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Digital Works Podcast, Episode 24: Nicholas Triantafyllou

15/11/2022 By Ash

Nicholas Triantafyllou is the Director of IT at the National Theatre in London.

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Ash Mann (AM): I've known you since you're at the Barbican, but what does your career look like? Where did you start? How did you arrive at the Barbican and move to the Southbank and then on to the National Theatre, which is where you are now?

Nicholas Triantafyllou (NT): My career started when I studied electronic engineering, which is quite a theoretical subject, and was very interesting. I was always a geek since I was a child. So I really enjoyed that.

And that was back in the early nineties, when I guess digital didn't really exist in its current form. It was very much at its infancy and was mostly about computers, PCs, that helped the finance department to input the numbers, and I mostly worked with financial institutions.

So my career started in the City. I used to work for banks and big corporates for a few years, which was very good in terms of you really get to see how things are done when an organisation has loads of money.

But you just end up being a small cog in a massive machine. And they were very junior roles, mostly support roles, but it was really, really interesting and really made me realise how much technology could help people, but that it really was in its infancy. That's when Windows was all the rage and, and that was it really.

And then almost by pure accident I got a job working for quite a large charity because I wanted to change the sector I was working in. And that was really interesting because at that point I really realised how technology could enable the greater good in some respects. And how technology was about more than just making money.

So I stayed in the charity sector for a few years, again, mostly doing support roles, but very much with a big interest in systems and understanding how technology can be used to enhance the mission of an organisation.

And then my dream job came up at the Barbican, I was always a very big fan of the Barbican. I used to go there quite often for concerts, for exhibitions. So actually I took a massive pay cut and I sort of stepped down and just joined the help desk there, but obviously with the view of working myself up, which I did very quickly. I had some brilliant bosses there who were really, really supportive, it was a really good environment there.

Very quickly it became apparent that a digital could do so much to enhance the experience, and digital at the Barbican when I joined, like with most of our institutions at the time was totally in its infancy. There were some really cool projects happening very much in isolation, but there was no digital strategy which is totally understandable. It's not a criticism. It's just, just how it was back then.

And slowly, eventually digital really became part of what each department was doing. So everyone, every department was thinking about digital, there was some brilliant programming happening as well around digital. There were some brilliant people putting together those digital programs.

I was in the IT department, but we did a lot more than that. We launched two websites, we did some really cool stuff with eCommerce; select your own seat, which may sound obvious, you know, everyone does this now, but I think the Barbican was probably one of the first institutions to do that. And again, this was because we had some really good people in the box office, and in other departments that were really forward thinking.

I was really lucky that I had a good boss and the luxury of my ideas being taken seriously and also to be given the opportunity to grow and also to be able to make mistakes because you only learn from those, and I've definitely made quite a few of those as well!

So yeah, the Barbican was really useful, I still really miss everyone there, although it has changed a lot as an organisation, a lot of really good people have now left either the sector or they're working at other brilliant institutions.

The Barbican did not have a digital department as such, and that was a conscious decision, because we very much felt at the time that each department had a digital output and digital needs to go throughout what each team does. However, we did write a digital strategy that effectively recognised that so everyone could talk about that.

The other thing I'm really proud of is that we developed our own website as well. We developed that entirely in-house. It got quite a few awards, it was done brilliantly by internal people that went way above their pay grades to deliver.

I then joined Southbank Centre, which again was a massive opportunity for me. You know, I could have stuck around at the Barbican for a lot longer. I was absolutely loving it there, but I just thought, I think the Barbican needed a different perspective. I think once you stay at a place for too long, I think you definitely need to branch out a bit and see how things are done in other places. And also it's only fair to the organisation that they get someone else to lead on something as important as that.

So a great opportunity did arise at Southbank Centre, which I absolutely grasped when it came up. So I went to Southbank Centre, which again, is a brilliant institution. Very different in its pace and its mission. Its vibe was very, very different to the Barbican. The Barbican was very much…because of the dynamic of the city of London, it was a bit more official, the pace was much slower. Not because people weren't good at what they were doing, just because you had this added complexity from the city of London.

