Meet the CIO who’s challenging everything her organisation knew about successful IT teams

Bringing over 15 years’ experience in corporate product management and business transformation to Imperial College London, Jenny Rae is looking to shake up the status quo in IT and higher education. As both the organisation’s first female CIO and a passionate advocate for product-led delivery models, she is leading the way to change and building a digital roadmap that will transform its technology infrastructure and enable the university to support world-leading research and teaching well into the future.

What inspired your passion for business and technology?

In the third year of my business degree, I went on an industry placement at Microsoft, and that was the first time that I really saw the impact that technology could have on business and the value it could bring. That was the catalyst for my interest, and since then, throughout my career, I’ve always operated as a kind of bridge between technology and business teams in companies including BT and Vodafone. I’m interested in how we bring these worlds together to work as one in an organisation, as opposed to business and IT teams historically working very separately and both just throwing stuff over a wall at each other rather than collaborating.

What are the key differences between corporate and higher education approaches to technology infrastructure?

The approach to technology depends on the company, but I have found it’s always driven by what’s ingrained culturally. A lot of higher education (HE) establishments are older organisations and often have siloed ways of working. One of the big things across the HE sector now is trying to break that down, and support teams to work together in more natural ways. The biggest difference between corporate and HE for me is the sense of purpose and mission. People here are genuinely changing the world and bringing new things to it, and we are helping to support that with technology.

You became CIO in 2023. How important is it to see more diversity in senior technology positions to build a sector that is fit for the future?

It is so important to learn from women who have trodden the path before you. This is why organisations such as everywoman are vital, because the more we can amplify female talent across the industry and get role models out there, the more that the young women coming through can recognise that tech could be a career for them. When I first put myself forward to be the interim CIO at Imperial, women came up and told me how excited they would be to have a female CIO. That was probably the trigger for me to start really appreciating the impact my actions can have on other people in this area. Diversity in teams and leadership is key to being able to deliver value and obviously, gender is just one part of that. Imperial is a great organisation from the point of view of being very conscious about actively continuing to promote diversity across the workforce. 

What values have you built your career on, and how do they inform your role now as CIO?

One of the values that has driven my career is being straightforward. I will always try to say things in a simple way and be really clear about the outcome. This is because when you’re trying to join up business and technology functions, the best way to do it is by speaking a common language. Another focus that has always been important to me is excellence, and for me that means making a positive impact and being able to leave things in a better place through your work.

How are you using collaboration as a building block for Imperial’s digital strategy?

When you’re starting out in your career, it can be very much about what you do and what you’re delivering. But as you go through your career, and particularly if you take more managerial responsibilities, collaboration and how you work as a team is the key to success. That’s another value that has long been ingrained in me. It doesn’t mean everyone is always happy but that’s fine, because sometimes you won’t agree. But if you collaborate properly, you can get through that to make a positive impact.  When I first came to Imperial as Director of Digital Products in 2022, one of my biggest goals was to implement a product-based way of working and that is 100 percent about collaboration.

How is a product delivery model changing the way that technology infrastructure can deliver value and support Imperial’s work?

In a classic IT project model structure, teams come together to do something, disband, then come together again for something else and so on, and they won’t always be linked to an overall vision of what an organisation is trying to do. What I’ve often seen in the corporate world is that the IT team and the rest of a business can have totally different views of what they’re doing. A product-based delivery model means that we can use cross-functional teams who focus on meeting joint outcomes together, with roadmaps of what we’re trying to achieve which help us to prioritise. We keep teams together so they build knowledge and experience and always understand the bigger vision that they’re working towards, something that can be transformative in terms of delivering value. Importantly, at Imperial, our digital plan is not standalone it forms part of our organisational strategy.

How do you use your leadership as a foundation to this more agile way of working?

You are only as good as your team, so I spend at least 50 percent of my time with them. I put my trust in them and make sure we’re all clear on outcomes and what we’re aiming to achieve together, and I draw a lot of confidence from them in return. At Imperial, I’ve tried to flatten the hierarchy and be transparent with the team so that if there are problems people can come and talk to me, and that’s not seen as a bad thing. I don’t have an office and I don’t want one. Instead, I sit with the team and move around the office, deliberately picking different desks every week. With that comes a level of approachability; I see people and can have a chat and they will share their ideas or flag issues being experienced. This helps keep me connected as well, so it works both ways

How important is it to learn to fail to build success?

Iterative delivery and discovery work are also at the heart of this approach. For me this means regularly releasing value to the business. Traditionally, IT teams go away for 12-18 months to do something and then deliver it. But the world moves on and that work could be obsolete by the time it comes to be launched. If you have a clear roadmap and you’re regularly releasing value, you can see the impact in real time and pivot if you need to. I’d rather do a couple of sprints and realise: ‘This is amazing’, or ‘This isn’t working’. People often say, ‘fail fast’, but maybe ‘learn fast’ is more fitting. Something very aligned with the ethos of higher education is recognising the need to learn and discover. We know we have an outcome, and we may have a few different ways we could reach it, so let’s do some discovery, because sometimes we’re not even too sure what problem we’re actually trying to solve or what’s going on for the user here. That’s a real mindset shift.

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