Ian W, Head of Platform (Infrastructure & Security), Cambridge
My career journey within Cambridge University Press & Assessment has run in parallel with the organisation’s technology journey. I first joined 12 years ago in what you might call conventional systems administration and operations work. Over time, I had the opportunity to work more closely with our development teams. I found that helping to build and run new products was a more creative and impactful use of my skillset.
At that point, I moved across to our Academic publishing group and switched my focus to directly supporting the organisation’s goal of distributing information and learning across the world. I was there from the start of the development of Cambridge Core, our primary publishing platform.
If you want to read an e-book or article we publish, you can view or download it online on Core. It looks like a website, but in fact it runs as a complex set of systems that interact behind the scenes. Digital content pipelines have to be managed so that the original text is converted to different forms and then it must be uploaded to our AWS cloud platform. There are fascinating challenges involved in running a world-class digital publishing platform - you need a high-functioning search engine, for example, when you host almost three million journal articles.
One of the most satisfying aspects of working here in technology is the democratic approach to engineering. I always feel comfortable that I can basically bring in anything I think has value to my peers and say “what do you think?”. Early on, I suggested that we automate everything – and the organisation took that idea on board and has stuck with it ever since.
The creation of our Engage product is the perfect illustration of the collaborative way we work in Technology. Engage is a preprint server, which allows academics to publish their papers online before peer review and official publication.
We set ourselves six months to build it. It was ultimately born out of a really fast, free flowing exchange of ideas with my peers. I can recall two afternoons of whiteboarding with a few of my colleagues as we drew out a concept, then had a passionate debate about the ins and outs. Then we backed away briefly, before returning to re-draw it, debate some more and come up with what we thought would work. It only took us three months to have it ready for testing - and it did indeed work as intended.
What this shows is that Technology at Cambridge is very much about the power of your working relationships and the trust between colleagues. I enjoy playing with the technology and I've got quite a lot of freedom to do that in my role. However, it is the personal relationships that drive me, and I know a lot of colleagues feel the same way.
We prefer lightweight processes, which means that different tech groups can essentially find their own best ways of working. I like the fact that Technology is an open, collegiate environment, without a strong sense of hierarchy. What you really notice is the intellectual curiosity of the people. This is the kind of place where you can end up in a conversation about something completely random and colleagues will have really interesting views on the most obscure subjects.