In conversation with Martyn Wallace

Emily Schilling
by Emily Schilling 13 January 2021

Name: Martyn Wallace

Local Authority: Digital Office Scottish Local Government

Job title: Chief Digital Officer

Time in current role: 4 years 3 months


What was your first job? 

My first ever job was either delivering papers or cutting people's hedges in the local area I grew up in. The paper round actually grew to doing deliveries for a row of local shops and putting up security grills at night. I used to walk home with about £100 a week, which was a lot of money back then! It's all about the hustle, and all about sales, which can be brought into this role. My previous role to this was primarily a consultative sales career, and I've brought elements of it into this role. It's all about building relationships, understanding pain points and challenges, then building solutions in partnership with the customer to get the best outcome. 

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss.

When I was eight years of age, I had a morbid desire to be a pathologist. Sadly, that didn’t happen as I failed higher physics and missed out going to university. I was classed as “musically gifted” and as a back up I had applied to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama as it was known back then) and ended up studying to be a music teacher for two years. Sadly, due to some family circumstances I had to give that up and began working in retail.

My first proper job after leaving school was for Dixons in Glasgow where my love of Technology grew, from there I went to work for Compaq, then left to do contracting work for some software providers and doing ethical hacking, Computacenter, and then onto who I deem as the original smartphone provider “Blackberry” for a few years, then eight years at Telefonica O2 UK which I loved. I took redundancy in 2015, did some consulting and finally moved to where I am today in 2016. 

What are your hobbies/interests?

I have no time for hobbies! No, my main hobby is being the bank of Dad for my “just turned 18” -year-old daughter. I enjoy motorcycling when I can, I used to go to the gym and Krav Maga before lockdown, but that's a distant memory these days – with the way I am currently considering taking up sumo wrestling very shortly, or follow the herd with Soda Bread Making and TikTok Dances. Other things I do - badly, as you can probably tell from this interview – is I've been doing stand-up comedy for the past 2-3 years as well. I've done gigs around the world now - mainly by accident!

What is the best career advice you ever received? 

Good question. Shut up and listen, haha! Well, there's been several bits of good career advice I've had over the years. I think one I had very early on is 'you have two ears and one mouth - use them in the right ratio'. Listening is key to understanding what the problems are, and actively listening, not just listening to get your point across afterwards, but listening and understanding what the person has to say - not just the literal words, but maybe the body language, the tonality and stuff. I've studied neurolinguistic programming, and I'm a qualified hypnotherapist - as you do when you're Chief Digital Officer - so understanding people's movements and how they come across is key to actively listening. 

What has been your greatest career achievement?

HubSpot Video


What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving digital investments in your organisation in the coming year?

So, the majority of big investments are going to be aligned to supporting recovery and renewal in Local Government, Education, Health and Care whilst also improving outcomes in our communities. We were in panic response mode since last February and of course we are currently in a new level of lockdown restrictions, but we are trying to look at how we can release data and use digital solutions to support recovery and renewal activities for our communities - whether that’s an individual or business whilst obviously keeping it all secure.

One of the big programmes we were working on before the pandemic was on Digital Telecare, which is still a priority, and we will continue as we’ve got about two years left before analogue telephone services in the UK get switched over to Digital. This is a massive challenge but also an opportunity for telecare providers to change their services and look at new models for delivery. To support this we have launched a “Digital Telecare Playbook” repository which contains tools and guidance under different pathways including management, cybersecurity, technology, procurement, service design and others.

Has your digital strategy changed since COVID-19? If so, how?

HubSpot Video


What technology priorities will be most significant in driving digital in your housing team in the coming year?

The main priority that the team will be working on in this space in 2021 will be supporting preparation for the upcoming Analogue to Digital Switch over on telephone lines in the next couple of years. The Digital Telecare team work in partnership with Technology Enabled Care (TEC) team in Scottish Government and Scottish Federation of Housing Association (SFHA) already. However, through some additional funding that TEC provided in late 2020 we will have a new business manager in post within the team in February to help liase and further support housing providers across Scotland as we ramp up the urgency on this programme of work.

