Willie Stegmann unpacks Vodacom’s transition from telco to tech company


Vodacom is leaps and bounds ahead of other telcos as it broadens the scope of its business.

By Jane Steinacker

CIOs need to have a seat at the table, but to get there they need to earn it. This is the advice from Willie Stegmann, group CIO for Vodacom.

“Many CIOs are grappling with the fundamental change in their roles. What was once a transactional role, keeping the lights on, is now a strategic role using technology to transform and build the business,” says Willie.

“Companies are starting to understand that a CIO is now more important than ever to drive a business’s growth,” he says.

And Willie is the perfect man for the job. He has spent more than 25 years in the IT industry and hails from a solid background in the financial services industry, having worked for two of South Africa’s largest banks.

Willie was an integral part of the team that launched Vodacom’s new Superapp, Vodapay. The app is a fundamental driver in moving Vodacom towards a new era, from a consumer subscription model to a business and financial services company.

Vodapay is leading the way in Africa as a platform business. The digital wallet allows consumers to make payments faster by storing all their payment information in one secure location.

Vodapay will certainly get the attention of the banks. “With a total customer base of 100 million, great technology and an ability to execute fast, Vodacom is a formidable competitor,” Willie notes.

This isn’t Vodacom’s only success in this space. As part of the company’s move into financial services, micro-loans for airtime and data have also been introduced. “Our customers diligently pay the money back, even if it is just R20,” says Willie.

Other companies have pricked up their ears at the strides Willie and his team are making, with offers for non-executive directorships coming his way. “This shows how important the IT function has become: usually these positions were offered to financial and marketing directors,” says Willie.

To be able to create Vodapay and use technology to further the business’s competitiveness and drive the new strategy, Willie needed to reposition the role of the CIO in Vodacom, a task that did not come without its challenges.

Willie explains that usually the technology division of a company traditionally falls under the COO or CFO, but that it should be in partnership with the business. This is essential to ensure success.

“As a CIO you need to be active in creating inclusion,” he says. He started by changing what he refers to as ceremonies. Every quarter, Willie and his team sit down with the business and in almost granular detail, go through all the IT initiatives to ensure that all priorities are aligned. “We have had about 15 of these sessions so far and they have become part of our DNA,” he says.

It also gives the business the opportunity to work with its technology specialists to collectively prioritise projects as per the business’s objectives.

Building a strong connection between the IT divisions in the business across the continent has also been an integral part of Vodacom’s success. While the Covid-19 induced lockdowns have paused the events for now, as soon as possible Willie will resume the annual IT Summit. “We fly all the Pan-African technology leadership down to Johannesburg and just talk technology for two days. We also invite vendors to come and present new solutions for the teams to consider,” says Willie.

He has also introduced the annual Vodacom Hackathon, an opportunity for teams to tackle a business problem and create a potential software solution. These, says Willie, have given the teams the confidence to, “try different things in a safe and friendly competition environment”.

The most recent success from a hackathon, was the reimagining of Vodacom’s rewards programme. Historically the rewards programme was ineffective and costly, but the team used the hackathon to create the highly successful Vodabucks, which in turn won them their own reward at the annual Vodacom CEO awards.

“This is a great example of how joint business and technology teams can solve business problems by looking at them with a new set of eyes. The Vodabucks programme is also a great source of insights which, paired with analytics, will help us serve our customers better,” he says.

It has not been an easy feat for Willie to get the highly functional technology team to where it is now. “To be a CIO you can’t have a thin skin,” he notes. He was initially met with resistance and has had some tough conversations with business leaders in the company who have been disappointed by delivery from the IT department.

Willie says this is all part of a learning curve. “Vodacom has a culture of maturity, an openness to speak up and to learn from your mistakes. Just don’t make the mistake again,” he says.

So, what is next? “Vodacom has an ambitious plan called Tech2025 to transition to a full-blown technology company, beyond just a telco. It is a bold vision, but I have no doubt that we will achieve it”, says Willie.

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