into two teams -- architects and IT operations.

Vickers says working in ICT was not his original career plan. "I was a latecomer to IT," he says, during an interview at the MetService headquarters in Wellington. He had wanted to join the army or be a diplomat, but instead trained to be a teacher, and taught geography and French in his native United Kingdom.

But this was actually a small slice of the slew of roles he took later on. "I have probably done a hundred different jobs in my life," he says, smiling. "I have been a jackeroo (worker) in a cattle station in the Northern territory of Australia, I directed fashion shows, I have been a builder...I worked in a bookshop in Paris, ran a second hard record store in Notting Hill Gate."

He was working as a risk analyst for Schroders in London when a friend told him about a master's degree in information services at Brighton University. This was in the 1990s when the view was IT experts "weren't very good communicators", says Vickers. The course was essentially training technology people to be IT managers, CIOs or senior project or programme managers.

While merchant banking was an exciting place to work, he says it did not meet his career expectations, so he enrolled in the course. The degree led him to a job as a network engineer with Nortel. "I was one of the 20,000 they hired in 2000 and was one of 30,000 people offered redundancy in 2001," he says.

During this time, he met his Kiwi wife, Amanda, a veterinarian, who was working on the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK. They moved to New Zealand in 2003.

While looking for a permanent IT job, Vickers sent out CVs to a range of organisations, and helped out with the Green Party. Thus, he found himself in an "enviable position", with three job offers - an assistant to an MP for the Green Party, an analyst with the Department of Corrections and senior operations analyst with the Ministry of Health.

He took the third job, partly because they had offered to pay for him to do a master of business administration, which he completed at the Victoria University of Wellington.

Whilst doing his MBA, Vickers changed his job four times, moved house four times, and had two children. When the health ministry had a restructuring, he offered to take redundancy in 2005.

He had a brieft stint as a solutions architect at the Wellington City Council and joined Gemtech as a project manager. He worked on the hardware refresh at Meridian, before joining the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, or Plunket, as IT manager. In the three years he was with Plunket, the largest provider of support services for children under five, Vickers grew the IT manager role. When he left, his title was IS and business intelligence manager. His team worked on digitising the work environment for nurses, and in enhancing its disaster recovery capability, and also led the insourcing of the technology platform being used by the nurses.

While at Plunket, he was one of the founders of the forum for CIOs in not for profit organisations.

These days, Vickers is involved in another industry forum, composed of CIOs in the transport sector, whose members include Kiwirail, The NZ Transport Agency, Civil Aviation Authority and Auckland Transport.

Government forum

The office of the Government CIO has identified transport as the first sector to push for more shared services.

In the next few months, the forum will identify the best way to put in place a raft of shared services and determine the structure, framework and guidelines for potentially transport sector CIO role. Vickers says the group is also looking at similar initiatives in other countries like the transport group in London.

Vickers says MetService has offered to take the lead as the provider of the after-hours service desk because it has a 24x7 service desk serving its international customers. "We can use our service desk as a first point of contact."

"The beautiful thing about MetService is everyone wants to know what is happening now, what is about to happen."

"MetService is a unique balance for being a fully commercial operation with provision of second to none public weather services," says Alistair Vickers. "We try to be game changing -- and be agile."

He says they keep the historical data for research and for organisations like insurance companies that will need this type of information. "But the focus is on what is coming."

The meteorologists want to do more and more work on the massive data from their systems. "We haven't got the capability in this building to do more," he says. "Realistically, we need to look at hosting externally be it on cloud or third party data centre."

At the moment, he says, MetService is using Amazon cloud for a number of their products and services. Its backup sites and failover sites are hosted in the Sydney region, including some of their DR capabilities, documentation and wiki.

Related: Non-public cloud users at 'competitive disadvantage'

The whole paradigm of cloud computing as a service kind of model is quite challenging for more traditional IT operations people, he says. "It is about control of assets which is less important now. I think cloud computing provides a huge opportunity to grow capability."

As Vickers took on more executive roles, he found the finance background provided by his MBA very useful. He finished his MBA when he was with Plunket, and with hindsight would have wanted to have taken the course concurrently during his time as CIO.

He plans to go back and do a refresher course on the topic. "That understanding of finance is really important as CIO," he says.

Related:Should tech pros get an MBA?

Related:Driving for change

"Actually being able to cost model your investments, capex, opex, what is the return on investment, the weighted average cost of capital," he says, "all these things are really important as the bottom layers of IT become more productised.

"You cannot just say I need product XYZ and if we don't get it, the business will fail. You need to actually put a cost around it, into the language of finance.

"One of the challenges of working in a small organisation is there is no difference in a day to day job between strategy and operations," says Vickers on his overarching roles. "You are in between strategy and operations. They just become intertwined."

It comes down to time management.

"Everything is important," he says, and at the end of the day it is about "putting priority to the work that best supports the business". 

Follow Divina Paredes on Twitter: @divinap

Follow CIO New Zealand on Twitter:@cio_nz