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Simon Jones

Head of IT, EC English Language Centres

The Malta Communications Authority (MCA), which falls under the Parliamentary Secretariat for Financial Services, Digital Economy and Innovation within the Office of the Prime Minister, and is responsible for overseeing the eCommerce sector in Malta and for the Malta Cloud Forum, had the pleasure of collaborating with EC English to develop this Trust in Cloud story. The interview was carried out by Joseph Seychell, Manager IT and Technologies at the MCA, and Simon Jones, Head of IT at EC English Language Centres.

Jones describes EC as a ‘globally recognized and trusted brand’, with more than 20 schools across 5 different countries. Thus, technology - more specifically Cloud technology - is an indispensable, invaluable tool for companies such as EC, whose aim is to succeed as a global community. In fact, Jones noted that EC moved onto the Cloud in its relatively early days back in 2009, setting up a private hybrid Cloud in a UK data centre. This not only owes to the company’s reliance on the Cloud for efficient and effective communication and collaboration with third parties and staff members themselves, but also due to the fact that EC operates across different continents with different time-zones. Hence, Infrastructure as a Service is entailed in order for the day-to-day operations to carry on incessantly in the absence of human resource. Moreover, Jones emphasised that in order for a company to be competitive in an industry that is ever-changing, offering superior services while managing the internal operations in the smoothest manner is imperative; and the Cloud is the key enabler. 

When asked how best to achieve trust in Cloud, Jones highlighted that the company follows a due diligence process according to the use of the service, ensuring that industry security and best practice are adhered to. With regard to Shadow IT, Jones stressed that despite the fact that it is unavoidable, EC’s IT team ensures that it can draw on a wide portfolio of sanctioned services to help meet the employees’ needs. Moreover, in order to verify that a potential Cloud service is high quality prior to putting it to use, Jones stressed that EC conducts extensive research with particular emphasis on case studies, and everything is tried and tested for further evaluation and in-depth analysis.

Given the importance of the Cloud within the company, Jones stressed that ensuring that staff members are well-equipped to operate on the Cloud is fundamental. However, Jones claimed that this has never proven to be a challenge for EC as all IT-related procurement is presented as a Business Case to the ‘C Level’ Executive Group before being approved. When asked whether Cloud certifications are given extra credit, Jones claimed that whilst this is not required when employing new IT staff, he admittedly stated that added weight is given to individuals with a solid background in Cloud Computing. 

Jones concluded that the Cloud, specifically Software as a Service, also proved to be a priceless device to help the company comply with GDPR, allowing it to govern, protect and monitor data effectively. 

The MCA thanks EC English for their collaboration in this Trust in Cloud story, and is proud to present the company’s interesting journey onto the Cloud along with Mr Simon Jones’ role as the lead of EC’s Global IT Infrastructure & Services Teams to Eurocloud.

In conversation with Simon Jones, Head of IT at EC English Language Centres

Please introduce yourself. 

My name is Simon Jones and I am the Head of IT at EC English Language Centres.

Please describe your area of responsibility.

I lead EC’s Global IT Infrastructure & Services Teams, responsible for designing, provisioning, maintaining and supporting the company’s core Information Systems. 

Please describe the company you work for.

EC is a globally recognized and trusted brand with over 20 schools in 5 different countries. This year our 1200-plus staff will help about 40,000 students from over 120 countries to learn and improve their English language skills. Our mission is to “Help students succeed in a global community”. To achieve this mission, we depend on a diverse team of talented people from all over the world. Our cultural diversity, solid teamwork and passion for what we do have shaped our schools and offices into unique and empowering working environments. Technology is what enables these environments to work as one.  

Why do you think that Cloud computing can or will play an important role for your company?

Cloud computing is in our DNA. This isn’t just a catch line, and to understand why, we need to examine a couple of facts. 

First, we operate a number of relatively small centres straddling three continents and six time-zones. Using Infrastructure as a Service we can configure our servers to be Highly Available and Elastic. High Availability means that we can offer a 99.99% uptime SLA and Elastic Computing means that we can scale our server resources, and therefore our costs, based on actual use. Since our people work in different time zones, we only need computing resources to handle all of our staff for four or five hours a day. The rest of the time we can scale down the resources available to our servers thus cutting costs.  

Second, both our staff and our client demographic are young, dynamic and aspiring to ‘succeed in a Global community’. We depend on Cloud based technologies to communicate and collaborate both internally, amongst ourselves, as well as externally, with our partners and students. As an additional bonus, we get to pass on our knowledge and tried and tested skills to our students. How better to prepare them for success in a Global community?  

In what ways do you deal with Cloud computing in your occupation?

Cloud Computing is a fact of 21st century life. Over the years most of us have built up a toolbox containing the services we use to communicate and collaborate with family and friends. The tools in this box may include Gmail, Skype, Facebook, Spotify, iCloud, etc. I believe that for any company to compete for and attract talent, and then keep its people engaged, it has to provide comparable, if possible superior, services while managing things like branding, compliance, information leaks, Service Level Agreements, etc. Cloud computing, in particular Software as a Service, has evolved to meet these diverse needs and hence it is my job to understand the available technologies and how to derive maximum benefit from them. 

