By Eliot Beer
ACN's annual roundup of ten of the best IT decision makers in the Middle East.
Living and working in the Middle East sometimes seems like being in the centre of a gigantic race - but with no clear end and no single prize. Hundreds - thousands - of companies and governments and individuals locked in heated battle for customers, or making determined land grabs for fresh new markets.
But while charismatic leaders and entrepreneurs monopolise the limelight of publicity, vast teams of dedicated professionals are working behind the scenes to transform their organisations' visions into reality - and IT is at the vanguard of these backroom workers.
It barely needs to be noted that everything a modern enterprise does rests in some way on IT - but what is becoming clear is that not any IT will do, and by extension not any IT manager, when it comes to realising more ambitious regional projects.
To cope with explosive growth, dramatic new directions, and challenging economic, political - and even physical - environments takes a special calibre of professionals - and it is these people, working in the IT sector, that ACN aims to identify with this annual exercise.
This year's list contains an interesting mix of individuals: two are from the region's mega-projects, three from the financial sector, two more from retail and hospitality, one from the healthcare sector - and two are not in fact IT professionals, but general business executives.
That senior business executives should make themselves so involved in IT decisions very neatly demonstrates the critical nature of IT - but in fact these two business leaders simply share the same quality with their eight fellow list members - that of business acumen.
In a region with the current high levels of growth, making the wrong IT decision is more than likely to be disastrous, costing money, opportunities, customers - and reputation. For an organisation to succeed, IT needs to get it right first time, all the time.
Needless to say, these ten IT decision makers tend to get it right - but sadly they continue to represent a relatively small group of IT professionals of whom this can be said. There are of course many more IT managers who make good decisions - including many who could sit on this list - but they are outnumbered by organisations which are still making poor IT decisions.
This is, however, changing - and hopefully the approach of the ten IT decision makers on this list will filter down throughout the region's business community.
The ten executives in this list were chosen by the ACN editorial team, based on criteria including overall career experience, industry knowledge, and - most importantly - an ability to tie IT development to business needs. The key requirement for eligibility was to be one - if not the sole - of an organisation's IT decision makers; general executives whose role includes IT decision-making thus became eligible.
The ten IT decision makers are listed in alphabetical order.
Executive manager at Gulf Craft
It may seem unusual to include an executive manager in a roundup of the region's top IT managers - but Erwin Bamps isn't your average executive manager. Rather than be content to read canned system reports from his IT administrator, he instead rolled up his sleeves and got stuck into the process of ensuring that IT systems at Ajman-based luxury yacht builder Gulf Craft ran smoothly.
Under his watch, Gulf Craft has been transformed in six years from an organisation with just eight PCs and one IT location to a major manufacturing concern with four production facilities, more than 150 users, and a new factory in the Maldives.
Bamps is in many ways the key force behind Gulf Craft's successful expansion. With the firm's future IPO in mind, he pressed for an upgrade to the firm's existing Focus ERP system to bring the company's financial reporting in line with international standards. The new system allows Bamps to get accurate reporting about his boats at every stage of production, from the initial sale to final delivery.
But even after overseeing a complete transformation of the firm's IT operations and integration of new features like barcode systems (which other Focus users are eyeing with interest), he continues to push his IT team to keep updating with new modules and features to make his users more productive.
His only regret is that he doesn't use his own systems as much as he'd like to - when he eventually does, other IT managers may have to watch out.
CIO of National Bank of Kuwait (NBK)
Fadi Chehayeb is one of those rare IT managers who stays up to date with both the business and the technology side of his job. As far as he is concerned, no IT decision is made without fully understanding the impact it would have on the business processes of the company.
Since 2004, Chehayeb has ensured that NBK has the all the latest technology it needs to succeed by upgrading the network and creating a consolidated, centralised datacentre, as well as establishing a disaster recovery site with full mirroring and redundancy capabilities.
Chehayeb is just coming to the end of phase one of this project but is already considering phase two - upgrading national branches into a mixture of 10Gbit/s and 1Gbit/s fibre links and having the entire bank working through the IP network by the end of 2008, except perhaps the last mile of ATMs.
Chehayeb is sure of his ability to lead the bank through its transformation, despite the long duration of the project and the fact that upgrading the entire network has presented a lot of challenges to NBK's 180-strong IT team.
"A lot of this takes time but we are midway already. We have put together governance and processes as well as focused on core technology change. In fact, we are changing our core banking solution in parallel with our work on the network. Along with implementing new solutions, we are renewing our focus on people. It is all coming together and there is no reason for us not to reach our goals soon," he says.