I love the pace at Southbank centre, but it is a very different model. They had a really good digital department, quite a big digital department, the more traditional sort of department around that.

It felt a bit, in some respect, like a step backwards for me, because I didn't quite do as much digital as I wanted to. And that was at times a bit frustrating because I really wanted to do a lot more, and I could do a lot more, but there were some brilliant people in place there that were doing those things already.

So in a way I felt like, in my own head, I was only doing half a job. Although I wasn't. I have a lot of time for Southbank Centre. I had a fantastic team with which I'm still in touch to this day, who I absolutely love and adore.

So that was Southbank centre where I just thought I could have made more of an impact, but I just didn't really, it just wasn't possible to do that within the existing structure.

And then the National Theatre opportunity came up. And again, when these things come up, you just have to go for it.

I absolutely love the National Theatre, again, it is a brilliant institution. It reminds me a lot more of the Barbican in some respects in that it is far more structured. The pace is different. It's a lot, but I really enjoy the National Theatre’s complexity. It's a very, very complex organisation, it is very complex in a good way. So it definitely keeps me very interested.

Again I have a great team and also a really open senior management team. I get to do a lot more of what I used to do in the Barbican. So getting a lot more involved with digital projects, leading those projects or working with people that are around that.

Sorry, that was a very long introduction to my career.

AM: Well, it's been a long and storied career by the sounds of it and what I'm interested in from what you've described and the conversations that we've had in the past is, from my perspective, as someone who works with lots of different organisations and lots of different IT directors, is I would say you are not a typical director of IT, in a very positive way.

Because it feels that yes, you're very interested in technology and clearly you come from an engineering background, you are a technical, methodical, logical person, but what always excites me about your perspective is you are always thinking about “how does this serve mission?”, “How does this serve the audience?”, “How does this serve the customer?” rather than just taking the internal perspective about the most effective technological solution.

Actually, it's about outcomes, not just about the system and the technology itself.

NT: Precisely, I think I see my role twofold. This may sound like a big statement, but I think the role of the traditional IT department, with the way it used to be 20 or 30 years ago, I think it's dying off in some respects, because technology is becoming easier and easier now. Whereas in the past, you really needed to know how to run an email server and file server. There was a massive piece around technology or boxes and server rooms and people changing backup tapes, et cetera.

Thanks to the advancement of technology a lot of these things have become a hell of a lot simpler. So you don't need as many engineers anymore to look after those servers.

However, what you really need, and where I see the value of IT and digital, is people that do understand the technology really well and can advise the organisation how to best adopt it and use it so effectively. And they can also advise on the slightly more boring stuff around compliance and security and PCI and all of that stuff, which is really, really important as well. But it's just one part of what I do. And one part of what I think my team should be doing.

It has grown far further than just fixing people's PCs or laptops or Macs or whatever. IT can't just be that, otherwise anyone could do that.

AM: Absolutely, and I think that in other conversations I've had on this podcast, we've talked about structurally where digital sits in cultural organisations and it feels that there's a difference between performing arts organisations and perhaps collections based organisations. In the performing arts, digital has come out of a marketing and sales imperative. Whereas with collections organisations it's come out of more of an archiving, collections space. But what's your perspective on the organisations you've worked in? From my point of view, it feels like we need to start rethinking the structures that traditionally exist.

Because as you've described, your role is as much about how people are using and getting value out of the technology and the solutions as it is just about implementing and maintaining that solution. The line feels like it's blurring between it and digital and so many other things. And it feels like the time is arriving, if it hasn't already arrived, that we need to start having some new thoughts about how these structures exist.

NT: I think for me, the key is that digital literacy within an organisation is really important. And that’s down to the recruitment decisions you make when you recruit people and the individual strategies that there are.

I strongly believe that each team should have a digital strand, and should really think about digital, about what that means to them.

It's difficult and it means different people to different people. And, unless you have the right people in post, you will never really know what you can or can't do.

