There may be times, during lockdown, when Victoria Higgin could be forgiven for regretting her career choice.
Don’t get me wrong – she evidently loves her job – but her role as Chief Information Officer at Highways England (HE) means she can’t feign ignorance whenever the domestic Wi-Fi plays up, or a technical issue impacts her daughters’ remote learning.
But despite her current status as a one-woman IT help desk at home, Higgin is not one to complain. On the contrary, her sunny disposition instantly dispels any January gloom and, one suspects, is hugely valued by her fast-growing team at HE, the government company which manages and improves England’s motorways and major A-roads.
The rapid growth in the number of IT colleagues is emblematic of the increased reliance on digital across the organisation. Since Higgin started work there in September 2019, her IT leadership team has grown from four to 11 – including its first-ever Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) – and there will soon be a full complement ready to help spearhead HE’s evolving agenda.
“Coming in to the role, the mandate from the CEO was very much about looking at what the organisation needs to deliver, especially from a technical capability perspective,” recalls Higgin. “My remit is information technology, operational technology, digital and data – and I couldn’t do that through just four people in the leadership team.”
Now, in addition to the CISO role, there are new individuals in place to oversee areas such as IT infrastructure and platforms, operations, digital labs, planning, strategy and performance and business partnering. “So, overall, we’re quite a big team but one that is very much needed if we are to deliver against all of our priorities,” she says.
Up and running
Higgin is no transport lifer – before joining HE, she spent over 21 years at multinational electricity and gas utility company National Grid. She believes that having spent about half of her career in tech and the other half in business has left her ideally placed to thrive in her current role.
“It’s given me a really good view of what the organisation needed coming in and has also let me be something of a translator,” she explains. “So if I am looking at some technology I can talk about the potential impact and benefits on the business and vice versa, all in plain English.”
Her experience in utilities has also proven helpful. “Utilities is also engineering and asset management based and so it’s similar in terms of the types of work and the values culture,” she says. “And that’s what landed well – working with people who have got a sense of duty to the UK, rather than be fuelled by making money. There is something different in an organisation where there is this sense of duty and purpose and this is very important to me.”
“That’s what landed well – working with people who have got a sense of duty to the UK, rather than be fuelled by making money. There is something different in an organisation where there is this sense of duty and purpose and this is very important to me”
Victoria Higgin, CIO, Highways England
She goes on to say that her immediate priorities were centred on bringing different strands of IT together as one, building on what was already there to develop greater in-house expertise. “Some of this was about getting closer to different parts of the business, and some was about moving us from being very supplier-led,” she says. “I’ve never worked in government before but coming in to an arms-length body, and working with other government agencies, has been about moving the intelligence in-house and being a master of our own destiny.”
Dialling up digital
HE enjoys, of course, a long heritage of civil engineering, but now its increased focus on digital could be seen as akin to two worlds colliding. A good example of this is its digital roads agenda.
“Looking at the digital roads agenda and the kind of disruption this involves, and with our contractors or partners within our civil engineering, there is real change going on there,” says Higgin. “For me there is a lot of disruption not only in the way they are being built and constructed, but also the way we run our networks, as well as the way we talk to our customers. We’ve built our digital roads agenda very much around digital for our customers, digital construction and digital operations.”
Underpinning this shift, she believes is the increasing sense that in the digital age no organisation can afford to stand still. “It’s been proven time and again that if companies ignore digital then they become less relevant and will do their business harm,” she says. “Increasingly, the people who I am working with are recognising this but are unsure where they should start, so this comes to us by leading the conversation from within the IT function.”
“It’s been proven time and again that if companies ignore digital then they become less relevant and will do their business harm”
Victoria Higgin, CIO, Highways England
The shift towards digital also heralds implications for digital literacy levels and capabilities not only in the IT team but across the whole organisation. The good news is that she believes any nervousness about more automation is limited and people are more likely to embrace, rather than recoil from, increased technological involvement in their roles.
“I’ve got to say that a lot of people are very happy to be involved in IT and take ownership,” she reflects. “There is never an IT system I will implement without having the right business sponsor in place and there’s no shortage of people wanting to be part of it. When looking at digital literacy itself, it is probably more about the user base being comfortable with using some of those digital technologies, and also being comfortable about when they need to step back as well. Putting too much in is as bad as not having enough in the first place, so it is also about backing the right horses.”
The innovation game
As part of her role, Higgin has also noted the use of Agile when it comes to HE’s approach to project management. With waterfall delivery enjoying longstanding prevalence across civil engineering, she concedes that Agile has yet to take firm root when it comes to HE’s tech delivery. “Agile is certainly something we need to be focusing on – we’re just setting up some basics at the moment, there’s pockets of it but it’s not pure Agile across the system yet.”
