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Interview: SkyCity CIO Mike Clarke

01 Nov 2011

It takes good timing, attention to detail and a dedicated team to run the IT behind a company that is open around the clock, every day of the year. But Mike Clarke, chief information officer at SkyCity Entertainment Group, insists the challenges are also what makes his job fun.

He was appointed as CIO for SkyCity in July 2008 after a few months as a consultant for the company."It was an enormous opportunity to take on a very interesting and challenging job,” Clarke says.

While he thinks the core of his current job is similar to his previous management roles, the main difference at this job is the 24/7 nature of the operation. The hotels and casinos never close, and operating in such an environment poses some very real challenges.

"Doing maintenance or system upgrades is like trying to take the wheels off a moving car. Every change has to be planned meticulously to make the operations run smoothly and with absolute minimal disruption. It’s a great intellectual challenge.

"As opposed to other companies I have worked with, where a planned outage would typically be outside normal office hours, here we will often have to do it in the middle of the day, which is the most quiet time in the operation of our business sections."The nature of our company means that senior IT staff have to be "on” all the time. There are always people at work or on call, and in an emergency I am always contactable. We need to have coverage at all times, but through it all, I find it important to make sure staff can find a reasonable balance,” he says.

Changing structures

The structure for the IT department has been changed during Clarke’s time as leader. Initially he structured the staff in two main groups: those who deal with "today” – the maintenance of existing systems; and those who deal with "tomorrow” – system developments.

But he has now grown this into a different business structure, with three main groups. There is a group that tends to "the business of IT”: maintaining the existing systems. Another group works on systems improvals: leveraging investments from a business perspective. And finally a group deals with new capabilities: translating future needs into systems.

Clarke explains that the work is practically structured in a circular model of processes, through the phases of planning, delivering, managing and operating. In this way, he says, a request can be placed at the right phase and can be tracked as it moves through the system.Keeping staff up to date is a constant journey for the company.

One of the initiatives, Clarke says the team has introduced, is getting business managers from different parts of the organisation to explain their parts of the business and its needs to the IT department.

Cross-skilling is also highlighted, and the IT department has held "Lunch and Learn” sessions, where IT staff with different specialisations share their knowledge.

"The aim is not to make everyone experts in everything, but to get them to understand their colleagues, so they can work better together. Alongside formal training and development programmes, such initiatives help build a culture where people are always learning,” he says.

His IT department is constantly measuring itself on what the business thinks of its work. Ongoing surveys allow everyone in the organisation to rate their impression of the work of the IT department."We have scored really high, and most recently 90% of the respondents rated us 10 out of 10. I give credit to my team for that result, and it means that what we do is working.”

Projects under way

Clarke says SkyCity always has IT projects under way. Over the past years the infrastructure has been rebuilt to follow modern best practises. The company is now using virtualised platforms, in the same way as many other businesses. While SkyCity was a late adopter of virtualisation, Clarke says the implementation was completed quickly, and has given the business more agility.

A main focus over the past years has been on improvements to the customer related systems. The hotel system and the car park system have both been upgraded, so they now support an advanced loyalty system with real-time functionality.

The gaming system in the casinos is also getting an overhaul, but this is a more lengthy process, as the sector is heavily regulated, and all changes need approval from the authorities. Changes to the user interface to give a better customer experience are being rolled out, and is expected to be completed early next year.

There are still developments in the pipeline. In particular, the new developments around SkyCity’s Auckland complex, with new restaurants and entertainment outlets, have kept the IT department busy. They have been installing and testing new Point of Sale systems along with sound and audio visual systems and HDTV systems have been installed to increase the customer experience.

Internally in the organisation, changes have also increased the user experience. For example, the rostering system has been upgraded, so staff can now access their rosters online from home.

Despite all the changes and upgrades, with frequent use of new technology, Clarke says it’s important to avoid "gold plating”."We will not implement new technology just for the sake of new ‘toys’. There always has to be a business value.”

The role of the CIO

When it comes to the CIO role in today’s business world, Clarke says it is changing and becoming increasingly multi-faceted. Even though he says his position with SkyCity is very business focused, he stresses the importance of finding a balance between technical insight and business focus."If you don’t have a good understanding of the technology as well as of the business side of things, then you become simply a facilitator or a ‘super user’ – instead of being a participant in the executive processes,” Clarke says.

He sees the general challenge for a CIO as ensuring you deliver value. It is not just about keeping down cost and keeping the lights on, he insists, but about truly understanding the business you are in.

"I am very passionate about customer service – towards the external customers, but also towards the internal customers, your colleagues in the company. To be able to provide that excellent customer experience, you can’t just sit and wait for them to come and tell you what they need; you have to learn about their part of the business.

"The industry has had a reputation for being big spenders, which was largely brought about by the Year 2000 scenarios. It is up to the CIO community to bring that perception to an end by always asking if an improvement is really needed. We have to learn to do more with less.”