Sinead Greenaway took an unconventional route to her role as chief technology and operations officer at UKTV, where she has led a technology transformation at the UK broadcaster.
Sinead Greenaway has packed an awful lot into her career: before joining UKTV, she was managing director of international consultancy and talent business The Lighthouse Company, the launch chief executive of The Studios at MediaCityUK (now dock10), and operations and technology director at Virgin Media Television.
“It’s all been completely accidental,” says Greenaway, reflecting on how the journey began.
Greenaway didn’t go to university. “I grew up in Chelsea, but my parents were housekeepers. So I had a very strange upbringing in a terribly working class environment in the poshest part of London,” she says. The idea of going to university to spend her parents money without focussing on the academic side of life was “a tricky one,” she adds.
International Women’s Day This interview is part of a week-long series of conversations with inspirational women in craft, technology and leadership roles. For more interviews click here
So she decided on a year out before revisiting thoughts of university. During that year, however, she saw an advert for a ‘traffic assistant’ at Kiss FM – and never looked back.
It was at the early days of Kiss FM, one month after it had stopped being a pirate radio station. The job wasn’t anything to do with reporting on the traffic, but helping to manage the advertising traffic. Greenaway ended up staying for 14 years, rising through the ranks to become group operations director of Kiss FM owner Emap Performance.
“The great thing about joining a business that was only just professionalising was you got to do everything,” says Greenaway. She ran listener holidays through to research, and quickly became known as the person who was pretty good with computers and sorting out business systems. Throughout, she straddled both editorial and advertising – working across content, sales, policy and systems.
She was then approached by Virgin Media Television to work for sales arm IDS but also as member of the senior leadership content team. She started off in operations but, with a ‘mind for process and people,’ she expanded her remit into technology. “That’s where I started to really get my technology chops,” says Greenaway. Under her watch, Virgin [VMTV] became the first end-to-end tapeless UK broadcaster in 2006.
“We need to take a cold hard look at the fact that female representation in ICT in the UK is 17% - it’s moved by 1% over five years. We are not done,” Sinead Greenaway
The call to interview for chief executive of the studios business at MediaCityUK was, she admits ‘unexpected.’ Her job was to kit out the studios and to launch it on time, and on budget. “We went from a team of four, wandering around in hard hats, to over 100 people; from nought to tens of millions in a year.”
In her own words, a strange thing happened next – she became pregnant, aged 40. So she and her husband headed back to London to raise their daughter among family and friends. There, a friend who was running a consultancy and search business asked her to help grow the technology practice, and to expand internationally.
After a few years enjoying being part of a fast- growing start-up, one of the businesses that came knocking at her door for help was UKTV – which Greenaway eventually joined.
What attracted you to working at UKTV?
I’d been part of the senior leadership team at Virgin Media, which was a shareholder of UKTV. So I knew lots of the people there, and I knew UKTV was a great business which had grown and grown for over two decades. But six years ago, we very much built for a linear age, and wanted to transform technologically to be fit for purpose for both the expansion of platform VOD and a direct to consumer business. [OTT service] UKTV Play was in its absolute infancy at that stage. We got some great candidates for the job, but what became apparent through the process was the person who was most enthusiastic about this was probably me. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What were your priorities when you joined?
I came in on a big transformation ticket. It’s fair to say that we’ve had six years of extreme transformation since then. It started with taking digital production in house – so our direct to consumer [platform] is built and run in house. We were also just at the cusp of building edit suites at 10 HG [Hammersmith Grove], and we co-run those with The Farm.
We then went after all of our business systems. So we put in a new broadcast management system, which is like the beating hearts of all broadcasters, so we could bring linear and VOD together.
We did a massive data stack transformation a few years ago. We invested heavily in data so that we could monetise it with our commercial partner, Channel 4 [which handles advertising sales for UKTV.]
Then, we went through a fairly major shareholder change [BBC Studios took full ownership of UKTV in 2019, buying out Discovery]. My team was part of the team that moved assets and channels into the BBC Studios world, transitioning out of Discovery.
Last year we moved our playout provider to SES. That’s pretty hard in a normal year, let alone during Covid – but the team absolutely nailed it.
- Read more: Interview: Cara Sheppard
Having done all that, what are you focusing on now?
The main focus is the future of our workplace - how we will work going forward, and how we use our facilities in terms of coming together for collaboration and creativity, and the toolsets that people need to work outside of the workplace.
Also, our cloud supply chain. Our content archive and related tooling is in the cloud. We’re very purposely trying to build out the cloud supply chain so that it links in with the work that we do on future workplace.
