By ACN Staff Writer
ACN reveals the ten most outstanding individuals in regional IT for 2010.
ACN reveals the ten most outstanding individuals in regional IT for 2010.
When we compiled our list last year, the situation looked far from ideal. This year, it's positively dire.
But first, a recap. The Middle East IT scene has been hurtling along for the past five years as if tied to the front of a runaway locomotive. Budgets swelled out of proportion, projects rushed through inception, planning and implementation and IT teams expanded as if the demand would never end.
It was all quite necessary, of course. Everyone has been witness to the phenomenal growth of the Middle East over the past decade, particularly in oil-rich UAE. CEOs demanded that their technology divisions be able to deliver immense amounts of infrastructure to a population that was young, diverse, educated and hungry for more information and greater connectivity.
As we all know however, the party came to an end last year. A new imperative took over - cost. IT managers suddenly came under strict instructions to limit funding to only the most essential projects, while all extraneous activities were either curtailed or ‘delayed' indefinitely - shorthand for outright cancellation in our book.
That was indeed the story for much of the early part of the year. The challenge had transitioned from being able to supply services quickly and efficiently to as cheaply as possible and with the minimum number of in-house staff. New initiatives (to this region, at least) such as cloud computing, virtualisation and outsourcing took on sudden importance as CEOs looked at every means of reducing their overheads and directed CIOs to find ways of making them work. When it didn't, staff cuts ensued, essential services suffered and eventually customers - the real end-users - began to notice a tangible drop in the quality of their IT.
That was the story - and for many enterprises, it still is the case. But our top IT managers for 2009 is not intended to be a list of the ten people who managed to cut the most costs while still remaining viable. In fact, while they have found ways of becoming efficient with their IT spend, there is not a single one among them who will admit to reducing staff at all.
Instead, over the next few pages, you will find a set of extraordinary individuals. In the middle of a global financial meltdown, these ten CIOs and IT managers have defied conventional wisdom by maintaining considerable investment in technology. They have pursued innovation, creating new means of working where possible and finding better ways of adapting old technology when not. Some have worked hard to bring the technology community closer together; others have taken age-old institutions and given them new life.
Above all, they illustrate how it is impossible - and ultimately futile - it is to try and predict the future based on past trends. Take the range of verticals they represent. For instance, the retail sector was especially hard hit this year, yet three of our winners hail from it. Banking and finance, healthcare and hospitality are equally represented, while manufacturing shows real muscle with two entries.
With so many contenders from this region, the choice of just ten individuals was hard to make. But we are confident that our selections represent the finest talent the Middle East has to offer.
This year, we selected our ten IT managers based on a range of criteria, including the overall impact they have had on the regional IT community, as well as taking into account their experience with their organisations. As always, our main criterion is their ability to align business and IT needs perfectly. Ahmad Al Mulla
Position:Vice President for Information Technology Company:Dubai Aluminium (DUBAL)
Over the past few years, we've pushed very hard for regional CIOs to step up to the plate and become commanding figureheads for the entire industry, rather being content to stay back in the shadows. Dubai Aluminium's well-known VP, Ahmad Al Mulla is perhaps the most visible result of this strategy, as his advice and expertise have become widely disseminated both in the pages of ACN and its sister magazine, Network Middle East.
But we certainly can't claim the credit here, since his considerable achievements have drawn both praise and silverware. Over the past five years, Al Mulla has completed a host of tricky projects that would have left a number of lesser CIOs sweating, including moving his plant operations from Oracle to SAP. Last year, he snagged his second consecutive Arab Technology Award for Manufacturing Implementation of the Year, for his home-grown Smelter Analytics application which has allowed Dubal to finally gain a deep understanding of the trends underpinning nearly 30 years of aluminium production.
After all these plaudits, we had to unfortunately deny Al Mulla and his 80-strong team a third chance to dominate the manufacturing category. But don't feel too sorry for him, as he opted to join our expert panel of judges for this year's event, providing expert commentary on current trends.
