CIO interview: Abby Ewen, Simmons & Simmons

Abby Ewen, IT director at law firm Simmons & Simmons, is what you might call a "people person". Of course, she can talk bits and bytes when she has to. But...

Abby Ewen, IT director at law firm Simmons & Simmons, is what you might call a "people person". Of course, she can talk bits and bytes when she has to. But when it comes to understanding what makes a great manager - and what powers an IT career forward - she realised long ago that it was working effectively with other people that mattered most.

"I think people management skills are absolutely essential," she says. "They are among those leadership qualities that allow you to make sure that when you're heading in a strategically important direction everyone in your department is behind you - not because they have to be but because they want to be."

As Ewen has discovered, getting on with people in all parts of an organisation makes a great foundation stone when building an IT career. "I think it's very important that you make yourself known to people so that when opportunities arise, you're the first person they think of.

"I'd advise any person embarking on a career in IT to be willing, flexible and work hard - but it's partly about being in the right place at the right time. And, sometimes, you can engineer those right places and right times - not in a manipulative way, but by developing trusted working relationships with people. It's not all outside of your control."

Ewen has certainly shown that she's got talent when it comes to that right place and time engineering. She started her career as a legal executive, one of the non-commissioned officers of the legal world who support solicitors in their work. Most of her time was spent on conveyancing work. But this was in the early 1990s and when the property market crashed, there was less conveyancing and her employers decided they didn't need so many legal executives. Wrong place, wrong time.

But, as chance had it, the previous personnel director had moved to law firm Withers. Ewen phoned her and landed a job as PA to one of the firm's corporate partners. After 18 months, she tried for a job in the IT department, working on a mixture of support and training. Right place, right time.

"There was one person in the department who handled the technical side of things, but there wasn't anybody who did the training," Ewen recalls. It was, as it turned out, an excellent time and place to be starting a career in IT. The firm was moving from a central Unix system with terminals to embrace the PC revolution.

"I was thrown in at the deep end in a project that set out to equip everybody in the firm - about 250 people from lawyers to secretaries - with PCs," Ewen says. Her job was to handle the training side of the operation, a strong people-facing role.

In fact, the role rapidly grew. Ewen ended up working with suppliers of a new practice management system, the desktop environment, word processing and e-mail (which the firm hadn't had until now). It was a lot to take on board very quickly for somebody who'd previously had no professional contact with IT.

"I learnt very fast and I worked very hard," Ewen recalls. But the old right time and place magic was still there. Because she'd been working in the firm's corporate department, she knew the partner in charge of IT - and, more to the point, he knew her capabilities. "He trusted me and effectively put me in charge of the whole thing," she says. "But it was a massive ordeal by fire."

But, then, that could also be another lesson for younger IT professionals wondering how to propel their career forward. The people who advance are those who are prepared to take on new challenges, even though they may seem daunting.

Certainly, Ewen never ducked a challenge during her 10 years with Withers - and there were plenty of them. She rarely stayed in the same IT role for more than a few months but constantly sought out fresh experiences. As she did so, she was doing two things - building up her CV and developing a range of contacts that were key in helping her to reach the top IT slots in two big law firms. She finished at Withers as IT manager.

Then came another change. She left to have a baby - Charlie, who is now nearly five. It's not easy for a woman in IT to have a family and a high-flying career, she admits. But she says, "I think women are good at compartmentalising the different parts of their lives."

One essential was a good and flexible nanny. "It was very important to me when I came back to work that I could leave the house in the morning and not have to worry about my son until I got home in the evening," she says. And it wasn't long before Ewen was plunged back into IT - the old right place and time engineering hadn't deserted her. Before taking time out to have Charlie, she'd filled in six months as interim IT operations manager at Simmons & Simmons.

Now the firm's CIO asked her back as full-time systems development manager, a role that involved running the global systems infrastructure, development, business analysis and project management. She spent the better part of three years developing the role before moving up to become IT director, effectively CIO.

Ewen believes law firms are a good place to build an IT career. "You get a certain set of skills that are transferable outwards. I think it's harder to acquire skills outside a law firm that are transferable inwards."

There's a good reason for that - a law firm is structured as a partnership. At Simmons & Simmons, each of the 220-plus partners has an equal say in the development of the firm. Effectively, that means - in management-speak - that Ewen has 220-plus stakeholders, all keenly interested in the effectiveness and quality of the IT services her team is able to deliver. And although law firms may have been later on parade than some other businesses when it came to harnessing IT, there is now no doubt that a global operation, such as Simmons & Simmons, is highly reliant on its systems.

"Of course, you need all the generic qualities that you would expect in a senior IT role, such as general management ability, leadership and strategic thinking," says Ewen. "But with so many stakeholders, you also need to be good at diplomacy and managing priorities by business need."

And this is where those people skills really come into their own. So what's the secret of connecting with other people - both inside the IT department and outside it? "One of the techniques I've always used is to focus on something that you have in common with an individual," Ewen says. "But you should never do this in a cynical way. It's about identifying a shared interest - it could be anything from your respective children to football - and using that as a common point of reference.

"You need to talk other people's language. I can have nerdy conversations with the best of them, but I can also have strategic conversations. And I think that part of being a good manager is being able to make the quantum leap between high-level and low-level subjects. I actually think that's one of the things that keeps your brain quite sharp as well.

"I don't know whether you'd call that a management technique or a just good human nature. It's a lot easier for me now, because I can use my position to help build relationships. Going back 10 years, it was slightly harder. But if you can gain people's trust and their willingness to communicate back with you, it's amazing what can come up in those conversations."

And how you can advance.


1986: Left Chelmsford College of Further Education with legal executive qualifications.

1987: Joined Bischoff & Co as a legal executive.

1992: Joined law firm Withers as training manager and progressed through successive promotions to posts as support manager and project manager.

2000: Gained BSc(Hons) in technology management and systems practice from Open University.

2000: Appointed IT manager at Withers with responsibility for planning, maintaining and developing the firm's IT function.

2002: Joined top 10 law firm Simmons & Simmons in an interim role as IT operations manager.

2003 (January): Left Simmons & Simmons to have a son.

2003 (August): Rejoined Simmons & Simmons as systems development manager.

2006: Became IT director at Simmons & Simmons.


• Abby Ewen runs a global IT function with 92 people, of whom 77 are based in the UK. The remainder are in Rotterdam, Paris, Lisbon, Dubai and Hong Kong.

• To help her run the IT function, Ewen has seven direct reports. Four of these are in London. There is a chief technology officer in charge of research and development and future technology strategy.

• A chief service delivery officer runs the service desk, training and operational administration.

• A chief service support officer is in charge of the infrastructure including the wide area and local area networks.

• Finally, a chief IT relationship officer is, effectively, Ewen's "globe-trotting troubleshooter". He recently helped to move the Dubai and Madrid offices and set up a new office in Moscow.

• Outside the UK, Ewen has direct reports managing devolved IT operations in Rotterdam, Lisbon and Hong Kong.

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