So the way I see this working is that I think digital literacy across the organisation needs to rise, particularly in our sector. It can't just be the marketing team. It can't just be the traditional digital team driving this forward because the perspective they have will be quite narrow.

And I think all this needs to come together with a strong digital strategy, which is drawn up by everyone that works in an institution that then aligns with a mission and vision of that organisation.

So you have a digital strategy that supports and enhances the purpose of the organisation and also gives clear guidelines and instructions to the internal teams, what digital means to them.

Very often, and I'm sure you've seen this a few times, you get people doing what I call digital vanity projects, where you effectively get lots of money from a public funder and you do a project that creates lots of headlines for maybe a couple of weeks and has cost a lot of money and effort, but then completely goes away.

And the reason why it goes away is because it doesn't quite align with what the organisation is doing, it is just a good tool to get headlines.

That's not necessarily a bad thing and I think everyone needs to get those great headlines occasionally, but that can't just be the sole purpose of digital. You know, digital is a lot more than creating cool projects and headlines.

And I'm not saying we shouldn't do that because that's how you innovate, it's really, really important, but it needs to be something that's also done in conjunction with some really good thinking about digital internally.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have a digital team because I think it's important to have that.

However, ideally what you'd want is a digital team where you have people across the organisation feeding into that, or with representatives across the organisation and maybe someone leading a digital strategy that is very much aligned with the organisation's goals and ambition, and can really direct that team to output the right things.

Supported by a strong IT department, for example, that can then do the slightly more mundane stuff like hosting and all these things that someone that has some brilliant ideas on how to create a digital learning programme wouldn't necessarily understand, and shouldn't really have to understand because some of that stuff is still very complicated.

AM: Looking at the three big cultural institutions that you've worked at, what are your perspectives sitting here in June 2022, are there common traits that allow digital stuff to happen more easily? Are there initiatives that you've observed or been a part of that have helped to increase that digital literacy that you've mentioned?

I suppose people listening to this are always looking for success stories that they can maybe try and translate to their own organisations.

We often talk about leadership and that the executive level of cultural institutions have never really had to engage with digital. Some of them are engaged and excited about it, but on the whole not. Is that an important thing to try and achieve or actually can good digital stuff still happen without that top level buy in?

NT: It depends. I think it very much depends on the institution and the role of the executive and how much of a say the executive has. Just to give you a really good example, at the Barbican, what was really useful to me was that at the time, Nick Kenyon, who was the managing director, very bluntly told me, ”look, Nicholas, I don't understand it at all, I don't think I will ever fully understand it, but I trust you to explain it to me. And I trust that you will have the right people in place to see that through”. So in a way it was that recognition that he doesn't understand it, however, he very much gave me the space to do what I needed to do.

Just to give you a really simple example, whenever we were running designs and other aspects of the website past him, he was very open to say, “this colour looks pretty and I like it. However, I don't think I should be telling you what colour the website should be, tell me what our audience says”.

So I think sometimes it's just having an executive that has that very open mind.

I think being an executive is really quite hard sometimes because everyone looks up to you and everyone expects you to have all the answers, and sometimes you don't have all the answers. And I think if you're a confident executive, you will say that, you will say, you know, by the way, I just don’t know that.

I think it's really important that the executive, and artistic directors as well, supports digital, and understands the value of it. For example, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, when we were talking about NT At Home, was extremely supportive of that and really recognised the value of digital.

And this comes from an artistic director who mostly is an actor and director. So he's very much around the physical space. However, he really recognised the value of digital and we've had some really useful discussions around that.

I think it's important. I think more could probably be done, but I think we also need to be realistic that a lot of executives, not all of them, but a lot of executives in the sector probably are not digital natives.

They were probably brought up at the time when they grew up, maybe mobile phones didn't even exist, so they may not necessarily, unless they are of a younger generation, they probably don't feel comfortable doing that.

And I think it's almost dangerous to give them too much of a say in some of these things, because you don't want them to go down a path that they think is the right one. And that may sound really compelling because a salesperson tried to sell it to them.

