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CTO interview: Juan Villamil discusses changing IT culture

Juan Villamil has worked at the Department for Work and Pensions for nearly five years. As he heads off to take up a new challenge at Imperial College, we speak to him about change and transformation

Juan Villamil, chief technology officer (CTO) at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), joined the organisation in 2015, at a time when it was just starting its journey to become more agile. The changes that needed to be made will resonate with every CIO and CTO, working in any size of organisation, and it is a familiar story of technology legacy and adapting culture.

When asked about his first objectives after joining DWP, Villamil says he needed to understand “the picture”.

“Five years ago, the first thing that was really important was to understand the picture and to set ambitions as high as possible,” he says.

Making changes to achieve a final outcome involves identifying areas that need improvement and breaking down the necessary changes into a number of discrete stages. “We thought through a number of challenges,” he says. “The IT was really complex and it was costly to build new services.”

At the time, the DWP’s IT was outsourced. Villamil recognised that the service IT provided to the organisation needed to be improved and that the department needed to become more agile. To achieve these objectives, he says the DWP first needed to take back control of its IT infrastructure.

While one option for IT chiefs is to push the problem of making the IT service agile and more efficient back to the outsourcer, in Villamil’s experience, it is very difficult to improve an IT service if the organisation is totally outsourced. “We wanted IT to do what it says on the tin – to drive digital transformation,” he says.

“We wanted IT to do what it says on the tin – to drive digital transformation”

Juan Villamil, DWP

For Villamil, digital transformation involves enabling the organisation to improve outcomes and becoming service-led. “We needed to get to a position where we could do this,” he says, “but you can’t innovate by proxy or transform by proxy.”

The DWP needed to disentangle its IT from HPE, its outsourcing provider. But at the time Villamil joined the department, the contract still had two years to run. Undoing two decades of outsourcing requires a lot of preparation, says Villamil. “We had to build an understanding of IT and formulate a plan to take back ownership.”

Into the cloud

One of the first decisions the organisation made was to go cloud-first, implying DWP’s strategy would be to run all IT in the cloud, unless it was impractical, as Villamil recognises that “it is not possible to move everything to the cloud”.

HPE operated the datacentres required to operate DWP’s back-end services, but with two years left on the existing HPE outsourcing contract, Villamil and the team identified a need to have on-premise datacentre capacity available once the contract terminated.

“The first conversation we had with HPE was about taking over the datacentres, but that option had lapsed – HPE did not want to work with us on that basis [as a datacentre hosting provider],” he says.

The DWP ended up with a brand new datacentre, and moved the service over from HPE to this datacentre, rather than attempting to replatform everything as cloud services.

While the datacentre provides state-of-the-art networking, compute and storage, the DWP philosophy of becoming cloud-first remained. The DWP decided to put as much data as it could in the cloud and migrate the remainder to the new datacentre.

“We came up with three patterns to treat our IT: some things will go into the cloud; some things will go into our datacentres, which may be replatformed; and for some, we will simply lift and shift the applications.” 

Read more about the DWP’s IT strategy

According to Villamil, thanks to the Crown Hosting Framework for datacentres developed by the Cabinet Office, all the hard work needed to procure new datacentre facilities and services was removed.

“The Crown Hosting Framework enables us to buy per kilowatt hour,” he says. “We took up a room [in the new datacentre], expanded to another room, and we just pay for consumption. It has a lot of similarities with cloud computing and provides a very flexible arrangement.”

Journey from outsourcing

Villamil observes that digital transformation is about people. In the past, the DWP acquired resources from IT suppliers, along with a range of capabilities.

“We decided to think of the future and the kind of organisation we wanted to be – an IT organisation for the department, that deliver outcomes, where everyone can reach their potential.”

The Engineering strategy – creating an exemplary engineering culture within DWP report, produced in 2018 for Villamil, identified a lack of management support to enable the organisation to “evolve an exemplary engineering culture”.

As Computer Weekly has previously reported, Villamil and the senior management team have introduced a coding Dojo to encourage tech teams to try out new ideas in a non-pressurised environment. He has also supported hackathons, such as the North East DataJam, which led to the development of a DWP skills recommendation engine.

From a people management perspective, he says the DWP needed to look at how it could match capabilities with its people, and put in place personal development plans to upscale skills to match the capabilities the department needed.

“We also want to attract future talent, and make the DWP a place where people really want to work,” he says.

But Villamil admits that keeping staff is a massive challenge, so the DWP has tried to create an environment where everyone can reach their potential. “We have an amazing organisation,” he says. “We have a big IT spend and we work across all kinds of technology. Whether your passion is infrastructure, security, building front-end or back-end applications, or payment services, it’s just an amazing place. [People] get every opportunity to grow and work on projects.”

Given what Villamil sees as the “incredible flexibility of working at the DWP”, he says deciding to leave was the hardest decision he has ever had to make. “I’ve been here almost five years and I’m most proud of the tech services team and the opportunity I was given.” he says.

Villamil is leaving the DWP to join Imperial College London, where, as its incoming CIO, he says he will be given the opportunity to transform IT and support innovation.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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