CIO interview: Craig Donald, CIO, The Football Association

Top executives are always on the lookout for leadership best practice. Craig Donald, CIO at The Football Association (The FA), doesn’t have to go far to find inspiration. Just down the corridor at Wembley Stadium are Sarina Wiegman and Gareth Southgate, head coaches of the England women’s and men’s senior football teams.

Donald – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps – isn’t a big fan of football, so he can’t match the finer details of each coach’s management approach to his personal leadership style. What he is dedicated to, however, is developing the right culture, which is something that would resonate with Wiegman, Southgate and any other leader who excels in their field.

“The big focus for me is on culture within the team,” he says. “This is the best job I’ve ever had, even though I’m not a huge football fan. A big part of the enjoyment has been being able to build up the right culture within the technology team and across the organisation.”

Donald explains to Computer Weekly during a wide-ranging interview that he uses a variety of technologies and methodologies, including agile development techniques, to help his team and the administrators and footballers the IT organisation supports, to make the most of digital services.

“My leadership culture is about helping our people to not just focus on the things they have to get done, but to also think about how they get them done,” he says. “Success is about the kind of interactions that you build and the people that you attract into the organisation. And I’m really proud of the team we’ve built and the work we’ve completed.”

Simplifying systems

When Donald last spoke with Computer Weekly in 2019, he said the importance of technology to The FA was rising. His digital transformation efforts were focused on simplification and engagement. As well as the organisation’s most important IT systems, Donald talked about an ongoing shift to on-demand IT and the implementation of the Google Cloud Platform.

“The themes haven’t changed to a large extent,” he says, reflecting back on the past four years. “Simplification was a big thing for us then and it still is now. I wouldn’t say it’s all been going to plan, because that’s the challenging nature of technology transformation programmes, but we’ve been delivering positive results for the organisation over the last few years.”

Back in 2019, Donald mentioned key front-end systems, including the Whole Game System (WGS) and the Player Performance System (PPS). He says WGS, which is a web-based application that’s designed to manage the day-to-day running of a league, including fixtures, results, tables, results and statistics, is now best viewed as a legacy football system.

“That’s very much a burning platform for us,” he says. “When we got to the busy time of the season for grassroots football player registration, we couldn’t have more than 40 or 50 people using the system at one point of time. And when you’re trying to register 1.6 million players, that’s not ideal.”

The solution to that problem is Platform for Football (PFF), which is a modern, mobile-first approach to the administration of the grassroots game. Donald says the implementation of PFF has involved some challenges, particularly when the player registration module of the platform was first introduced to the larger community.

However, the technology is now embedded within the wider game. Rather than the 40 or 50 users who were able to use WGS, PFF can support upwards of 30,000 people simultaneously. Response times for user requests are under a second. What’s more, about 80% of people who use PFF rate the systems as good or very good.

“It’s changed the way our volunteers use technology,” says Donald. “And that was one of the key things we were trying to do – to take away all the painful processes for people who just want to focus on football. PFF is for people who want to get out and watch the game rather than just sitting in front of a computer doing administration.”

Delivering data

Another system that Donald mentioned in 2019 was the Player Performance System (PPS), a cloud-based platform The FA was developing internally to measure the fitness, training and form of players at all levels across England’s various national teams.

The development of that bespoke platform has picked up pace during the past four years. PPS is now part of Helix, which Donald describes as a much broader technological system. Drawing a parallel with enterprise-level technologies in other businesses, he describes Helix as an ERP-like tool for the national game.

“It’s a much more all-encompassing player performance management tool,” he says. “Helix also includes other processes we’ve added in, such as helping to organise camps for the many different England teams. I didn’t realise how many variations of boots, kits and monitoring tools that each player requires.”

Craig Donald

“A big part of the enjoyment [of my job] has been being able to build up the right culture within the technology team and across the organisation”

Craig Donald, The FA

Helix sits on the Google Cloud Platform. As well as its warehouse management capabilities, the system supports staff members as they engage with feeder clubs across England. Donald says it’s crucial The FA continues to develop Helix in a bespoke manner.

