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‘I know what it’s like on the other side’: TVBEurope meets EMG Group CTO Lucy O’Brien

Lucy O'Brien discusses her move from the broadcast to supply side of the industry, why training and education is so important to her, and her plans to unify the technology being used by all of EMG Group's European entities

Lucy O’Brien joined EMG Group at the beginning of April as the company’s new chief technology officer. She arrived at the company following a stint at GB News, and has also previously worked at ITN and Arqiva, so she has knowledge of working on both the broadcaster and service provider sides of the media technology industry.

TVBEurope caught up with O’Brien during her first few days in her new role, which she says were something of a whirlwind. “I had the opportunity to meet all of the technical heads of Europe and that kind of dropped me in the deep end,” she laughs. “It’s quite interesting hearing the way that they think. I’ve come from news, so obviously there is a difference anyway with the sports guys, the entertainment guys. They generally know everything they want to do in advance. News is obviously very different.”

O’Brien adds that she believes her experience of working on both sides of the industry will stand her in good stead as she gets to grips with her new role. “I think I can bring that understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side,” she states. “Sometimes with vendors, the staff have been working on that side of the industry for 10-15 years, and there is possibly a slight disconnect between what they think is really important, really relevant, and what I’ve seen in terms of technology coming through. Hopefully I can bring that to the table.”

She says that this new position will be more strategic than her previous experiences, but “that’s quite a nice position to be in”.

“I’m really keen to make sure that EMG is a great solution for the end user in terms of providing a turnkey solution so we can deliver excellence across the entirety of the production chain. I think EMG does that in each of its entities at the moment, but I’d like to include it across the Group so the people just can come to us and say, ‘Can you do this?’ and we can say, ‘yes, we can do it all’.

“From the work that Bevan Gibson [her predecessor in the role] has been doing, the group has already moved towards being a bit more unified across the entirety of Europe,’ O’Brien continues. “Obviously, there is the challenge that as the business has grown, some of the separate entities are using different technologies. One of the focuses is to try and unify our solutions, but also to make sure that our sales teams sell the right solution to the customers. We want to make sure that it’s right for the end user. That’s really important.”

Asked which technologies are exciting her, O’Brien cites the push towards cloud production, which has been escalated by the pandemic. “Broadcasters would have all got there eventually, but I think the huge change that we’ve just been through has helped massively.”

As part of her remit, she has been tasked with driving EMG’s move to IP, and she believes it’s already being used by many broadcasters, but “everyone’s been so focused on keeping everyone safe during the pandemic that they’ve not really been shouting about it”.

“If you look at GB News, that has a complete NDI solution and five or six years ago, everyone said you could never build a television studio using NDI, that it would be absolutely crazy. And yet it’s completely possible. One of the people who joined GB News from Channel Nine Australia and came from a SMPTE facility said NDI is actually easier to work with. So I think technology has moved on hugely in the last five years. The technology is all there now, it’s just whether or not companies have got the money and the energy to move from the traditional ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ type mentality to ‘let’s put in the next wave’. It’ll be when people start doing their tech refresh that they’ll have to consider completely moving to an IP facility.”

One area that O’Brien is really keen to focus on is the skills gap within the industry. “Everyone I talk to at a managerial level has got gaps in their teams that they can’t really fill and I think some of it is because people don’t know our jobs exist,” she explains. “Everyone understands you have talent on telly and you have a camera person, but you don’t necessarily know that there’s a whole bunch of other people that are working behind all of that. 

“I already work with Surrey University, and I’m hoping to continue that work at EMG. I’m going to get involved with Rise as well, because for me, I think you need to get in at school level. That will help with diversity as a whole, not just between gender. The more schools we can go into to show people what happens behind the camera, the more interest that will generate,” she adds.

“It costs money to train people and businesses don’t necessarily have that time or they don’t have the staff to train new people. So it’s really tricky. It’s important to train people to understand the complete production workflow because that in itself can almost be more important than somebody being brilliant at all the networking in the world. If they just randomly reboot a switch and turn us all to black, that’s no help whatsoever. Whereas if you’ve got somebody who really understands the production workflow, that’s really important. 

“That is possibly where we lack because we’ve got lots of IT skills in the workforce that we could maybe pull from, but actually, they might not necessarily be the right people for the job just based on the fact they don’t understand the full production workflow, what it takes to get pictures to the end device.”

As she settles into her new role, O’Brien already has plans to share knowledge and skills from across EMG’s European units to help plug those skills gaps. “We’re sending some of team from the UK out to work at Roland Garros in May to learn some systems. One thing that Bevan was keen to start and I’ll try to continue is that sharing of resources across the group so that we can plug skills gaps as needed. It’ll also be great for people’s personal development and in getting exposure to other areas as well.”