We are part of the UK region for BBC Studios, and we have brought together our acquisitions, compliance, and commercial teams. So there’s a lot of technology work to do to ensure those folks have the best tools possible.
And then we still have a big data programme to work on. We’re not resting on laurels in any way.
How has UKTV responded to the need for remote working during the pandemic?
The date of the remote move is seared on my brain. We held an out of office test on Thursday, 12th March 2020, where we all worked out of the office for one day remotely to see how we would get on. On Friday 13th we came back into the office to catch up about it. Over the weekend, in another business in our offices, there was a Covid case. So on Sunday evening, the executive team made the call to come out of the office. We have not gone back in the same way since.
All the way through, we have taken a people first approach. The senior leadership team has been really visible and we have done remote all staff calls every single week. We still do the same business routines we would have done in terms of sharing the strategy, talking about the business results and the content. We’ve run a huge diversity and inclusion programme, called UKTV Together. We ran over 50 remote events last year, from just having a cup of tea and checking in, through to meatier subjects around George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, through to teaching people sign language.
On a more general level, how has the past year been for UKTV as a business?
We grew our share of commercial impacts (SOCI) 4% in 2020. We had some of our best months ever as people have spent a lot of the last year watching great content. UKTV Play had over 40% growth for both views and registered users. It’s been a positive by-product of a really tricky situation.
How is it being part of BBC Studios now?
It’s really positive. We couldn’t deliver on our ambitions while we remained in a jointly share-held business. Being part of a bigger family gives us opportunities, such as investing in content together or the chance to play on a global stage, which is something we couldn’t really do before.
It’s also good for career opportunities. UKTV is one of the best places I’ve ever worked - it has such a strong, inclusive and ambitious culture. Having said that, when you’re in a group of 250 to 300 people, being part of a bigger family has really enabled us to think more about career paths.
From a technology point of view, the first thing we did last year was to put out our playout tender together: we went to market as UKTV and the BBC Studios global markets channels. We’ve already actively thought about the areas of activity where being together gives us an economy of scale or gives us better buying power.
Could you offer a perspective about how things have changed for women during the course of your career?
Initiatives like MeToo, as well events such as the death of George Floyd, have had a really seismic and positive effect on the industry. We have seen a real acceleration of change. The real positive is the fact that this is now on everybody’s agenda: every board has targets or objectives around inclusion.
From UKTV’s points of view, we have a really active diversity and inclusion group in UKTV Together, and we have formed a diversity and inclusion board which is very accountable, and has some very hard objectives.
I’m very fortunate to work in an organisation like UKTV where our female ratio indexes over 50% - we’ve always been close to 60% across the business.
From a technology point of view, I still reflect back to when I walked the trade shows 20 years ago, and saw the dancing girls. I walked up to stands where folk were expecting me to give out T-shirts. That’s the experience that lots of us, as a very small community of women in the industry, had at that time.
We need to take a cold hard look at the fact that female representation in ICT in the UK is 17% - it’s moved by 1% over five years. We are not done.
Personally, I think it’s really important that female leaders like me are seen. I do speak a lot around the industry. We need to talk about our stories, and we need stories where folk haven’t had traditional paths into the industry. There are not enough women coming into computer science or engineering at school age. So we have to work hard to think about transferable skills. I’m one of those people, there’s lots of us around. Our most brilliant women in technology, even at UKTV, have often come through an operational path - they’ve transferred to technology.
For me, the important message is that we’ve got to create an inclusive environment in technology. We have a model of what a technologist, certainly at an executive level, seems to look like. The men of this world are the most important people in this, in terms of creating an environment where I and all other females feel comfortable, and saying that, actually, we love people who are different.
What’s great about this [technology] world is no one cares what you look like, or what fancy dress you’ve got on. It’s binary – it either works or it doesn’t, the light comes on or it doesn’t. So actually, it should be the very best place for inclusion; it should be a place where it’s so empirical, that it doesn’t actually matter.
What advice would you give to women who are starting out or at early points in their career in this industry?
The one bit of advice that always stays with me is about not feeling the pressure to know everything. Because as you progress and your breadth of responsibility grows, you might think that you need to know everything about, say, digital development or engineering, but actually there’s lots of expertise in the world to draw on.
Also, don’t feel the pressure of having to have a really determined and well defined career path, because actually some of it just happens so be purposeful rather than rigid in your approach to career planning and focus on what you love.
Finally, it’s about keeping things simple and speaking in plain English. I cannot stand the amount of gobbledygook I encounter. In the business world and our technology world, there’s this sort of acronym bravado. Don’t feel overwhelmed by it!