With the extensive shakeup of the technology landscape over the past year, very little is now certain. But you can be sure that in 2010, you'll be seeing more of Ahmad Al Mulla and his opinions. Jassim SajwaniPosition:Director of IT and Administration Company:Aswaaq
The supermarket industry is not normally where one would go to seek innovation, given that shopping styles have hardly changed in the past 50 years. But that's an assumption that Jassim Sajwani, the man behind the ambitious UAE-based Aswaaq retail co-operative project, is looking to challenge.
Here is just one example of the many ways in which Sajwani has taken an innovative approach towards integrating IT into his business: price labelling. While other supermarket chains continue to conduct business in the same fashion as before with a small army of men running around the store with a labeller when the price changes, Aswaaq features electronic shelf labelling, allowing the merchandising team to instantly change all the prices at its various retail locations with the click of a mouse.
It is all part of Sajwani's highly successful rollout of a Microsoft Dynamics-based enterprise resource planning system, with an accompanying CRM platform. His approach for the project was to focus heavily on two areas: automation and return on investment. In the case of the former, the system has cut down on manpower and reducing excessive stock ordering. For the latter - well, more than half a million dollars in savings does tend to speak for itself.
Though just three years old, Aswaaq has shown that technology can have a defining role even in the most traditional of industries. Jassim Sajwani, meanwhile, confirms that the best local IT talent isn't confirmed to the verticals you might expect. Luis Perfetti
Position:Director of Information Systems Company:Oasis Hospital
Regular readers of ACN will not be surprised that we have a healthcare selection among our top IT managers of 2010, considering the recent rapid and regulation-led growth of the industry. But they might well be surprised at the inclusion of Oasis Hospital, a small private provider based in the tiny town of Al Ain in the UAE, over many of the more well-known regional hospitals.
But after reading our cover case study last month on the infrastructure overhaul currently in progress at the hospital, the case for including its director of information systems, Luis Perfetti, among the region's best is water-tight.
While other enterprises struggle, Perfetti has embarked on aggressive programme to ensure Oasis sets the standard for UAE healthcare. To that end, he has invested more than $7 million into a new hospital information system, backed by a full suite of 20 virtualised servers, while ditching Great Plains for Oracle to run his various other departments. And when the installation goes live in March, Perfetti is going full-bore with a rip-and-replace implementation, leaving precious little margin for error.
But do not imagine that he is reckless. Indeed, meticulous years planning have been the hallmarks of his approach towards this multi-million dollar project. Just one example: vendors had to answer 600 questions in his RFP and survive a three day scripted demo involving hospital staff. With this almost-fanatical attention to detail, more silverware can only be in store for Perfetti and his team next year. GV Rao
Position:General Manager for ICT Company:United Development Company of Qatar (UDC)
As an regional IT professional, GV Rao confounds virtually all the known stereotypes.
He's outspoken almost to a fault, frequently calling out his fellow CIOs for their lack of vision. He's not afraid to work on projects that are notoriously difficult to pull off successfully such as ERP and indeed has become a well-known expert on the latter. He's a keen sportsman, having played professionally for a number of years now and has collected a cabinet full of trophies.
He's keen to try out new verticals, with a CV that includes companies as diverse as AT&T, Pepsi and at present UDC, where he is engaged in building the network infrastructure for the Pearl mega-construction project. He's highly experienced in different geographies having worked across the GCC in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others.
We could go on and on, but it would become redundant and no doubt futile to sum up a career that stretches across more than two decades, during which time he's racked up gong after gong for his impressive list of achievements. While always a close contender for the prestigious CIO of the Year award, in 2009 we felt it was finally time to bestow upon him an honour that recognised the his superlative efforts over the years. As such, he was the first-ever recipient of our Editor's Award for Outstanding Achievement.
They say the sky's the limit. For GV Rao, even that boundary simply does not exist. Zaki Sabbagh
Position:Chief Information Officer Company:Zamil Industrial Investment Company
Look up the term "dark horse" in the Oxford dictionary and you may well find a photograph of Zaki Sabbagh next to the definition. As CIO of one of Saudi Arabia's largest manufacturing companies, he's accomplished more in the past decade than many would attempted over their entire career - yet very few in the region are even aware of him.
