FSA CIO on her career in tech: ‘It’s where the future is already happening’

The FSA’s groundbreaking CIO talks the future of technology careers, data openness and going beyond the status quo


What makes a successful chief information officer (CIO) in 2021? Ask Julie Pierce, the trailblazing director of openness, data and digital at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), who ranked fifth overall and was the highest-placed woman in the venerated CIO 100 list for 2019. 

Having learnt the news about the CIO 100, which recognises the UK’s “most transformational and disruptive” CIOs, Pierce recalls feeling “happy [and] honoured”. Following a pause, she adds: “And surprised.” Why? “If someone had told me I would be recognised at this level back when I was, say, 30, I would have thought it impossible, for so many reasons. So my reaction was: ‘Oh my God!’”

To an extent, her reaction to the accolade is understandable in an industry dominated by men. But the recognition is also a cause for celebration. Given that only one in six technology specialists in the UK are female and just 10% are IT leaders, the Bristol-based Pierce proudly serves as a role model for other women seeking to reach the top in tech.

The incredulity is misplaced, though, when one considers her groundbreaking 41-year career. After starting off with a misstep in oil exploration – more of which below – she enjoyed 13 years as a consultant at PwC, where she was one of the first female partners. Her CV also includes stints with the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service.

More recently, Pierce has excelled as CIO at the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In August 2015, she moved from Defra to the FSA, a non-ministerial government department which monitors risks and issues of concern regarding food.

The case for data openness

As director of openness, data and digital (“a long but pretty cool title”) at the FSA, she performs a raft of duties. These include the CIO role, while also covering science and Wales. 

Importantly, Pierce is a fervent advocate of open and transparent data. Indeed, in the public sector, and further afield, the FSA is often held up as an exemplar of what is possible through opening up data. This progressiveness is in no small part thanks to Pierce.

“Being open and transparent [with data] is so important to me,” she says. “And at the FSA it is fundamental to our core being; we are here to be open and transparent on behalf of the consumer.” 

Pierce explains that her agency raises the alarm when “things are not quite right for consumers concerning food safety and authenticity”. As an example, she points to a recently implemented service that uses predictive analytics and machine learning to monitor global risks. 

The FSA publishes 70% of its datasets. Pierce argues convincingly that fellow CIOs should push to open data and drive collaboration internally and externally. The FSA has been trying to persuade businesses to be open and publish their data, she says.

At the FSA it is fundamental to our core being; we are here to be open and transparent on behalf of the consumer 

“We can see the large amount of data collected about food in public and private sector. For instance, we can see the opportunities from data-rich digital platforms where they may be sitting on real insights as to food risk, allowing us all to take action before something goes wrong.”

Under Pierce’s direction, the FSA has “put as much effort as possible in the last few years” to develop the infrastructure necessary to open data and make it “easier for businesses to consume that data”.

Beyond the status quo

Pierce believes in “transformation through the application of modern digital technology and insights from predictive analytics to business problems”. And in a clarion call for fellow CIOs, she has urged on LinkedIn: “Let’s be really different; let’s go beyond merely automating the status quo.”

Pierce has always sought to go beyond the status quo, but she originally had little interest in technology. Having graduated from the University of Wales, Bangor, in 1980 with a first-class degree in mathematics and physical oceanography, Pierce sought a hands-on role in the oil-exploration industry. The fact that it was “completely male-dominated” made it more attractive because of the challenge.

Ironically, she switched directions and flourished when the path was blocked in her chosen profession because of her gender. As a woman, she was forbidden to step foot on either the boats or the rigs. Pierce’s impressive career in tech can be traced back to that early change of tack. 

Let’s be really different; let’s go beyond merely automating the status quo

However, the combination of fierce ambition and talent has elevated her. It is this desire that modern CIOs must possess to excel, she suggests.

“My FSA role includes the CIO and a lot more. That in itself is one of the things I’m most proud of: that I have risen and gone above the CIO role into other aspects of the business.” Indeed, to secure a place in the boardroom, CIOs must demonstrate the many different ways they can add value. 

Pierce says there has never been a more exciting time to embark on a career in tech and climb the ranks to CIO and above. “It’s an absolutely fascinating sector, as it’s moving and evolving so quickly,” she says. “It’s becoming more relevant, ubiquitous, and essential to everything we do. Therefore, you can choose any sector to work in – food, healthcare, financial services, whatever.

“What makes a career in tech so attractive nowadays is that it is accessible in so many more ways compared to when I began. You can come in through some of the more innovative data ideas, such as artificial intelligence or robotics, or via looking at accessibility and the way users engage with the tech, or the hardware route.”

After a final pause, she adds: “It’s the place really where I think the future is already happening.”