Last year, after speaking to some of my colleagues in public sector the team and I created the concept of setting up a cross sector data task force to respond to the pandemic which consisted of partners including Local Government, Scottish Government, NHS Scotland, Police Scotland, Academia, COSLA and 3rd Sector. In 5 days, we created a business case, model, and got the partners signed up to look at common or emerging community challenges we could collaborate on using our data to solve. This was handed back to Scottish Government to co-ordinate and run which its still doing today and has seen several Proof Of Concepts we created be scaled up to help with national response including using housing sector data too. Therefore, I would expect this work to continue in 2021 and beyond as we continue to look at improving outcomes for our citizens using data and service (re)design.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two?

Yes, leading a digital transformation is critical in terms of the role of CDO. There is a business efficiency, and also customer experience to consider but both have to be balanced hand in hand. You have to look at your customer and understand what matters to them or what they really need. Don’t make assumptions, speak to them and involve them in your service design to really create a solution that fits their problem, not on cost cutting. The efficiency will come from freeing up something else in the process, whether that’s manual intervention, speeding up the process, preventative spend and releasing data that can be used to continually improve either the process or the outcome for the customer.

Without customers, you have no business as many learned back in the .com explosion 20+ years ago. Uber was created by looking at better efficiency and experience of a customer hailing a taxi, it wasn't 'build a platform, and they'll come'. The same can be said with Amazon. It's about understanding the customer and the customer's problem. Then you can work out how you access the data and the technology to supply the customer with the best experience possible.  Kind of goes back to a principal I've been talking about since I came into this role 4 years ago, it should be “Human by default, Technology by design” not the other way around.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold, or should the role have additional responsibilities it doesn’t currently include?

I think CIO/CDO/CTO roles are all similar in terms of the outcomes you're expecting of the individuals. All business transformation today is digital. If you have a digital strategy that's not lined up to the business strategy, then you're going to fail. You need to have the business transformation supported with digital at the heart of that. It's not about 'I’ve got a cloud strategy, now how am I going to change the business', it's about understanding what the customer (including your internal customers) want and needs, their pain points and their expectation of you, then how do you support that with technology.

If a business wants to really properly transform then its vital that doing business with technology is considered a strategic priority. Technology is no longer an add-on or back office function as it was a few years back. If you put the infrastructure onto the cloud then you can you spend more time looking at how you build new services on top of it , adapting to customer needs quicker, releasing key data that you and the business need to help make more informed decisions, and flex up and down when the business requires it.

We have seen a massive boom in quick deployments of cloud-based collaboration services during the pandemic, such as Microsoft Teams to help business stay connected internally. If we had this pandemic 20 years or dare I say 10 years ago without cloud, smart phones and fast mobile and broadband networks, how would our businesses have coped?

Maybe a few years back it was different with IT reporting to another department, but it's different now. 

IT is still seen as a commodity, as a corporate business function rather than the heart of the business. Your IT digital function has to be a supporting pillar or heart for the business transformation, and that's only going to be achieved by understanding what the customer needs using data and insights. Fundamentally, business transformation can fall into three data buckets; to understand the past (data on previous transaction or interactions), understand the present (real-time data coming from stats and data inputs in the business and interactions through apps or IoT devices), and anticipate the future (using AI and data analytics to predict who, what, where the customer will be or what they will want or need from you). 

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it?

HubSpot Video


What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate being) the most difficult to fill?

Challenges for skills depends on what sector you're in. For the public sector in Scotland we've got a big push for Scottish Approach to Service Design. It goes back to putting the customer at the heart of everything you do and working out the real problem to solve. User researchers, business analysts, technical architects, data architects, cybersecurity roles are always hard to come by. Potentially looking at coders in some instances too. It's systemic, it's not about education not necessarily being ready and fit to develop these skills in schools, (of course there is always more we can do) but from what I have seen in my own personal network it’s the parents.

