CIO career path: How top UK IT business leaders reached their positions

Successful CIOs must possess skills ranging from IT expertise to people management in order to succeed in an extremely varied profession. It is therefore unsurprising that the UK's top IT business leaders come from a diverse array of backgrounds.

Here's our look at some of the more unconventional routes into the profession taken by CIOs in the UK.

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British Transport Police CIO Sarah Winmill

British Transport Police CIO Sarah Winmill

British Transport Police CIO Sarah Winmill spent four years studying viola at the Royal College of Music, but a spell working at the ticket office of the Royal Albert Hall convinced her to apply her creativity to IT systems.

In an interview with CIO UK, government tech advisor Jerry Fishden said there was a natural link between music and IT.

"Computer programming and music are both about creativity and problem solving," he said. "In the first case, it's about defining objects and methods and putting them together in a program; and in the second case, it's about notes - sequencing the notes and orchestrating them with different instruments.

"Maybe when you're coding mission-critical stuff, you don't have as much room for creativity. That's going to require the rigour of heavy-duty software engineering. But when you're writing a user interface, you do have to be creative. Writing a user interface is very much an art, because you never know how the users are going to react to the way you display things to them and the way you let them respond to the interface with input."

Knights Brown CIO Peter Williamson

Knights Brown CIO Peter Williamson

After graduating from Imperial College London with a BSc in Geology, Knights Brown CIO Peter Williamson began his working life as a quarry manager at Hanson UK.

The company first put him through a structured apprenticeship of operational management involving mentoring, classroom activities, professional exams with the Institute of Quarrying and the chance to work in a variety of operational sites across the UK.

He then joined the company's IT team as a Business Analyst before taking on the role of Business Systems Manager at the Raymond Brown Group, which was later rebranded as Knights Brown.

"Having met and managed and been mentored by such a wide range of people from different cultures and professional backgrounds I feel I have a wealth of management experience to draw upon that is far in advance of most people in my peer group," he said.

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MD for IT at the EBRD Richard Williams

MD for IT at the EBRD Richard Williams

Richard Williams, the MD for IT at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), began his career in the British Army.

Williams was commissioned in 1986 into the Welsh Guards and returned to the Army after graduating from the University of Cambridge with a BA and an MA in Land Economy. He went on to progress through a number of training and command roles in the Army, eventually reaching the rank of Major and earning a Military Cross for actions against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

After leaving the Army in 2000, Williams worked in government, consultancy, broking and insurance, before joining EBRD in 2017.

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CWT Chief Product and Technology Officer Andrew Jordan

CWT Chief Product and Technology Officer Andrew Jordan

Andrew Jordan, Chief Product and Technology Officer at travel management company CWT, trained as a lawyer before pursuing a career in IT. The CIO 100 member believes his legal studies at the University of Nottingham and the College of Law gave him commercial and communication skills that he can draw on in his current role.

"It's always given me a good grounding in commerce, because a lot of the options that I studied in my law degree were very commercial," he told CIO UK. "It's also allowed me to think about communication in a very effective way - this sort of conversation, or how do you write a business plan, or how do you write a very compelling business case if we want to get board approval for something. I'd say it's more of the softer skills that I've taken from my law degree."

He added that lacking a background in computer science allowed him to have more impactful conversations with less non-technical colleagues.

"We've hired a new CFO recently, and I was joking with her the other day saying, I'm probably the only CTO you'll ever meet who tries to save money, and not just spend it all," he said.

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Morrisons Chief Technology Director Anna Barsby

Morrisons Chief Technology Director Anna Barsby

Morrisons Chief Technology Director Anna Barsby earned a degree in history of art from the University of Warwick before commencing her professional career.

Caroline Sands, managing partner and lead for the CIO and technology officers practice at executive recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson, said that this academic background is not as strange as it might seem, when CIO UK asked her what kinds of university degrees put one on the path to becoming a CIO.

"It's really varied," she said. "But whatever the subject, it should come from a recognised course from a Russell Group university. This person might have studied Computer Science or economics - but equally music, or German say. Intellectual dexterity - the ability to turn your hand to anything - is the important skill. We've found that an interest and passion for any subject is a good indicator that somebody might well have a successful career."

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Heathrow Airport CIO Stuart Birrell

Heathrow Airport CIO Stuart Birrell

Heathrow Airport CIO Stuart Birrell was studying for an MBA at Warwick University and working for the Walkers Crisps brand of the Pepsi snack foods empire when he first bit into IT.

"At Walkers I spent a few years building factories and in 2000 I led the build of a new warehouse and put in the management system," Birell told CIO UK when he was CIO at Gatwick Airport.

"At the same time I was doing an MBA. I was conscious that I was getting bored of engineering and there was an opportunity in IT project management. I first put in Oracle iProcurement and used my engineering skills."

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Natural History Museum Interim CIO Ian Golding

Natural History Museum Interim CIO Ian Golding

Natural History Museum CIO Ian Golding is another IT business leader with musical experience on his CV. The former RNLI Interim CIO was a professional trombonist who played in orchestras around the world before becoming an IT business leader.

Alan Mumby, an executive search partner and colleague of Caroline Sands at Odgers Berndtson, told CIO UKthat musical backgrounds such as Golding's and Winmill's were not unusual in the profession.

"Something that was surprising to us at first is that some very successful CIOs have studied music - or when they were at university, played in a band, and continued to play in a band," he said.

"Our only thought on why this might be is that music is very mathematically orientated, it's very logical. But its also expression; it's creative output. Maybe there's something in the ability to play music, and write music that's akin to strong skills for the CIO."

Read next: Natural History Museum CIO Ian Golding video interview - The intersection of technology and ancient artefacts

Freshfields CISO Mark Walmsley

Freshfields CISO Mark Walmsley

Freshfields CISO Mark Walmsley is another IT business leader who studied law before embarking on a career in tech.

After graduating with a law degree from the University of Derby, he worked as a paralegal at Freshfields for three years before moving into the IT department, gaining a deep understanding of the business and how to communicate with less technical colleagues.

"Lawyers work in a very different way to techie people," Walmsley told CIO UK. "They have a very different level of analysis. They want very clear messages and want them backed up by fact.

"Over the years, having worked in one of the big groups, I'd learnt how lawyers wanted to work. I understood how the techies were working and I've been able to bridge that gap."

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