Derek Gannon has a state-of-the-art Apple MacBook Air on his desk when we meet at Guardian News & Media's London offices on the busy Farringdon Road. "I like to play with new things," Gannon says, while agreeing that, like the newspaper group that employs him as chief operating officer, Apple has a brand seen as fashionable, liberal and, some would say, design-led.
It's just as well Gannon likes new things. Since taking up the COO role in November 2006, he has assumed responsibility for production, facilities management and human resources, on top of IT and website services and development for the GNM group that includes media powerhouses The Guardian, The Observer and the GuardianUnlimited family of websites. If that weren't enough, he is also the go-to man for the group's big move (though short in distance) from Farringdon Road to Kings Place, a highlight of the regeneration project in the once-seedy area around London's Kings Cross station.
Not bad for a man who started his career at the group as a systems engineer more than 20 years ago and scaled the greasy pole through IT management before landing his current role. However, Gannon has no truck with the popular notion that the ultimate opportunity for "IT people" stops within the IT function.
"It's still rare but you can go to C-level from IT and take on this extra responsibility because there isn't a company that isn't dependent on technology," he says. "I still go to companies where they talk about the gap between business and IT. I hate that. I've spoken to a few IT directors and asked how often they talk to the commercial side of the business and the answer is that it's when they [the commercial side] want something done. They're not bridging the gap."
OK, but what's the difference between a person who can "bridge the gap" and one who stays in the IT function? "It's mainly people skills," he says. "Without them, IT people are seen as the geeks. I still hear of that geeky reputation but one of the things we did was to hire technology people who could talk to other people. Journalists love to talk and sales people too, so if you have a department here that doesn't want to talk to anyone, you're in trouble. We tried to break down these traditional barriers."
Gannon also points to some portable skills that link IT with a meritocratic career progression. "Problem solving and project management are easily transferable from IT," he says. "The other thing people forget is financial and budgeting skills; in IT, you're always talking to finance and you have an operational budget and a capital budget. But the really important transferable skills are from the fact that you're involved in so many parts of the business. It's a fantastic way to learn about the business. Before becoming COO, I knew how the website was put together, how the papers were put together, and how finance worked. We did a course in finance for non-finance people and I wanted to learn about the financial health of the company. None of it is rocket science."
Gannon's arrival in the COO seat comes as GNM, and indeed the media industry generally, is going through upheaval. "We're in the middle of unprecedented change," he says. "We're moving away from being a traditional UK print title to becoming an international 24/7 operation."
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