Have you already developed a cloud strategy describing your company’s basic path in to the Cloud in the coming three years? If yes, what is your strategy?

We adopted a Cloud strategy very early on. In 2009 we set up a private hybrid Cloud in a UK data centre. This enabled us to make our newly redeveloped in-house ERP available across all Centres. In 2012 we experimented with Exchange Online hosted at a Central European Microsoft Partner before migrating to Office 365 as soon as it became available to Maltese companies. 

What Cloud, if any, is already in use at your company?

In 2015, we migrated our core internal systems from the UK data centre to Microsoft Azure IaaS followed soon after by our external facing systems to Azure PaaS. We now host all our Global IT Systems in the Cloud.

We partnered with Microsoft early on, well before Cloud Technologies went mainstream. our development teams based in Malta, Brighton and Kiev collaborate using Visual Studio Team Services. Our Web development Team also utilise PaaS apps, databases and other services. In addition we also use a plethora of other Cloud hosted technologies such as Bitdefender GravityZone Endpoint Security, ServiceDesk Plus OnDemand, Cisco Meraki Cloud Managed Security Appliances and Mesh WiFi and various Talent and Performance Management Systems.  

How do you handle the many concerns voiced in regard to the Cloud? How do you achieve Trust in Cloud?

Trust is the key word. We contract industry leading, trusted brands and then only after following a due diligence process relevant to the use we shall be making of the service. Most companies offer Service Level Agreements which in addition to governing availability of systems, also cover compliance with specified standards when properly set up and configured. At the end of the day, the buck stops with the IT Team and we make sure we always follow, and keep up to date with, industry security and availability best practices.   

How do you ensure that your individual departments know which aspects of Cloud computing are allowed or forbidden?

Shadow IT is fact of life in the modern workspace. The way we handle it at EC is simple in principal but can be a challenge in practice. We firmly believe that in the absence of a security or compliance related reason to disallow a particular service, the only way to keep Shadow IT in check is to make sure that the IT team can draw on a wide portfolio of sanctioned services to help meet our employees’ needs. 

How do you ensure that your employees have the necessary knowledge to handle a complex sourcing arrangement like Cloud computing (selection, contract, SLA management)?

Because of our relatively small size, this isn’t an issue we have had to face as all IT procurement has to be approved following the presentation of a Business Case to our ‘C Level’ Executive Group.  

What qualifications do you think a new IT employee needs in order to meet future IT and specialist requirements, particularly in regard to Cloud computing? What kind of people and skills are you looking for?

While the qualifications we look for are dependant on the role, we do give added weight to any Cloud specific certifications. We are firm believers that our people are what make EC special and therefore give as much importance to values, aptitudes and soft skills as we do to technical qualifications.  

How do you verify the quality of potential Cloud service before putting it to use?

Again, due diligence. We start by researching the service extensively, with particular emphasis on case studies. In some cases, we have reached out to companies we know are already availing themselves of the service for comment.  Next, we set up a demo with the service provider for a more in-depth look. Finally, we take out a trial account (one of the advantages of Cloud Services) and evaluate further, where possible involving all internal and external stakeholders.

Trends / developments: What general future trends in Cloud computing do you expect – in technical as well as organizational terms?

I expect Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data to grow exponentially. As companies generate more and more data, AI will help us understand and derive benefit from it. On the other hand, more and more of the data we collect is of a personal nature and how we handle it must meet current and evolving legislation. AI also has a role to play here with Intrusion Prevention and Detection Systems helping us stay one step ahead of the bad guys trying to get their hands on it. 

Has the Cloud helped or hindered your company’s approach to GDPR compliance?

The Cloud, specifically Software as a Service has proven to be an invaluable tool to help us comply with the GDPR. Office 365 allows us to govern (by setting policies and retention rules), protect (by setting up DLP policies to prevent accidental sharing of personal data) & monitor (via a number of dashboards) our data as well as to respond to requests as they come via a GDPR Dashboard which, out of the box, allows us to create ‘Data Subject Requests’ or DSRs. When anyone invokes their ‘right to be forgotten’, we simply enter the data subject’s full name into a DSR and our cloud service will run a search for the name on all mailboxes together with SharePoint and OneDrive repositories. Of course, for this to work as expected, all your data has to be stored in the Cloud but even this is made easy by the sheer number of tools provided to help you migrate.

What

The intention is to motivate decision makers to examine possible solutions, build up their own know-how and conduct test runs. This way, unwarranted blockades can be broken down and an atmosphere of competent and critical discussion established. In other words: Motivating reports by trailblazers persuade other decision makers to relinquish uncritical “no-go” positions.

The ECE Stream “Trust in Cloud” introduces cloud customers and their strategies and experiences with cloud migration projects. This serves to allow other organizations to learn from these experiences. Some of the cases focus on companies at the beginning of their migration projects, while others illustrate the successes achieved and experiences made.

All TiC stories follow a strict principle in that they are not marketing stories; no advertising for any products or businesses is allowed. The essential information is the experience that others can learn from.