Director of IT and Logistics at Dubai Duty Free (DDF)
Ramesh Cidambi has a tough job and he does it very well. After more than 20 years heading up the technology department at DDF, he is now dealing with a lot of challenges as his retail base, Dubai Airport, doubles in size.
When Cidambi joined DDF, it was a four-year-old operation with a turnover of only US$50 million - with the new concourses; sales are expected to rise to around $1 billion.
Cidambi, however, takes it all in his stride. One of his initial projects saw the DDF become one of the first retailers in the region to embark on deploying a new system at the point of sale, putting new applications in the back office and integrating them. Now, he will help DDF to expand in line with the airport.
The expansion means big changes for the world's third largest airport retailer. Where before 85% of its sales were coming from its seven outlets at Terminal 1, when Concourse 2 opens, 60-85% of those sales will move there and then the opening of Concourse 3 will see even further migration. These changes in structure will have a knock-on effect on the way the business is run, which also means changes for the IT department.
Cidambi, however, is confident he can make these changes because of his approach to the job of an IT manager.
"The combination of having the right level of authority and influence in the company along with my own interest in other areas of the business have helped in developing my own career and making sure that technology provides a very important enabling function within the firm."
Director of the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Department at Amman Stock Exchange (ASE)
Mohammad Al-Khatib is all too aware of the price of failure. As director of ICT at the ASE, every day he has to ensure that financial services are always available to the public - in the awareness that every system is eventually bound to fail.
What distinguishes Al-Khatib - ACN's CIO of the year - from others is his willingness to accept the inevitability of that failure and the need to communicate the resulting downtime to external users. When confronted with failure, other CIOs might well go into media lockdown mode - but not Khatib.
"When you have an obvious problem, you cannot pretend that you don't have it. You need to inform people that the service is being stopped, that this is being studied and that they will be informed. Once we do that, it gets people off our back - this is the advantage of disclosure," he says.
Al-Khatib has had a prolific career at the ASE. In 2000 - aged just 28 - he implemented an electronic trading system to create the region's first floorless stock exchange. This achievement propelled him into the upper ranks of the exchange's management, where he started a number of original projects, including a data warehouse for improving reporting capabilities - which Al-Khatib discovered could also be used to uncover illegal market manipulation.
Under Al-Khatib's leadership, the ASE has successfully transitioned from being a consumer of technology into a major source of innovation.
CEO of Roshan
There are tough jobs - and then there's trying to set up a telecoms operation in war torn Afghanistan, where the electricity supply is sporadic and weather extremes play havoc with delicate hardware. That's just physical equipment - security is a constant necessity with remote locations under threat from bandits. And customer support takes on a whole new meaning when disgruntled users are likely to stone your offices, kidnap staff and generally attempt bodily harm if they don't get what they want.
Canadian entrepreneur Karim Khoja, CEO of Roshan, clearly believed that these were not insurmountable obstacles. His leadership has seen Roshan overtake its competition to become Afghanistan's leading mobile operator. In the process, Khoja's created a modern IT infrastructure featuring a full CRM system with a strong emphasis on resilience and a zero tolerance attitude towards data loss.
He's also spent millions providing security for his staff, in addition to generating his own power to keep stations alive. Khoja has sought to engender a sense of corporate responsibility, refusing to give into corruption while setting up his network, despite Afghanistan's often unorthodox business environment.
With the introduction of other mobile operators, - including UAE titan Etisalat - into the Afghan market, Khoja now has real competition on his hands, but he remains bullish on Roshan's prospects. And with his experience, they would be unwise to underestimate him.
Head of IT at Doha Bank
Over the last six years, UVK Kumar has brought Doha Bank firmly into the 21st Century. When he took the reins, Qatar as a whole was still in the process of embracing technology and Doha was still operating a decentralised server system, meaning Kumar had to write the roadmap that would transform Doha into a modern bank.
His first step was to centralise the server architecture, quickly followed by the introduction of new applications and services that would make banking more convenient for the bank's numerous customers. Internet banking, e-remittance and SMS bankng are some of the online services Doha Bank now offers and the centralised server system means that instead of downtime, the bank now enjoys around 99% availability.
There are no plans to stop there, however. Kumar foresees the new branch in Dubai offering most of the services that are available in Qatar, including new EMV compliant chip cards for customers and he is also looking into e-commerce as a way to enhance the bank's business.
The secret to CIO success, according to Kumar, lies in the right balance of business and technology knowledge.
"Basically, I would say that he or she should see the big picture of the whole organisation, and the business roadmap. And they should know exactly what the end customer wants - what are they expecting, what is convenient for them - so they can map from the strategy to the end customer, and see how technology can link these together," he says.