However, she is also keen to stress that the organisation is by no means averse to new approaches, citing a recent leadership meeting to illustrate her point. “We talked about failing and scaling,” she recalls, “and everyone understood it – they got the message that you don’t have to spend big money on innovation.”
“Sometimes you put some seed money in and a project will fail and so you have to know when to stop it and learn from it, but some of it will scale and when it does it will go into a bigger programme delivery machine and be scaled in a normal programme delivery way. Everyone was quite comfortable with the concept that it will either fail or scale. But it’s also important to decide what you are going to fail or scale as well. A multi million pound programme of work to replace a very strategic system is obviously something where failure needs to be avoided.”
Of course, becoming more digital also carries greater risk from a cyber security perspective. Higgin admits that there will be increased vulnerabilities – all the more reason, then, to plan ahead.
“The more technologies implemented, the bigger the threat vector. So it is common sense to build in cyber security by design, rather than trying to back fix it in afterwards”
Victoria Higgin, CIO, Highways England
“The more technologies are implemented, the bigger the threat vector,” she concedes. “So it is common sense to build in cyber security by design, rather than trying to back fix it in afterwards. And with other elements with regards to cyber security, if you look at the digital roads agenda in the future we may not be building big gantries with signs anymore and instead messages will be sent direct to your car, or via autonomous vehicles. This is the point where cyber security and safety meet and again, this needs to be done by design as well.”
Higgin’s reference to autonomous vehicles indicates how they are becoming an increasingly visible aspect of the organisation’s strategy, much the same as electric vehicles. “They are all inter-related,” she says firmly. “The less we have to build, the better that is for the environment, and the digital agenda and the net zero agenda work hand in hand.”
This involves facilitating their wider deployment by ensuring there are sufficient numbers of appropriate charging points across the road network, but it also involves their use of data, the way it is used and provided to drivers.
“We have a lot of data about road closures, incidents and road works; how do we use it to make sure that we are giving the right information to customers either via phone, API’s or straight into their car? And I just feel there is this big inter-related piece around net zero emissions, electrification and reducing infrastructure – all being underpinned by digital and data.”
The road ahead
While it is clear that Higgin will be spending much of her time helping shape this new digital reality, she will be doing so while increasingly surrounded by fellow women leaders – something that is far from normal in the tech industry.
“Several executives here are women, she says, including the HR director and the CFO; so I was joining an organisation which already had females on deck, and we have three female non-executive directors as well which is wonderful,” she says. “This makes you feel different when going into a board meeting. So from a board and executive level we are well represented, even though there is of course always room for more.”
Within the IT directorate, too, women are becoming better represented. “In my leadership team, when I came in there was one female and since then I have appointed three more women within my recruitment drive, so we have five now, including myself, additionally we have BAME individuals and a good age range,” she says.
“I just think it gives you different viewpoints, the strength you glean from having different backgrounds and the ability to look problems through different facets. If I didn’t get the right slate of candidates to consider than I just kept looking. Diversity makes a massive difference to the ways in which we operate and behave and so I feel quite proud that I’ve helped make a real difference to the leadership team.”
Higgin has been speaking to me from her home office near Warwick – an all too familiar scene for her since the pandemic started. However, despite the challenges of no longer seeing colleagues in person, she admits to being surprised by the ease with which the organisation has pivoted to remote working.
“If we’d shut up shop and stopped building systems and maintaining roads then we would have put a lot of people in our supply chain out of work,” she says. “But we’ve not missed a beat and I never ever imagined that would have been possible. Going forward, my challenge as the CIO is to think about the multi-locational experience, meaning that people can be in the office, can be at home, and what technology can enable us to utilise the facilities we have in the best way possible. It’s now very old school to think that you have to have people in an office all the time.”
“We need to work with the business to help them understand that you have to be constantly refreshing, swapping out and changing the technology to stay evergreen”
Victoria Higgin, CIO, Highways England
But it’s not just about the facilities, encouraging the right mindset also looms large. “In an organisation where you have road assets which last a long time it is quite culturally hard to understand that technology assets don’t last as long,” she says. “So we need to work with the business to help them understand that you have to be constantly refreshing, swapping out and changing the technology to stay evergreen.”
One would think that this myriad of responsibilities would be enough to keep her going but she also casually throws in the fact that she is currently studying for a Master’s Degree in IT. “I got my first degree when I was 27 when I was about seven or eight months pregnant, and I’m currently completing my Master’s,” she says.
“I went to university to study business, not programming but some of the project management roles have been in IT, testing, business partnering. This is very much the space I’ve always been in and have picked it up that way.”
An unconventional route, then, but one that has by no means affected her ascent. The journey continues and Higgin is not about to slow down any time soon – her final destination still awaits.
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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