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CIO interview: Steve Williams, M&A lead and IT director, Waterstons

Steve Williams is applying decades of CIO experience to the advice he gives businesses during major mergers and acquisitions

After years heading up IT at major organisations, Steve Williams is enjoying sitting at the other side of the desk, using his knowledge and experience to advise business leaders on their IT strategies.

Williams, who graduated from Sheffield University in German and economics in 1985, spoke to Computer Weekly about his journey to the tech and business consultancy sector.

When he last featured in Computer Weekly back in 2006, he was heading up IT at Sunderland City Council. Today he is mergers and acquisitions (M&A) practice lead and IT director at tech and business consultancy Waterstons, a job title that reflects the high value of IT knowledge to today’s businesses.

In 2003, when Williams became head of IT at Sunderland City Council, it was his first major CIO role. He had already had a diverse career, with roles at IT supplier Allgeier and a long spell at chemicals company ICI, where he spent his “formative 10 years or so” in business analysis, project management, SAP deployment and M&A.

After leaving Sunderland Council in 2008, Williams moved into the education sector as director of IT at Newcastle University. He spent eight years there, focusing, with his 240 staff, on delivering complex IT services to large numbers of people. “At its best, technology in universities is an essential underpin for effective learning – particularly obvious in the past couple of years – and life-changing research,” he says.

But Williams’ next move, in 2016, saw him enter the IT consultancy sector, joining Waterstons to head up its higher education practice for five years, before moving into his current position as head of the mergers and acquisitions department to apply his expertise to ensure IT is front and centre during mergers to avoid mis-steps.

Williams had been a client of Waterstons while at Newcastle University. He joined the company in 2016 as employee number 104.

He says that after 20 years in CIO and IT roles, he wanted to do something different with more variety. “This week, I have worked on a long-term strategic plan to underpin the growth of a global manufacturer, strategic advice for a client that is considering its future structure, an interim assignment at a university, the digital strategy of a large organisation and some business development,” he says.

In his current role as M&A lead and IT director at Waterstons, Williams is running due diligence, carve-outs, mergers and acquisitions. “We can provide people with the range of skills needed – from strategy and architecture to organisation and leadership, from cyber security to networking, from software to project management,” he says.

“As business changes, tech needs to respond with agility, and in the same language”

Steve Williams, Waterstons

Knowledge of IT is becoming more important in business deals. In the age of digitisation, tech is a key component of any merger or acquisition, says Williams. “In any deal, legal and financial advisers are always involved, because finance and contracts are crucial. Nowadays, effective and secure business processes, backed up by effective, secure and scalable tech, are equally crucial.”

He says it is obvious when the tech is the business in cases such as a financial services company relying on a specific algorithm, or a software company looking to scale up, but “it also applies when the IT is an underpin to a conventional business”.

“Don’t neglect the systems and tech implications of your deals,” says Williams. “This should be infinitely scalable – the smallest assignment Waterstons has done in mergers and acquisitions is three days of simple due diligence, while the largest approaches 3,000 consulting days on the leadership of a major carve-out and the migration of 76 systems.”

Williams says CIO experience enables organisations to see a potential future of the business and the underpinning role that technology plays, as well as where potential issues may lie. “Whether a firm has 800 PCs or 810 makes little difference to its corporate value,” he says. “Whether its cyber security is robust, or whether its ERP [enterprise resource planning] system correctly supports it supply chain is fundamental.

“Successful mergers and acquisitions come from making the future business better than the sum of the parts. IT leaders need to have this clear vision and be able to develop and execute plans quickly to get there. We have the CIO experience to develop the vision and the programme management and technical expertise to deliver quickly.”

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Despite no longer leading an IT operation at a major organisation, Williams enjoys the variety of IT projects he is now involved in. “­­I do a lot more ‘doing’ now than I did in the CIO roles – interviewing CFOs, pulling conclusions together, presenting recommendations and the like,” he says.

His CIO past has stood him in good stead. “Having spent most of my career on the other side of the desk, I have a pretty good view of what clients want – openness, quality of insight, a perspective that they do not have in-house, and value for money,” he says.

But Williams does miss leading a large team of tech professionals. “I enjoyed the sessions in front of the whole department taking questions on direction and activities,” he says.

Williams is constantly engaging with CIOs at multiple businesses and, through empathy, can surmise that CIOs leading large organisations today face major challenges because of the pace of tech change and unpredictable changes of direction. “I don’t just mean the nightmare of Covid-19 or the lunacy of Brexit – the affordances of technology itself also cause organisations to pivot,” he says. “As business changes, tech needs to respond with agility, and in the same language.”

The increased importance of cyber security is also something CIOs need to keep on top of, says Williams. “The move of cyber security from the server room to the boardroom is key, too. CIOs need to present cash- and risk-based plans to boards to ensure that the right levels of security are in place.”   

The advancement of digital technologies is increasing the CIO’s role, and although this is challenging, there are also exciting times ahead, he says.

For example, Williams is excited to see how businesses adopt mobility and personalisation technologies. “People want to work anywhere,” he says. “This is a problem looking for a number of solutions. Connecting securely from your local device into the corporate workflows, business processes and communication channels of your organisation and its partners is key. This may be as simple as a well-implemented 365/Teams setup, or it may be a bespoke set of algorithms.”

Williams is also looking forward to seeing how artificial intelligence (AI) is harnessed to make better sense of information. “Most organisations now produce mountains of data,” he says. “Technologies that start with business needs, and then define and cut through the mass of data available to produce information and then insight, will be a next wave, in my view. The answer is not to dump it all into a data lake and sort on extract – it needs a lot more thought than that.”

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