And that's definitely happened to me in the past. Not in any organisation I've worked in directly, but I do remember, in the city of London, again, they were looking after the Barbican from a governance perspective. I had quite a few difficult discussions when I was having to explain why I didn't go with SharePoint for the Barbican's website. And they have been told by Microsoft that SharePoint is the best thing since sliced bread.

So I had to explain to them that SharePoint is useful as an intranet. But I had to make it clear, for an eCommerce website, I'm not quite sure that's the best idea, but that needed a lot of meetings with some really senior people that had been told that SharePoint is the only thing we should do.

AM: You touched on NT At Home there, which was, I suppose, one of the most high profile responses to the pandemic in terms of digital work. And from an external perspective, it looks like it was successful. And it's a program that you have continued at the National Theatre.

What is your perspective now, as we hopefully are moving out of the pandemic, on the impact that that time had on conversations around digital?

Back in 2020, I remember a lot of people were saying, it feels like we've suddenly lurched forward five or 10 years. And actually we are not having to explain why this is important anymore. People are like, well, let's just work out how to do it. And I imagine there were a lot of pros that came out of that, but also cons of team capacity and trying to monetise this stuff.

How are you feeling about that period that we've just moved through and its impact on digital?

NT: I know it may sound a bit strange, but actually for me the pandemic, because I had literally just started working at the National and then the pandemic struck, the last two and a half years have actually been really, really positive from a digital and IT perspective.

Because as you said, suddenly people really realised the value of technology.

I’ll just give you a simple example. A decision was made just before I joined to refresh all PCs at the National. We're talking about 600+ PCs.

So when I came in, I said hold on a second. Why are we refreshing PCs? Shouldn't we be getting laptops for staff? At the time, rightly so, I was told, oh, the National isn't ready for that yet. Everyone still uses their PCs and logs on at the desk.

So, a couple of months later, suddenly that all changed and suddenly we have people engaging with Teams, people engaging digitally and everyone suddenly saying, oh my God, IT you guys have done an amazing job, we didn't value you before.

So in a way that was really positive. And that's continued actually. And now with flexible and hybrid working, people are embracing technology and really seeking the value of it and work/life balance and all of that.

And again, the same, I guess is true for NT At Home.

So I just need to add that NT At Home isn't just me, there is a big team behind it. I had a big contribution to that at the start when we started looking at streaming. So initially, I dunno whether you remember, but initially the National put on some free shows on YouTube, which we did because we just felt we needed to offer something to the public. And also it was a bit of a test to see how the screenings would work.

And that was a bit of a nightmare to put on initially. I'll just give you one example. At the time we had some raw files of data in a storage network in the server room of the National, we needed to digitally remaster that file, and obviously these were raw files that were terabytes and terabytes of data. So the only way we could get it to editors was we had to get a cab, put something on a hard drive that was then whisked along to someone's house where they were edited. They were then put back on the hard drive and they were uploaded by me because I had a faster connection than everyone else. So this was where we were at the start.

People don't realise how much work and how we just literally invented it by the day. However, what was really positive at the start was we definitely felt like a startup because we were reinventing everything.

We went with this out of the box solution with Vimeo, and that was deliberate because if we had done this project before the pandemic, we would've done a typical gold-plated solution. We would've spent lots of money on it. We would've done a custom development. It would've been a two year project and it would've cost us a lot of money.

So we just had to go really fast. And it was a lot of work however, I have to be totally honest with you, it was extremely satisfying because we saw an end product.

The National Theatre was very lucky in that it had a brilliant in-house digital production team already, which was already mostly working on NT Live which was live or recorded screenings in cinema. So we had tons of footage, we just had to remaster it digitally.

So I think the NT, and NT At Home might be a slight outlier in terms of that.

It actually is very successful financially. You know, we are making, not millions and millions of pounds, but it is definitely covering a lot more than costs at this point.

I have to say that it is a lot of work, but we have a really strong team behind that now. And it has very much become part of what the National does and the National Theatre is all about being national and getting into disadvantaged communities, getting into the whole of England.