For example, while many are still dithering about how to correctly go about outsourcing IT operations, Sabbagh has had a fully functional offshore setup in India operating successfully since the beginning of last year. What's more, he has also brought advanced business intelligence to 11 business units, allowing better visibility and reporting capabilities for the firm's multitude of manufacturing operations all over the world.
On top of these projects, Sabbagh has also quietly been pushing the IT envelope, installing industrial automation (which he claims is among the first to go live successfully in the Middle East), while the firm already has three operational software-as-a-service environments. Not to mention the fact that Zamil Industrial has also managed to achieve the difficult ISO 20000 certification through his efforts.
So Zaki Sabbagh is possibly one of the busiest men that you've never heard of - and that's probably the way he likes it. But the spotlight has a way of finding a natural star, and with his lengthy list of accomplishments, Sabbagh has secured a deserved spot among our top IT managers of 2009. Mohammed Thameem Rizvon
Position:Group IT Manager Company:Kamal Osman Jamjoom (KOJ)
Sometimes, there is more to being an IT manager than simply implementing system after system without incident. Sometimes, you have to be able to give back something to the larger community, be able to work towards a greater objective than merely building up the profit margins of your enterprise. Sometimes what you need is a person like Kamal Osman Jamjoom's Mohammed Thameem Rizvon.
His accomplishments in IT are already quite impressive, having overseen the installation of a complete new Oracle-based infrastructure for KOJ, which is one of the largest retailers in the region - no small undertaking as most would agree. Along the way, he has demonstrated strong people skills, allowing staff for example to choose the name of the revitalisation programme.
While this multi-year project would be exhausting on its own, Rizvon has embarked on a far more ambitious plan - to create the first functional Middle East chapter of the Oracle Applications User Group. As chairperson, he has spearheaded the initiative to build closer ties between Oracle end-users and provide them with a pulpit from which to direct their concerns to the vendor - which unlike rivals SAP or IFS, does not directly fund user-groups.
These herculean efforts were rewarded with the successful staging of the first user conference, Connection Point, earlier this year. Rizvon's already deep into planning the next one and finding more ways to bring the CIO commuity closer together. It's an attitude that more in the region would be wise to adopt. Marwan Al Ali
Position: Chief Information Officer Company:Jumeirah Group
Last year marked the first appearance of Marwan Al Ali on our list of the top IT managers of the region, as recognition of his extensive work in the burgeoning hospitality sector. Little did we - and he for that matter - know that less than 12 months later, he would be wearing the coveted crown of CIO of the Year.
Given the range of investments that the hospitality sector has seen over the past year however, it is really not as much as a surprise as one might think. And further given that the company in question is the extremely-successful UAE-based Jumeirah Group, it's even less of a shock.
A graduate of the Etisalat College of Engineering, Marwan first took over the reins at Jumeirah in 2007. Since then, he's instituted a raft of changes to modernise its IT infrastructure, including most recently a building new datacentre for the corporate offices. Unlike competitors whose first downturn instinct was to slash budgets, Al Ali's prudent spending policies have always kept centralisation of resources and minimum reliance on IT manpower at the forefont.
But while he may indeed wield a might budgetary pen with responsibility for hotels across the world, he is well aware that fiscal prudence is the watchword for our troubled times. Next year, he has stated an aim to focus more on innovative projects such as integrating RFID technology into guest loyalty cards, while video conferencing for guests is also on the cards.
Such thoughtful touches are the hallmark of a good hotelier - and from Marwan Al Ali, you wouldn't expect any less. Saji Oomen
Position:General Manager (Group IT) Company:Al Batha Group
Saji Oomen's work with the diverse Al Batha Group is yet more proof that the real action in IT innovation is happening in the retail sector. Despite having more than 20 companies within the group, the conglomerate is no slow, lumbering behemoth and has grown tremendously in recent years.
