Shaped by a working class upbringing, young fatherhood and a long-standing interest in technology, first-time CIO Paul Smith discusses his career journey, what drives people change and how his teams are supporting human rights activism at Amnesty International.
Almost two years into his first CIO position, Amnesty International’s Paul Smith is mulling his north star. Did he always cast an eye towards the top job, or was his career journey a series of events, by design, fate or fortune?
“I didn't know what a CIO was in the early part of my career,” he tells HotTopics. “I just knew I wanted to get the top job, earn the most money and make the decisions. And that translated into, ‘I think I can change the way this organisation operates through technology and information’.
“I guess there was an underlying thing of wanting to test myself. What difference could I make, if I really put my nose to the grindstone?”
Upbringing and young fatherhood
Smith’s route to becoming a senior technology executive has not been straightforward, not least in an industry where research has shown that employees from working-class backgrounds account for just 19 percent of individuals in the UK tech industry, compared to 33 percent across other industries.
Growing up in a council estate in the Black Country, in the West Midlands of England, Smith would spend his evenings and weekends helping his father, a mechanic, and would go onto take workshop, cleaning and valeting jobs at an early age. He had dreams of becoming an RAF air force pilot, inspired by Tom Cruise’s flamboyant Maverick in Top Gun, aspirations which would soon lead him into an early foray into the defence sector.
A future career in technology was not initially on his radar. Smith never studied in IT school or college, and university was not an option, primarily on account of cost.
At 19, having become a parent for the first time, Smith would turn his attention to how he could turn his love of gaming, fostered through a love of the ZX Spectrum 48k and Commodore VIC-20, into a viable career.
“I wanted to make sure I did right by the kids,” he said. “It's about the example you want to set, to show you’re a good father figure...but there was also an itch to scratch too; because if I am spending 40 to 50 hours a week in a role, I wanted to make a difference.”
A CIO’s career journey – and how to drive people change
Having studied science at college, Smith would go on to take a part-time HNC course in computing.
This led to his first role in IT at G3, a private UK defence contractor for the UK’s Ministry of Defense (MoD), before moving onto the parent organisation, IAP Worldwide Services, where he covered contingency operations, global operations and logistics.
“It was a fantastic baptism [of fire], which exposed me to some unique experiences internationally, specifically in the Middle East,” said Smith.
Later, he would join life-saving charity RNLI as Head of Information Technology, before becoming Head of Digital and Technology Futures.
In February 2022, through the tail-end of the Covid-19 pandemic, he became a first-time CIO at Amnesty International, the UK-headquartered human rights organisation supporting more than 100 million people in 150 countries. It’s a role in which, today, he oversees information management and technology teams.
“When I joined, half of the team was new in role, or vacant. So I had a rebuild job to do,” he said, emphasising it was about ‘getting back to basics’, focusing on professionalism, improving the operational core, talent attraction and, perhaps crucially, getting people on-board with change.
He says this is particularly true at Amnesty International.
“We're working in the backdrop in which technology provides perpetual change, in terms of risk and opportunity. You need to get people to understand that that is the context they're working in – it's never one-and-done.
“And it's an arms race, in terms of capability or competitive advantage. Technology is the enabler, and sometimes the instigator, of that.”
Smith further remarked that this would often bring change fatigue, with his experience, over time, teaching him that information technology is ultimately about the impact it has on people's working lives.
“You have to start talking in the sense of, ‘what's in it for you?’,” he said, of conveying technological change to colleagues and peers.
“Is your work represented in what we're working on? Do we understand your pains and your fears? What is it that would cause you to resist that change?
“It’s about starting to bring to light, and build in design practices where they believe it's done by them for them, not done to them.”
As an example of this perception change, Amnesty International’s cybersecurity awareness campaigns are geared around teaching employees life skills that they apply in and outside the workplace. Tech literacy is driven by an IT engagement manager leading on a number of initiatives, from one-to-one and group training to sharing tech trend videos, all to be ‘user centred at heart’.
“You have got to zero target on the benefits. Not the deliverable, but the outcome; the thing that's going to be different,” said Smith.
“And then the sustainability of it, because I see so many organisations deliver really good benefits that fall flat within six or five months,” he added, referencing change fatigue, change management issues and process failures as typical blockers.
Leadership adaptability and improvement
Smith says he was fast-tracked for leadership at G3, but as someone who ‘wants to progress’ has sought to develop in a number of ways, from studying for an MBA to being mentored by business leaders outside IT, such as human resources.
For this CIO, the nature of change means technology leaders themselves must be comfortable enough to do the same, particularly those who identify as introverts.
“You have to learn to not be an introvert, to be comfortable talking to people, receiving feedback, taking people through a change, managing emotions and performance management conversations, to grow your capability – even if you can’t grow in terms of resource,” he said.
“That's a learned skill. That's not something you're born with. You have to learn the techniques, what works and personalise it to the individual, to the audience you're speaking to. Experience is the only way to get that,” he said.
Studying for an MBA helped him grow professionally, but also gain confidence that he could push himself harder.
“When I started doing the MBA, I started to develop a sense of wanting to test myself.
if I put the extra two hours in on this paper, what mark could really get? And I found that it just crept into other areas of my life.”
Amnesty International CIO’s 2024 priorities
Smith says Amnesty International is an ‘information management organisation at its core’, producing insight and action, and it’s here he’s responsible for the information and technology teams: Infosec, IT operations, service desk, tech engagement, business systems, enterprise architecture and portfolio management.
Looking ahead, the Amnesty International CIO is focused on global information management, the digital transformation of HR, research and evidence management processes, maturing the information and governance practices and ‘becoming better SMEs’ to the wider organisation.
Talent is a concern in the face of bigger salaries being offered by blue chip companies, so too the realisation that the non-profit, through its activism and objective reporting, can upset powerful nation-states.
Cybersecurity, a key investment priority for the year ahead, is a key concern in the face of threat actors experimenting with everything from social engineering attacks to zero-day exploits.
“We're operating in an environment where we've got to increasingly manage disruption — positive or negative events in the technology space that need a response,” he said.
“That could be new technologies, such as generative AI, it could mean product life cycles…or consumer or customer innovation that requires looking at, to identify; do we care about this or not? What does it mean to us? Do we need to respond?”
“Just keeping up with all those potential triggers can be hard.”
Quick Fire Questions
Dream job growing up? RAF Fighter Pilot — the film “Top Gun” worked on me.
What keeps you up at night? Information (Cyber) Security. We are a non-profit needing to be aware of and respond to very real state-level threats.
What excites you about the next 12 months? The opportunity for continued change for good and my ability to play a real and lasting part in that to move the needle for Amnesty. I have a fantastic team around me (both in IT and more broadly in the organisation) and I am energised and motivated by the great work that they deliver.
What do you do outside of work? Most of my time is spent being a husband, father and grandfather. However outside of my substantive ‘day job’ I do serve as an advisor/ on a number of advisory boards which I really do enjoy as they bring me additional perspectives.
Best advice you’ve ever received? Have balance and make time for ‘life’. Recharging is important. You only have one life and it passes quickly so ensure you spend a bit of time in it and with those closest to you.
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