This Sussex Life: Jason Oliver, Director of IT. "I’ve had a year of turning over all the rocks.”
Jason Oliver, the University of Sussex’s Director of IT, talks about the progress he’s made since arriving last September – and the joy of his garden tractor.
Almost every activity we undertake, both in our professional and personal lives, is underpinned by technology. It’s not meant to make me sound like an egomaniac, but I love having the ability to influence the success of institutions and see how I can make people’s lives easier. For me, the IT is the least important part. It’s understanding the challenges that people face and then contemplating how technology can support them that I’m passionate about.
There’s a lot to do here. When I was leading IT at the Royal Opera House, and then the Science Museum Group, I knew immediately what I had to do and how long it would take. I left both institutions after around three years, feeling as though I had completely delivered what I had intended to do, which was to turn them from analogue to digital organisations. At the end of my first week at Sussex, I sat the ITS leadership down and said this was a seven-year piece of work. Nothing has happened to change my view.
I’ve had a year of turning over all the rocks. It’s been a year of discovery. There has been a historic lack of love towards our IT infrastructure, and a disparity between what our students want and need to thrive in their academic and personal endeavours. So year one is about discovery. Years two, three and four are about relaying the foundations. And years five, six and seven are about starting to add value and set us apart in the sector.
I am from a proper working-class family in Essex. I grew up in a rough part of town. But I’ve always had a strong work ethic. At 15 was working in a restaurant. By 17 I was running it. I probably learned more from working in that industry that I use today than from anywhere else in my career. I learned about customer service, about dealing with people, about handling money, and the importance of reputation.
I studied criminology at Lincoln University the first year it opened. I was 21 and at the time I was working at Ford in Dagenham. But I had a row with someone and I’d walked out. It was during clearing, so I thought I would go to university. My mum said I couldn’t as I didn’t have any A levels. That was true. I hadn’t got on with sixth form college. But I phoned up Lincoln and talked them into giving me an unconditional offer. Within a month I was there. I loved it. I’d always been able to write and I learned that university is as much about being able to write effectively and construct an argument as anything else. I got a 2:1. Probably could have got a first if I had applied myself properly. I’ve changed a lot over the years!
I went from there to the Home Office, then I took a job in a non-departmental public body and my first task was to do an exit strategy for an IT contract. I did it so successfully that the Board asked if I could build an IT department. Twenty years later I’m still in that field. I never wanted to be a lawyer. I really enjoyed the cut and thrust of negotiation, but case law just didn’t do it for me.
I can’t write a line of code to save my life. I’m not a techie. But I understand the principles, the concepts and how it hangs together. I describe myself foremost as a director of the University. My portfolio happens to be IT, but I will also be commenting on estates, marketing, finance, HR, academic … all sorts. I will insert myself into all those conversations. I am the Professional Services lead for sustainability. I am also a trustee of Sussex Estates and Facilities, and I am working with an external company to look at our project management. My role might say IT but the reality is far more varied.
A priority for me has been understanding my team and changing the culture. When I arrived, I noticed that there was a real silo mentality and teams didn’t mix with each other. But a few months ago I saw that people from different teams were at each other’s desks, talking to each other. They were socialising and coming together to work. That’s an achievement.
My ambition knows no bounds. That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek but I am ambitious for us to be the best we can be. We have big projects that involve replacing all of our networks, wired and wireless. What we currently don’t do is provide our students with the right tools to be able to work unless they are at one of our fixed terminals on campus. Giving them access to software for their own devices will be transformative. Then you can reimagine cluster spaces where we currently have computer terminals.
A Sussex student should be able to work as effectively on a beach in Barbados as on our physical campus. We have ambitions over the next four years to quadruple the amount of Online Distance Learning offers. We will always be constrained by the size of our campus for the number of physical bodies, but never by ODL. It’s an opportunity for us to grow significantly.
I moved from Essex after there was a stabbing outside my daughter’s school. My wife and I decided we couldn’t live there anymore. We now live in a little village in East Sussex. We have a big back garden, where I enjoy driving my tractor and watching the kids on their quad-bikes. I have a side gate onto the Cuckoo Trail, where I walk my dog. We get buzzards and pheasants in the garden. It couldn’t be more peaceful – and different!
I am generally at work by 7.30am and I leave about 5pm. I have dinner with the kids, and then at 8pm, when they go to sleep, I am back online doing the papers for the following day – or my wife and I sit and watch a TV programme. I am often online until 11pm, three or four nights of the week. But I love what I do. It’s a part of me. It’s what gives me fulfilment.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.