Globally, the number of children living in poverty has increased 15 percent during the pandemic. In this interview, Andy Rhodes, CIO of UNICEF USA, discusses how IT enables a mission that is more urgent than ever.
Steve Rovniak: Please tell us about your current role.
Andy Rhodes: I am the CIO at UNICEF USA and have been here for two and a half years. I was given the opportunity to lead the organization’s digital transformation and create modern data- and digital-driven experiences for our donors, supporters and staff with the goal of creating an agile and collaborative workforce that delivers the best possible outcomes for kids around the world.
How are you achieving that?
We’ve adopted a secure/cloud/mobile philosophy and have been systematically replacing all of our core business functions and legacy applications with cloud-based systems that are securely available from any location and any device. At the same time, we are modifying business operations and processes to take full advantage of the technology. Additionally, we are making data ubiquitous and transparent so that leaders can make informed and fact-based decisions.
We are about two-thirds through that journey, and it has served us very, very well during this pandemic. The completed work has enabled the organization to operate in a full remote fashion since early March.
What is UNICEF USA?
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) works in more than 190 countries and territories and over the past 70 years has helped save millions of children’s lives by providing health care and immunizations, safe water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more. UNICEF USA is UNICEF’s presence in the United States. We work to support UNICEF’s global mission through fundraising, advocacy and education.
When did the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic appear on UNICEF USA’s radar, and how did it respond?
UNICEF was among the first to respond to the pandemic in China, providing needed equipment and supplies. Our teams were also mobilized to support Italy and Spain, so we knew from early on that this was serious and had the potential to impact communities around the world.
In response, we began to deploy content to raise awareness of the plight of children in this pandemic and to mobilize our resources to help. Children are often the forgotten victims but they are critically impacted. For example, a recent analysis shows the number of children living in poverty has soared to 1.2 billion due to the pandemic - a 15 percent increase in just 6 months! UNICEF is on the ground working every day to ensure that every child has access to food, water, education and sanitation.
Internally, we made the decision to close our headquarters and nine regional offices in early March. We first focused on making sure that our staff and their families were safe and comfortable and had what they needed to stay that way. Then we made sure they had the tools they needed to continue working on behalf of the children who needed us more than ever.
Did you have a disaster recovery/business continuity plan to turn to?
We did and that gave us a good starting point. But we hadn’t had the chance to update the plan to reflect the operational changes driven by the new technology, and certainly the plan hadn’t contemplated a disaster of this magnitude and duration.
For example, we had created a secure remote computing environment with most core systems moved to the Cloud that was accessible from any device and location. And that served us well in the first few weeks of our work-from-home mode. But as we began to see this as a long-duration event, we had to revisit those processes that required manual steps that had typically been initiated within the office.
Additionally, while we supported a controlled BYOD policy for occasional use that many staff had taken up, as time wore on we realized that folks working from home and on their own devices wasn’t sustainable long term, as in many cases those computers would need to be shared with children attending school online or by spouses also working from home. Moreover, they were now working on home networks whose security we could not control.
As quickly as we could, we purchased and distributed new laptops and now everyone has been outfitted with a secure company-managed laptop.
What came next?
We continued to revisit ways that we could support our staff. We knew that working from home was going to create significant challenges, especially for parents and family caregivers. We wanted to provide our people all the support that they needed in order to be able to manage their lives and continue to deliver results for kids.
There is a material difference when you work for a mission-driven organization like UNICEF USA. It has been inspirational to watch how every single person in this organization has continued to find ways to do the work they need to do under extraordinary circumstances. The reality is that we have to keep working. The kids that we serve have never needed us more. And to be successful, we have to make sure that we're okay, so that we're able to do the work that we do to help those kids.
How were your IT operations affected?
First, we mandated daily team standups to make sure that our staff was OK and to ensure that in the chaos of the transition we weren’t dropping balls. We also had to face the real possibility, unfortunately, that someone may get sick and be unable to do their job for a period of time; or that somebody in their household could get sick, and they'd have to provide the care.
To prepare for that, we created a support matrix three levels deep. For the most part we already had identified primary and secondary responsibilities, but in some cases the work was not fully documented or cross trained. We closed those gaps and added a third level of support in case we needed to go that far. We continued to cross-train all three levels in both our everyday, keep-the-lights-on functions and in our ongoing key projects.
