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Much-travelled CIO David Ivell is on a mission to help teachers support children with behaviour challenges

"There’s work to keep the IT wheels on but it’s a small part of the role..."

Veteran CIO David Ivell has seen the light: not literally maybe but, like many present-day CxOs, his career has charted a course of working for classic makers of big bucks to organisations that have a progressive bent.

Speaking by phone, Ivell acknowledges that he has over time shifted away from those organisations motivated purely by money but of course it’s more complex than that. He learned his trade consulting at IBM through the 1980s and 1990s before becoming Group CIO at Credit Suisse Private Banking Offshore for a few years spanning the Nineties and Noughties and then taking on interim roles in business transformation.

Then he was onto exciting consumer-friendly organisations including the British Film Institute as movies went from cans to streams, and Kew Gardens with its rich botanical history crying out for digitisation and ways to bring the world of flora and sustainability to new audiences. This was not always a bucolic idyll, the latter spell included being growled at by tigers while sending drones up in the air in Sumatra...

From there, he went to helping disadvantaged young people at the Prince’s Trust, the challenger eco-utility Good Energy and a stint as another sort of CIO, Chief Innovation Officer, at engineering skills development concern Enginuity. Finally, for over two years he has been at Team Teach, more on which later.

Team Teach CIO David Ivell
Team Teach CIO David Ivell

Data for everything

If there is a theme to Ivell’s wide-ranging CV, it may be the faith in data science to turn hunches to auditable, proven insights and to turn the raw material of people, whose life options may have been limited by chance and circumstance, into fulfilment.

At Enginuity, he worked on the development of a Minecraft game where young people who “were unable to show how brilliant they are academically but could show their skills through gameplay” outperformed degree-level engineers. During testing, one young person said: “This is the first time anyone has ever told me I’m good at anything…” And they were, Ivell says, brilliant.

Teaching… and learning

Team Teach is aligned here. The private equity-backed organisation trains teachers to support children with behavioural needs. There is a lot of evidence that “pay and challenging [pupil] behaviour are the two biggest factors that cause teachers to quit”, Ivell says, adding that one way in which Team Teach helps is by providing a journal app for parents and teachers to log their anonymised experiences with children and hence to help Team Teach spot larger patterns.

“We’re using natural language processing to understand data and see what has been tried and what has worked,” Ivell says. As so often in his career, success in large part depends on harnessing and collating the right data and then querying it appropriately.

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Team Teach trains approximately 100,000 UK teachers a year and similar numbers abroad. The new My Family Coach dataset includes the input of about 2,000 parents and over 500 schools but Ivell looks forward to a multiplier effect and dreams of a 200,000-person “ginormous” base platform where data science can be applied, data sets are overlaid and seeming outlier factors are examined.

An outlier example: not many people realise the importance of environmental factors such as windy weather, heat or high pollen counts can have on child behaviour. But collect time stamps with that data and we begin to be able to see and probe the sheer scale of this phenomenon. The answer, as ever, lies in data.

“You can do amazing things like ChatGBT but first you need the data,” Ivell says.

“It’s a really exciting time but unless you invest in the collection of data [you’re stuck]. Sometimes you have to start collecting data even if the new technologies for processing ti haven’t been invented yet.” Without that basis, we revert to ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

For Team Teach CIO David Ivell, it's progress, of sorts

As for my notion that Ivell represents a generation of CxOs with a conscience, he sort of agrees: “I think there’s some truth in that and I think you see it in society generally: employers are attracting the grads who believe the organisation has a social conscience. PwC see it as important that they are perceived to be good people.”

Also, progressive organisations that may have struggled to attract the brightest and best have upped their infrastructure game. “Not-for-profit has changed and professionalised,” Ivell believes. “I was the first CIO at Kew, the first CIO at the Prince’s Trust and here too at Team Teach, they’re moving towards bringing in the best technology and innovators they can.”

At Team Teach his role not that of a conventional CIO but a new title emerging in the industry, CPTO for Chief Product and Technology Officer. This is another shift he sees as emblematic of our times.

“Yes I’m a techie, but I’m much more product-focused than ever. There’s work to keep the IT wheels on but it’s a small part of the role: with the advent of people like Amazon, a lot of services are done for you.”

Instead of labouring under the old CIO paradigm of 80% keeping the lights on and 20% innovation, Ivell says he can spend 80% of his time “where the fun is”, adding value rather than spending his life trying “to improve systems availability by 0.02%… my team is the C-suite, not IT.”.

The big picture

Focusing on the big picture is key at a time when technology moves faster than ever but we still struggle to protect species or provide sufficient fresh drinking water. Sometimes you forget how quickly technology advances, he says, but he notes that “over the last 35 years we have lost over half the wild animals on the planet and we are destroying habitats and food stocks through over-grazing and pollution.

"We need to use technicians, engineers to solve really big world problems.”

And to that end, as if the day job weren’t enough, Ivell is also deeply involved with Energise Resources, an organisation with 300 IT expert volunteers working pro bono for charities like War Child and Help for Heroes.

But with his work at Team Teach it looks like he is in it for the long haul.

“I think I’m going to be here for a long while now,” Ivell says.

“I’m enjoying working with a truly passionate team of people, creating something I honestly think will be a legacy.” He also enjoys “having a PE house behind us who not only sees the opportunity within edtech but believe in what we are doing to achieve for children. They also feel part of the team. [The segment is] almost recession-proof and we’re opening a secondary office in Australia but also expanding all over the world. We can see that since the pandemic the demand for our services has become, if anything, much, much stronger.”

See also: Federal Reserve CIO Pamela Dyson on an early career in graphic design, writing scripts and running cable