See also: CIO Profile: Spire's Stephen Hayward on partnerships with professionals

IT directors have to be good multi-taskers, especially since the role has broadened over the past decade to include strategy, operations, sales and research and development.

The job is still primarily about technology, of course, but IT directors themselves appear to be getting less techie.

Stephen Hayward, IT director at Spire Healthcare, the UK’s second biggest private healthcare provider, has trod a very different career path to most IT directors.

Because in the first half of his career, he used to command a nuclear submarine.

Hayward spent 20 years in the Royal Navy, climbing the ranks to become a commander of two submarines, one of which carried Polaris nuclear missiles.

His naval career, from 1970 to 1990, coincided with some tense times during the Cold War between the western powers and the then Soviet Union.

Hayward has fond memories of his time at sea, including a patrol that lasted four months on a submarine that carried about 180 people.

“We sailed in November and came back in February having had Christmas underwater. That was one of the longest Polaris patrols ever.”

The submarines make their own air and water to sustain their long spells underwater, he explains.

“You can stay dived almost indefinitely with a nuclear reactor [powered-submarine]. The limit on endurance is how much food you can carry and how much confinement the crew can take.”

It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to spending four months underwater in close confinement with hundreds of people. How did Hayward cope?

“It’s challenging but it’s also very fascinating,” he says. “You have a very expensive toy to play with.”

Hayward had to stay in contact with naval headquarters 99.9 per cent of the time using a communication system which floated just underneath the surface of the sea to avoid detection.

“Communication meant listening only. You never transmitted. At the time the threat was the Warsaw Pact and they could have triangulated any communication from sea and they could have had anti-submarine aircraft over us, locating us all the time and negating our position as a deterrent,” Hayward says.

Despite his occasional foray into management jargon it’s not too hard to imagine the broad-framed Hayward as commander of a submarine. He has a calm manner, a well-modulated voice and a clear idea about what he wants to achieve in a job.

Hayward’s naval career ended following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and subsequent spending cuts in the navy, including a reduction in the number of its submarines.

The cuts would have given him fewer opportunities to go to sea, and while a career in the Ministry of Defence was an option, Hayward wasn’t interested.

He began to look for jobs in more “operational roles” and saw a job advertisement in a newspaper to run a private hospital.

From subs to IT
Hayward left the navy on Friday and joined a Bupa hospital in Cambridge the following Monday as general manager. “You could have written what I knew about healthcare on the back of a postage stamp,” Hayward jokes.

After four years Hayward left to become chief executive of St Edmunds Hospital in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

He then became general manager at Bournemouth Nuffield Hospital and then head of health screening at Nuffield Hospitals group.

He joined Spire as operations and IT director in 2007, the year the company was formed from the sale of Bupa Hospitals to Cinven, a European private equity firm.

Spire now runs 37 private hospitals in the UK and treats more than 930,000 patients a year.

It employs more than 7600 people, of whom 40 to 50 work in Hayward’s IT department.

About half of Spire’s IT was outsourced, but a large chunk — including network management and server hosting — has been bought back in house.

This has saved Spire money as well as giving it more control over its IT.

“As a healthcare provider we can’t reclaim the VAT and it was costing us over a million pounds a year to the taxman. We realised that by in-sourcing the services we could reclaim about £1m a year in VAT.”

Hayward spends most of his time overseeing large projects and thinking about how IT can support the business. “My role is very much at a strategic level. I’m not a techie by profession — I’m an operator,” he says.

To treat NHS patients, Spire has to comply with NHS data standards for information governance and minimum ‘data sets’ for each patient.

Compliance with these standards can be arduous.

The NHS issues notices about changes in its data sets twice a year, which may require additional data filed into Spire’s IT systems, or other tweaks.

“It’s quite a task,” says Hayward.