CIO interview: Steve Capper, CIO, SNC-Lavalin

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Steve Capper, CIO at engineering and construction specialist SNC-Lavalin, took an unusual route to the top. Now he’s reached the IT leadership pinnacle, he’s keen to create a lasting impact for the business and the new talent he’s bringing through in his own department.

Capper began working for engineering and development giant Arup as a trainee aged 16, having left school with no qualifications. Over the next two decades, he worked in a range of roles, taking on more responsibilities, until he eventually headed up the technology team: “I started in the print room and, after 23 years, left Arup as the head of IT globally.”

He subsequently worked for construction company Skanska, design specialist AECOM – where he worked in Dubai and Los Angeles – before becoming global CIO with Royal BAM Group in the Netherlands in late 2017. He joined SNC-Lavalin in February 2020.

“I took my opportunities,” says Capper, reflecting on his career. “I never set out from school thinking I was going to be a CIO. But I did a lot of hard work to get to where I am today. I’ve put in the hours. I showed people I could do it, and that’s how I progressed and moved from the back office in Leeds to running IT for massive companies around the world.”

Bringing everything together

During the past two years, Capper has focused on bringing disparate people and systems together to create a single IT organisation at SNC-Lavalin. As part of this process, he’s reduced the company’s core datacentres from 16 down to three in the UK, Canada, and the US.

Capper says data management is a big challenge for his organisation. The company collects a huge amount of information when employees work on projects. However, while as much as 80% of this data is never touched again after six months, it also needs to be kept as a record of the different work the firm has produced for clients.

“Obviously, we might use some of our data at some stage, but a lot of it is quite static, so it doesn’t lend itself to being kept in the cloud,” he says. “Pushing everything into the cloud would be expensive.”

As well as cost, the company needs to consider data sovereignty. For this combination of reasons, Capper says private cloud is a better solution to the business’ data storage challenge than public provision.

“We’ve got data sovereignty to take into account because we have nuclear work and sensitive work for governments around the world,” he says. “We need to make sure we know where that data is and that it’s protected. Instead, we have managed services, but in our datacentres. So, we pay a specialist player, Creative ITC, for a private cloud.”

Application consolidation is another priority area. SNC-Lavalin consists of a range of organisations that have been brought together over the years. The result, says Capper, is a multitude of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. His team is running a three-year programme to consolidate enterprise ERP into a single instance from Oracle in the cloud.

Creating a single version of the truth

To aid cross-business collaboration, Capper has also implemented VMware’s Horizon virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to create a trusted source of data for the company’s design and engineering professionals.

“We use that technology heavily because we have design centres around the world and we send a lot of work to places like India, but they need to collaborate in real time with people in the US or in Canada or the UK,” he says.

“It’s high-end compute because the models are absolutely huge. But we’re finding massive efficiencies because we’re not having to drag and drop drawings across the world, which take hours to copy. Everything’s just hosted in a central place.”

Capper says the shift to VMware VDI has supported a big shift in working methods. Rather than storing and then working on files locally, employees around the globe can collaborate on the definitive version of models and designs. This single version of the truth also ensures computing resources are used effectively.

“The traditional route was that everybody had a big meaty machine under their desk. They connected in to their local office and server. But the problem was that we couldn’t have people working in different offices at the same time on the same model, because you couldn’t work across the network,” he says.

“Rather than people copying models, everything is now just going into one central system. VDI has also driven massive efficiencies in terms of IT costs because for each person we used to have to buy a high-end computer. Some of these computers can cost up to £20,000, and then they sit under a person’s desk and they’re only leveraged by that person, which is crazy.”

Embracing new approaches

Capper says the business now benefits from a joined-up, cost-effective way of working. Rather than having to spend big on servers and high-end computers for every office, the company can provision technology as it’s required.

“It doesn’t matter what device people are using,” he says. “We don’t actually need to always buy fancy computers anymore. We could use Chromebooks if we wanted to. The power is in the supercomputer in the datacentre that’s hosted on VMware. All the processing takes place centrally. All the data is stored in the private cloud across three datacentres.”

As well as Horizon VDI, SNC-Lavalin also uses VMware’s virtualisation technology vSphere, its vSan hyperconverged infrastructure software, its security platform NSX, and its multicloud service vRealize.

Steve Capper

 “There’s lots of buzzwords that come out of the IT industry, but I think just working smarter and doing things more efficiently is going to be the big thing next year”

Steve Capper, SNC-Lavalin

Capper says his IT team will use this suite of technology and a range of other systems to focus on ensuring the business benefits from information and insight.

“We’ve been talking about data as the new oil for years,” he says. “There’s lots of buzzwords that come out of the IT industry, but I think just working smarter and doing things more efficiently is going to be the big thing next year.”

Capper says another priority for 2023 is to continue honing internal capability, including increasing diversity within the IT team. “It’s something that we are trying desperately to do. One thing we’ve done recently is taken our help desk from 15% female to 30% in the last six months, so we’re getting there,” he says.

“Trying to encourage people into technology is quite hard. The good thing about working for a company like ours is that we’ve got so many things we’re doing – we’re looking at networking, security, ERP, storage systems, and solutions for VDI. There’s a lot more work for people to get involved in. We’ve built a training academy as well, as we’re keen to develop graduates and to help people work in teams.”

Leading from the front

Although he fulfils a global role, Capper makes as much time for his team as possible. He runs town-hall meetings for the whole department every month where he gives people the freedom to ask challenging questions.

“I’ll answer every single thing they ask, whether it’s, ‘Can we have a salary rise?’ or ‘Why are we using that particular technology?’” he says. “I try to be open. We have an internal HR survey in the company and we get some of the highest scores because the team feel that we’re transparent. I will happily walk them through the IT budget line by line just to explain how it works.”

Capper reports to the company’s head of risk and major projects. His responsibilities vary considerably from day to day and cover a range of activities, such as cyber security, service delivery, or thinking about how to support business growth through the application of new technologies. To this end, he interacts regularly with vendors to see how the organisation can make the most of their new capabilities.

“It can be a hugely varied day,” he says. “I have a team of 800 and I have a management team and their job is to get the best out of their teams as well. So, they take a lot of pressure off me – and it gives me more time with our business colleagues to discuss how we can use technology to help them.”

For up-and-coming IT talent, Capper has straightforward advice: “Just grab every opportunity with both hands. For me, being successful in IT and business doesn’t have to always be about getting academic qualifications – you need to have something about you, and common sense goes a long way.”

Producing new efficiencies

Capper says digital transformation at SNC-Lavalin will continue at pace. As well as VMware’s tools, the company uses about 5,000 pieces of software for areas such as heavy engineering and business information modelling from providers such as Bentley Systems, Autodesk and Esri.

“There are huge changes we’re making at the moment,” he says. “These projects can take up to 12 to 18 months. What I’m aiming for is to try to have a single world where we can leverage our data for other projects and other needs that we might not have thought about.”

Capper recognises that the wider macro-economic and geopolitical environment will impact the decision-making processes all business leaders take during the next few years. However, his broader aim is to focus on producing efficiencies for the business and to create a single and cohesive technology environment.

“People talk about digital transformation a lot, but we’ve been involved in that work for years. I don’t think using technology to change your business is a new approach. What we’re trying to do is to work smarter, leverage our data and drive efficiencies where possible,” he says.

“In 18 months’ time, I’d like to see that we’re nearly over the line with some of our bigger initiatives, such as consolidating ERP, as that will drive massive benefits for the company.”

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