“Helix is the one space where we do all the end-to-end development – back end, front end, everything. We see the technology as something that can offer a competitive advantage. If you look at the PFF component, we do also work very closely with a couple of our key partners, including Cognizant and Orion,” he says.

The FA announced the expansion of its digital transformation partnership with Cognizant last year. Under the agreement, the professional services provider supports IT-led change programmes across English football. Donald says his talented team benefits from the support.

“More broadly, I’ve got a team of about 80 IT people in technology and The FA,” he says. “There’s probably another 200 within those two key partners that are doing a lot of the heavy-lifting work behind the scenes to help us build the various processes in PFF.”

Developing a presence

Donald says the continuing focus on technology at The FA means he now runs a “chunky team”. The department has increased in size since he joined the business five and a half years ago, when there were 50 internal IT professionals.

As well as implementing digital services, Donald’s team works on a range of ongoing projects and products. His team maintains Wembley Stadium’s IT infrastructure and platforms. Staff also help set up and run technology software and hardware for the England teams that participate in tournaments around the globe.

“I’ve got people that go out and figure out how we get connectivity into the camps,” he says. “And now, of course, with all the work we do with content, such as Lions’ Den and some of the broadcasts that we do on those camps, there’s lots of people we have to support.”

One high-profile system used in football that doesn’t fall under Donald’s influence is video assistant referee (VAR) technology, which uses footage to help match officials make decisions. “It’s all covered by separate governance teams,” he says, suggesting his IT team looks to apply technological innovations in areas that fall under The FA’s direct influence.

Here, Donald points to other bespoke developments that support the organisation’s digital transformation agenda. The IT team, for example, is helping the business to revamp its educational provision. Inspired by lessons learnt during the coronavirus pandemic, The FA is finding new ways to help players, coaches and officials gain skills.

“We’ve moved away from face-to-face interactions and towards providing more tailored, bite-sized education nuggets online,” he says. “We’re about to go out to tender to help us build a learning-experience platform. The aim is for education to not just be about signing up for a course. It’s about trying to make the lessons more outcomes based.”

Donald also points to Find Football, which is a bespoke platform that helps people locate and play football games in their local area: “The system takes in information from local community hubs, such as opportunities for girls to play football, and tries to serve that up to people in a more manageable way.”

Scoring goals

Donald says the delivery of technology projects at The FA relies on a flexible and iterative development methodology. Under his stewardship, the IT organisation has moved away from waterfall management and towards agile techniques. During the next 24 months, he wants the organisation to adopt a product-based approach to IT.

“And by that, I mean agile thinking – less big-bang approaches and more small, incremental changes,” he says. “During the next 18 months, we’ll have done the big-bang stuff. We’ll have built the solid foundations. Our work in IT will then be about how can we work with the wider organisation to improve our systems in smaller, meaningful ways.”

The FA will finish its current four-year strategic business cycle at the end of this season. Donald says that shift in priorities will give his team the opportunity to focus on new areas, especially once they put out the burning platforms that remain.

“I think you’ll start to see us, with our new strategy, exploring other things that we can do,” he says. You’ll probably see the focus on grassroots changing from administration to how can we support and enable all these big community clubs around the country to excel in what they do. And we’ll be exploring how, as a technology function, we can help.”

As someone who previously led technology for private sector companies, such as EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic, Donald looks back on his five-plus years at The FA with pride. Despite not being a big football fan, he enjoys working for a not-for-profit organisation that has its eyes firmly focused on the goal of helping people play sport.

“It’s a hook I didn’t expect because I’ve always worked for corporate enterprises and I was struggling to understand how I would connect with football,” he says. “But I absolutely have found that hook – and I think most people who work in The FA would probably say something similar, whether they are massive football fans or not.”

By 111 Tech

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