This created some comfort with the IT staff, knowing that there would be backup for them should they need to miss work. It also gave the organization a great deal of confidence that through this level of contingency planning we would be able to keep our work moving forward.
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Though it is not yet fully implemented, has your cloud-first strategy made things easier?
Yes, without a doubt. Continuity in a disaster was one of the many reasons we committed fully to our cloud journey. While we didn't anticipate a pandemic, we knew that with offices in major cities, normal business may be interrupted from time to time. Our headquarters are in New York City, and we had gone through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, which also made it impossible for people to get to the office at the time, so those past experiences influenced our plans.
That must generate some satisfaction, despite the unfortunate circumstances.
It has provided a lot of confirmation that the cloud strategy was the right one, and that the hard work that it required, all the changes, were totally worth it. We've heard from our business partners that they're so thankful that we did this because they're able to do their jobs close to how they were doing them prior to March. We have a couple of pieces yet to go with our cloud migration, and I am positive that no one would question the importance of completing the job.
What is your focus as you look forward?
In the middle of the pandemic, thanks to our incredibly dedicated staff and implementation partners, we completed the migration to a new cloud ERP system and a new cloud Digital Marketing Platform. Both of these were well underway when the pandemic started. By continuing to optimize our processes to fully leverage those two platforms and by completing our transformation, we'll come out of this even stronger and more efficient, and able impact even more kids’ lives.
Secondly, we’ve been planning for the time when we do have the opportunity to come back to the office. While we haven’t set a specific date, we have already begun to implement changes. It's going to be a scenario where folks are not going to be able to work in close quarters so we’re making modifications to technology, processes and workspaces to support a safe and comfortable return for our staff.
What do you think will be different?
Clearly, we will be in an environment where we will have to closely monitor and manage personal space and safety and allow for proper social distancing. Fortunately, the tools we recently put in place will enable people to work from wherever they feel comfortable and collaborate whether they are sitting six feet or 3,000 miles apart.
Looking back, what do you wish you had in place that you didn't before all this started?
A crystal ball would have been nice. In all seriousness, it would have been easier if we had an updated business continuity plan, but the fact that we had already moved most of our systems to the Cloud enabled us to pivot quickly and continue to deliver results for kids.
Having said that, now that we are over seven months into this crisis and a have a view into the future of work, we will pull out and update our operating documentation and business continuity plans and commit to doing a tabletop exercise every year.
What lasting impacts will this crisis have on the way UNICEF USA interacts with donors and society?
Fortunately, one of the components of our transformation was the indexing of engagement very heavily towards digital. Nothing replaces a one-to-one meeting with a major donor or one of our supporters or partners, but we have seen that the relationships that we have built can be managed well digitally. So, I think we'll see that we're able to maintain those relationships like we did before, but more through digital means.
Can you provide an example?
We have launched a new digital “Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF” experience in time for the 70th Anniversary of this iconic American tradition. This year’s program is comprised of interactive digital experiences while teaching children the importance of giving back.
Throughout the month of October, kids and adults across the US are able to continue to add purpose to Halloween by collecting donations for UNICEF virtually. We have created a digital experience at www.trickortreatforunicef.org where folks can create a Virtual Collection Box with a customized link and QR code, which will allow them to collect donations online and count them up as they receive them.
What has managing through this crisis taught you about your role as an IT leader?
I've always believed that the most important tools a CIO has are their relationships with business partners, vendors and staff. That's something that I learned very early on from my career mentors. It has served me well during this time of crisis, because it's helped people trust in the decisions that I needed to make very quickly.
In addition, my relationship with my team has allowed me to have great trust in their ability to do the right things to keep the organization running, regardless of the difficulty of circumstances, and to trust them to give me the information I need, whether it is good news or bad. This team has been outstanding – their commitment is reflected in the fact that we have had zero unplanned downtime thus far.
This experience has also reinforced my belief that, more than ever before, CIOs must be businesspeople. We have to know our business, our markets and our customers as well as our business leaders do in order to be able to support their success. That work is hard and time consuming, but in doing that work, we are able to have very meaningful conversations with our fellow leaders and make rapid decisions when the time comes.