People don't quite realise how much we do outside of London. And for that, you know, NT At Home and the NT Collection, which is another strand which goes into all schools, has been a massive enabler for people to see theatre.

And also internationally, because when we looked at the YouTube streaming actually we had more people dialling in from outside the UK than we had from the UK.

AM: It sounds really exciting, actually other people that I've spoken to do look back on aspects of that time with fondness, because suddenly you just had a blank canvas and people had to pull together. And as you say, it had that startup bootstrapping vibe, where everyone's got to muck in and work out how to do this new thing.

NT: Yeah, exactly. Although it was obviously awful for people, for me personally purely from a professional perspective and from a satisfaction perspective, it felt like a very, very creative last two years.

And, I guess for me, it brings back the value of working like a startup in some respects as well, because when you work for large institutions, and I'm sure this is happening in the museums sector as well, things do take a long time because you have a lot of stakeholders and you have to consult with a lot of people and everyone will have a say, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing necessarily, but that does take a long time.

So to do something very, very effective, you may never get there because some people will just lose the will to live because they have to jump through so many hoops.

So that's why I think maybe the sector isn't quite as innovative as it could be, and I'm not saying that's the sole reason, but the fact that these organisations aren't set up for rapid prototyping, they aren't set up for failing fast. They aren't really set up for agile. They're very much set up to see a project through and plan it and committees and go to the board and do all these things.

AM: And if we now start to look forward and look at maybe the short to medium term, cos who knows what the longer term looks like.

Particularly around digital activity, it feels like there are some positive things around digital that happened over the last two years that we should try clinging onto.

You also mentioned digital literacy.

What, what do you think cultural organisations should really be thinking about talking about and focusing on when it comes to their digital effectiveness over the next one to three years?

NT: Appraise what worked and what hasn't worked over the last one or two years, because I think that will be different for each organisation.

A lot of organisations will have learning departments, and they really focused on engaging with audiences digitally. And I think that definitely worked during the lockdown because suddenly people could no longer go out to schools and had to engage in a different way. So that's definitely been very, very effective. I'm not saying there isn't value in the physical presence, I think it's about using digital as an enhancer, using digital to widen reach and talk to audiences that you'd never ever otherwise talk to.

And let's be honest, you know, getting to London is expensive and a lot of people just can't afford that, particularly with the cost of living crisis. However, engaging digitally is a lot cheaper and so you democratise access in a way and you make it much more affordable and accessible.

The other thing that worked really well was, again, speaking on the access front, we had some brilliant feedback from audiences that are hard of hearing or have additional sensory needs. And they really enjoyed the output from NT At Home because this was the first time that they could experience a show without feeling overwhelmed going into the theatre, so that was really positive. So we definitely want to continue that - making all the performances accessible and Bloomberg were very generous in enabling us to do that with some sponsorship.

So we got all of those benefits and, I guess, built upon the digital literacy. Just going back to our learning team at the National, again, we did get more people in with better digital skills and that already shows. I think those recruitment decisions need to be made. It's really difficult sometimes to insist that someone has digital skills, but this goes back to the recruitment problem, I think you just have to look really, really hard to find those people and then do the best to keep them.

AM Yes, that's the challenge!

You mentioned there you recommend the organisations stop and reflect on what worked and it feels like maybe as a sector, we're not always great at that. It's always straight onto the next thing, straight onto the next thing.

And you've seen with audiences returning in person that people have snapped quite quickly back to what they were doing before the pandemic.

NT: Yeah. It's interesting because although audiences have come back, thankfully at the National most audiences have come back, but not everyone has come back.

And I know this is a wider problem in the sector.

It's almost like the people that used to come to experience theatre, they still want to experience theatre, but may not feel comfortable experiencing theatre.

And I know that's also an issue around classical music performances. Audiences, particularly this slightly older generation - what do we do there? Because a lot of people still don't feel comfortable going into a crowded room. The other thing we need to recognise is that some people may not have missed it as much as they thought they would, and may have found other ways of experiencing the arts.

