Steve Williams, M&A Head and IT Director, Waterstons
After years as the head of IT in large organizations, Steve Williams likes to sit on the other side of the desk, using his knowledge and experience to advise business leaders on their IT strategies.
Williams, who graduated from the University of Sheffield in German and economics in 1985, spoke to Computer Weekly about his background in the technology and business consulting industry.
When he last appeared in Computer Weekly in 2006, he was head of IT at Sunderland City Council. Today it is Head of M&A Practice and CIO at technology 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 role as IT director. He had already had a diverse career, with roles at IT supplier Allgeier and a long stint at chemical company ICI, where he spent his “10 or so years of training” in business analysis, project management, SAP deployment and mergers and acquisitions.
After leaving Sunderland Council in 2008, Williams moved into the education sector as Director of Academic Computing at Newcastle University, where he spent eight years. This is where he and his 240 employees focused on delivering complex IT services to large numbers of people. “At its best, technology in universities is an essential foundation for effective learning – particularly evident in the past two years – and life-changing research,” he says.
But Williams’ next step in 2016 saw him enter the IT consultancy business, joining Waterstons to lead its higher education practice for five years, before taking up his current role as head of the IT department. mergers and acquisitions to apply its expertise to ensure IT is at the heart of mergers to avoid missteps.
Williams had been a client of Waterstons while at Newcastle University and joined the company in 2016 as employee number 104.
He says after 20 years in CIO and IT, he wanted to do something different with more variety. “This week I worked on a long-term strategic plan to support the growth of a global manufacturer, strategic advice to a client considering its future structure, an interim assignment at a university, the digital strategy of great organization and business development,” he says.
In his current role as M&A Head and IT Director at Waterstons, Williams manages due diligence, carve-outs, M&A. “We can provide people with the range of skills needed – from strategy and architecture to organization and leadership, from cybersecurity to networking, from software to project management,” he says.
“As business changes, technology must respond with agility and in the same language”
It is computer knowledge like his that is becoming increasingly important in business transactions. In the digital age, technology is a key part of any merger or acquisition, Williams says. “In any transaction, legal and financial advisors are always involved, as finances and contracts are crucial. Nowadays, efficient and secure business processes, supported by efficient, secure and scalable technology, are equally crucial.
He says it’s obvious when technology is the business in cases like a financial services company relying on a specific algorithm or a software company looking to scale, but “it also applies when the IT is the foundation of a conventional business”.
“Don’t overlook the systems and technology implications of your transactions,” says Williams. “It should be infinitely scalable – the smallest M&A assignment Waterstons has done is three days of simple due diligence, while the largest is approaching 3,000 days of management advice. ‘a major carve-out and migration of 76 systems.’
Williams says the CIO experience allows organizations to see a potential future of business and the underlying role that technology plays, as well as potential issues. “Whether a company has 800 PCs or 810 has little bearing on its business value,” he says. “Whether its cybersecurity is robust or its ERP [enterprise resource planning] system supports it correctly the 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 that clear vision and be able to quickly develop and execute plans to get there. CIO to develop vision and program management and technical expertise to deliver quickly.
Although he no longer runs an IT operation in a large organization, Williams enjoys the variety of IT projects he is now involved in.. “In fact, I do a lot more “doing” now than I did in CIO roles – interviewing CFOs, drawing conclusions, presenting recommendations, etc. he says.
His background as a CIO has served him well. “Having spent most of my career on the other side of the desk, I have a pretty good sense of what clients want – openness, quality of insight, a perspective they don’t have internally and value for money,” he says.
But Williams misses leading a large team of tech professionals. “I enjoyed the sessions in front of the entire department to answer questions about orientation and activities,” he says.
Williams is in constant contact with CIOs at multiple companies and, out of empathy, can surmise that CIOs leading large organizations today face major challenges due to the pace of technological change and unpredictable changes in leadership. “I’m not just talking about the nightmare of Covid-19 or the madness of Brexit – the possibilities of technology itself are also pivoting organisations,” he says. “As business changes, technology must respond with agility and in the same language.”
The increased importance of cybersecurity is also something CIOs need to keep in mind, Williams says. “Moving cybersecurity from the server room to the boardroom is also essential. CIOs need to present cash and risk-based plans to boards to ensure the right levels of security are in place.
The advancement of digital technologies is increasing the role of the CIO and while this is challenging, there are also exciting times ahead, he says.
For example, Williams is excited to see how companies are embracing mobility and personalization technologies. “People want to work anywhere,” he says. “It is a problem in search of a number of solutions. Connecting securely from your local device to the business workflows, business processes, and communication channels of your organization and its partners is essential. It can be as simple as a well-implemented 365/Teams setup, or it can be a bespoke set of algorithms.
Williams is also eager to see how artificial intelligence is harnessed to make better sense of information. “Most organizations now produce mountains of data,” he says. “Technologies that start with business needs and then define and cut the mass of available data to produce insights and then insights will be a next wave in my view. The answer is not to throw everything into a data lake and sort by snippet – it takes a lot more thought than that.