A true career IT professional, Oomen first started out at in Al Batha as the IT manager of its BMW dealership subsidiary in 1988. By 1991, he had completed his rapid rise through the ranks to become CIO and since then, there's been no looking back.
Under his watch, the group has completely switched over to SAP for its ERP architecture, eliminating dozens of competing and often incompatible legacy systems in the process. What's more, he also managed to standardise business processes along global standards - a feat which many thought impossible given the size of the company.
In this year alone, his completed projects have included an ISO 27001 certification for IT security and the first implementation in the region to go live with SAP's retail point-of-sale system. These were good enough to propel him into the running for CIO of the Year, which he narrowly lost to Jumeirah's Marwan Al Ali. When he's not running Al Batha's IT systems, Saji Oomen can be found speaking at conferences around the world, relating his extensive experience with implementing complex SAP systems.
As one of the shining lights in the regional IT establishment, we're extremely pleased to welcome him back to our list. Paul O'Kirwan
Position:IT Director Company:Dubai Mercantile Exchange (DME)
It's a testament to how the world has changed over the past 12 months that we have only one IT manager from the world of finance on our list this year. Fortunately, our pick, Dubai Mercantile Exchange's Paul O'Kirwan, is absolutely top-notch.
How good is O'Kirwan? Consider this fact: the average ERP implementation takes anywhere between two and five years to implement, can require hundreds of staff with specialised consultants and according to folklore, virtually 80% of these projects are bound to fail since companies fail to understand the extent of the changes required.
O'Kirwan and his DME team of just 11 staff selected a vendor and installed a Great Plains-based ERP system in a mere six months. The even more amazing part is that the implementation team consisted of just two individuals: O'Kirwan himself and a young graduate from the UAE Higher Colleges of Technology. Despite the massive potential for catastrophe, the system met all its deadlines and continues to trade today without incident.
When he's not performing minor implementation miracles, O'Kirwan is a keen proponent of both localisation and the need to have young, enthusiastic staff. As a result, nearly half of his team are Emirati and virtually all are in their 20s. These are results that many larger organisations would struggle to deliver.
In the current difficult economic climate, many companies struggle to finish huge overambitious projects on time and under budget. For Paul O'Kirwan, that's just another day at the office. Muhammad Javeed
Position:Director of IT Services Company:Qatar University (QU)
Qatar University's Muhammad Javeed is no stranger to our list, having made his first appearance last year. Commando-dropped in to bring the school's then-ancient network infrastructure into the present century, he chose to stay on and help for a further four years - a decision for which the university is now no doubt extremely grateful.
As a publicly-funded institution, the challenges facing Javeed are enormous, but he's proved himself up to the task at hand. Having replaced virtually every cable in the school with state-of-the-art technology and a 100% wireless network, he then turned his attentions to staff.
When Javeed joined QU in 2004, the IT department had less than 10 staff and none were up to his standard. Today, he runs a handpicked team of more than 75 professionals to handle the extensive needs of the school, all while successfully resisting the call to cut costs by outsourcing core functions.
However, he's well aware of the need to stay focused, continually pushing his staff to improve themselves: "I try to make sure that my staff understands that it is in their best interest to improve their skills in order to be competitive in the market. Our threat is from the new generation, not from the seniors. I always try to tell them that their jobs will be laid off when a smarter kid comes up."
What's next? Javeed is preparing to roll out Windows 7 to the hundreds of desktops at the school. After years of breathless improvement, it might almost come across as a breather.
Congratulations Mr.Rao. I know you will be best wherever you go.You deserve to hold this award in the coming years too. I think I am the person who worked under you longer time(7 years) than anyone.
Congratulation Mr.Rao for another achievement. And wish you keep getting this award year after year. Very well-deserved. I miss working in Pepsi. Was great ERP team. -saima
Congratulations Mr.Rao Yet another feather in your cap. Well deserved. Miss working with leaders like You.
Congratulations to all and well deserved. I specifically want to state my admiration of Mr. Almulla's knowledge , experience and personality. Not many such leaders exist today.