Gadde V Rao
ICT manager at The Pearl, Qatar
In a region sometimes plagued with platitudes and hyperbole, GV Rao is a refreshing change. His style - optimistic, but direct and to-the-point - has helped him push forward a strong IT agenda, and pick up plaudits along the way, including an award from ACN's sister publication Network Middle East.
His blunt approach is clear in his discussion of IT project failure - "with my experience, it's more than 70%... I think more than 80% of these projects fail" - a sentiment not many regional IT professionals would be willing to repeat. Far from being negative, Rao's attitude means he keeps a realistic perspective on corporate IT projects.
But plain talking will only get you so far - what has really allowed Rao to succeed is his overall knowledge of his industry and business, and above all else, an ability to make IT deliver tangible benefits for his employers.
Throughout his 17 years at Dubai Refreshments, Rao's IT initiatives allowed the firm to improve efficiency, visibility and oversight - and have made the day-to-day running of some of its core operations much more simple. Dubai Refreshments' two major projects both demonstrate this - the core ERP system delivers insight and control, while its handheld device implementation speeds up logistical operations.
Rao has now moved on to a new position at The Pearl, Qatar, where he will be working on the new projects ICT systems. With his experience, attitude and approach, he's likely to help The Pearl live up to its name.
CIO of King Fahd Medical City (KFMC), Saudi Arabia
As CIO, Khalid Al-Salama heads the ambitious King Fahd Medical City in Riyadh which aims to be a model for healthcare in a country where standards can often vary considerably between regions.
Built over the course of ten years, the four-hospital facility is the largest in the Middle East and is now one of the leading tertiary care referral centres in the kingdom.
With a load of 50,000 inpatients and more than 600,000 outpatients annually, KFMC was expressly designed from the outset with efficiency in mind and can handle a staggering 60,000 application transactions every day.
Designed to be a largely paper-less and film-less environment, all patient records - including x-rays - at KFMC are stored as electronic images, with provision for rapid electronic access by mobile and remote healthcare workers.
In the future, the facility's infrastructure will also allow for video of surgical procedures to be streamed to medical students both near and far.
These achievements have been only been possible because Al-Salama and his team were aware from the project's inception of the technological mountain they had to climb. His close work with vendors has resulted in a network which is already in some areas operating at 75% of maximum capacity. In the future, KFMC plans to make its medical records available to other Saudi medical institutions, so that patients can receive effective medical care no matter where they are in the Kingdom.
CTO of Al Madinah Knowledge Economic City (KEC)
At first glance, being in charge of IT for a greenfield project looks like an easy assignment - freedom to do whatever you want, a chance to plan from the ground up the perfect system. The reality, of course, is a far cry from this idyllic vision: hard choices, a mammoth plan, and the need to predict technology trends 20 years or more into the future - these are the issues Mohammed Shah, chief technology officer at Al Madinah KEC, must deal with on a daily basis.
Shah's task is doubly complicated by the high prestige value of the KEC project - located in Islam's second-holiest city, KEC aims to attract some of the world's most demanding users, in the shape of science and technology professionals, along with other intellectuals and academic.
And while KEC is not set to open its doors until 2010, Shah is currently making decisions that will shape the project for decades to come, and has to anticipate factors ranging from the demographic makeup of the Economic City, to future-proofing the fundamental infrastructure to allow for as-yet-unknown technological developments.
KEC - along with Saudi Arabia's other Economic City projects - is one of the most ambitious undertakings seen so far in the region, and the pressure on its management team will be significant. But with his long track record of delivering top-quality projects, Mohammed Shah is well positioned to deliver on KEC's IT commitments.
Group director of IT infrastructure and operations at Jumeirah Group
If there were two words needed to describe David Teklit, Jumeirah Group's group director of IT infrastructure and IT operations, they would most likely be ‘future proof.'
Teklit's guidance has seen Jumeirah move to the cutting edge of IT, implementing advanced systems such as digital rights management (to secure sensitive data) years before its rivals. With Jumeirah's ambitions to become a global brand and the number of hotels in its portfolio expected to reach nearly 60 by 2011, the group plans to continue investing heavily in the latest upcoming technologies.
A major part of Teklit's everyday management strategy is thinking proactively - he's installed a number of remote infrastructure management systems to monitor Jumeirah properties globally, so that his team can predict and prevent future issues.
Unlike other organisations which deal with situations as and when they occur, he's already in the process of building a comprehensive disaster recovery site to ensure Jumeirah's operations can always maintain high levels of availability.
A key reason why Teklit believes his team is so successful is that he has trained them to regard IT in terms of business, rather than technological benefits: "Our challenge is to combine expansion and growth with using technology. In some companies, especially hotels, IT is just a support function to business. We do more than just support. We use IT to bring value to the business."For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.