When we look at skills and career paths, if you've come from a middle-class background its more than likely you'll be looking at supporting your child to look at careers in medicine, law or finance, as that’s possibly what you have done so you understand that world, and its “safe”. The disruption that the digital and data economy has caused over the last few years is massive, we will see a lot of jobs being supported with automation, its still relatively “new-ish” and it's higher risk, so as you want to do what's best for your child and you want to protect them, you may support them going down a “traditional” career path rather than really embracing the opportunities that the Digital World could bring. The world has changed and will fundamentally change post-pandemic as we have seen the way we conduct business be turned on its head due to office closures and restrictions so those with digital skills will be needed more than ever

From a personal point of view my daughter wanted to be a mermaid aged 4, then a lawyer after watching Legally Blonde, then into politics after watching Nicola Sturgeon become Scotland’s first minister. Then she wanted to go into “digital” as her mum and I met each other in that field and continue to work in it. However, as she was looking for University next year she is considering Business or HR to help set some grounding before potentially doing something Post Grad digitally -whatever that may look like in 4-5 years.

There's a change in terms of the skills required and the new working world out there, but as individuals, we need to put it in the hands of our children to enthuse them about transferable skills will help them throughout their life and there is no wrong path for a career.

Describe the maturity of your digital strategy? For example, do you have KPI’s to quantify the value of technology?

We've got a service we offer to councils on digital maturity within our strategy, and so far taken 18 councils through the process. We looked at and amalgamated different approaches and insight from the likes of Gartner, Deloittes and personal experience, and through consultation with councils to create the model and process. The maturity assessment gives a final score between 1-5 which is based on interviews and data gathering on leadership, skills, culture and innovation within the organisation. As the Digital Office works across all 32 local authorities, we are then able to assist with gaps or faster acceleration of an individual council by sharing best practice and insight from others whilst also identifying items that might aid others during the process.

We've set out in our strategy and our benefits that we'll be responsible for. We've got a small core team where we work with individual councils who are at different stages of their digital transformation journey. We can produce documentation, tools, collateral, plans, products, and it is then up to the council to realise the benefits of them. We can give them pointers of what benefits we believe they're going to realise by doing this - but it's up to them see how it will impact their business. 

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently?

Anybody going for an interview in 2015, when asked 'where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?' never would have expected to be working like this - under crazy time pressures and working with multiple screens during a pandemic. There's no point in having any regrets; you are where you are, it's not about the situation you're in but the situation you put yourself in. 

I'm happy where I've got to in my career. It's been a long hard slog at times, but I am where I am, and I'm happy - if I wasn't happy, I'd move onto another role. 

In hindsight, I don't think I'd ever cut it as a music teacher, and I don't think pathology would have been right for my personality anyway as I do enjoy talking to people, haha!

What advice would you give to aspiring technology leaders in local authorities?

HubSpot Video


First principal to work from him “human by default, technology by design” not the other way around, start with the customer, what is their problem, what is their challenge? Whether it is social, economic, health, what is it you want to solve? How do you get the data out of that problem to make more reformed choices? Whether you're the individual or a provider of services. Start with the customer in mind, and really understand their problem - not your assumption of their problem. Get some user research, speak to the customer to really understand their problem, their life and their challenges. Then you can look at what data and what services you can use to solve that problem. Then you can build a technical stack around it.

The technical stack has to be built on cloud, mobile and data first. More people access the internet via mobile apps, but don't assume that everybody has a mobile phone, or a mobile phone that has a data plan. It's really looking at basic data and basic technology to reach them. Text messages might do to get a message across, and they're cheap, which provide a whole benefit to the individual user who is getting access to the service. 

Also be conscious and ask yourself as you using technical jargon when speaking to the business? Don’t assume that the other person you are talking to has a clue what you are talking about or has the same insight into technology as you do . Keep it simple.

Topics: Digital Transformation, Chief Digital Officer, local authorities, Driving Digital, local government