So we need to do a lot more with that, to get people back,but also recognize that things have changed. Things never stay static and very often big changes happen as a result of a war or as a result of a quite traumatic or significant event that then have ripple effects for decades to come. And I think COVID probably was one of those moments where that happened.

AM: And it does feel like, as you say, even if people are hoping things go back to normal in inverted commas, that normal is never going to exist again, as it did two years ago.

NT: Yeah. And what is normal? Normal is just something that existed at that point in time three years ago, that that was what happening in 2020, you know, that's not normal. Things never stay static, things change, and you just need to be adaptable and...enjoy the change!

AM: Yes. And it feels like that is something that you are quite comfortable with. And certainly I've noticed with individuals and teams that are most effective in this area is that they're either very comfortable or actively seek out change and new ideas, and they're inherently curious, and it feels like that's an important principle.

NT: I think so, I think you have to be constantly curious, I'm 48 now but I don't think I know anything really! You can't get to the point where you think you know everything because you really don't know anything, and you really need to learn and constantly be curious, constantly want to challenge yourself. Otherwise you get bored, I think.

AM: And to finish, we've talked about a lot of things today, but looking forward, you are working on a lot of different projects. What are you excited about, either a specific project you're working on, or a technological trend you're seeing, or an opportunity that you've seen or conversations you might have had. What's getting you excited at the moment?

NT: Yeah. I think one aspect that I'm really interested about, and this might be slightly more operational, is how hybrid working is going to work going forward, because I think that is going to change things considerably for how staff, how people at work in the institutions will interact. And, and the fact that we've got there now with hybrid working policies and I'm really interested to see how that will pan out.

The other thing I'm interested in, and I'm not necessarily saying it's a trend, I'm just curious to see what will happen there, because there've been so many false starts, is what will happen in the metaverse? How, how will that all pan out? I'm old enough to remember a lot of those virtual reality, augmented reality attempts, which always failed on the fact that people had to wear something quite cumbersome on their head.

However, the potential there is huge, particularly for arts and performance and interaction, and experiencing theatre, for example. So I'm very curious what will happen there again, I'm not at this point a hundred percent convinced we have got around the very practical barriers. But a lot of really interesting stuff is happening, but let's see that. For the National I really want NT at home to continue being as successful as it was. I want it to be even more successful.

The one thing I really want us to do more of, and I know it's difficult and it's complicated, is to film work. For example, the National's Romeo and Juliet during lockdown was brilliantly filmed and it felt because it was filmed specifically for that medium, it wasn't a film, it wasn't a theatre performance, it was something in between.

And I just want us to use more technology to achieve something really, really interesting there, to to feel like you're participating in the performance, but at the same time also feel that you're watching a theatre play. So not just a film and, and I think Romeo & Juliet achieved that, but scaling that up and continuing that is going to be very, very expensive and maybe finding easier ways technically to achieve that outcome without needing to spend a lot of time on filming and crew and all of that is an area we should look at.

AM: And I think that final point about how innovation, and the new things that have happened, over the last two years impact the form of culture. I think that will be potentially the most interesting area.

NT: Yeah. Because so much stuff can be done. And I think the problem we have at the moment, maybe is it's not necessarily a problem, it's just the fact that a lot of the traditional directors, producers, performers are very much used to the way it's always been done, which obviously people like the National always do brilliantly.

And I don't think there's that experience there and you wouldn't expect there to be that experience there of directing something that is very, very different to that.

And again, at that point, you just come in with experimenting and, and being open to failing as well because not everything you do will be a success and some of it will be a quite expensive failure. So it's just but you just need to be open to that if you can.

AM: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time today. Nicholas we've, we've covered so much there. And I think there are a few nuggets of wisdom in there that are applicable regardless of the size of organisation.

And I think interestingly, one of the things that it feels like I've heard and I feel like I hear this time and time again is actually, it's not necessarily about the technology. It's about the people and it's about the culture and it's about the mindset that's surrounding the use of that technology.

NT: Definitely.