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Mon 12 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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IT Managers of the Year

The job of an IT manager just got a lot harder. Who've been the top decision makers?

ACN rounds up ten of the region's top decision makers.

It's hard to escape the fact that the job of an IT manager just got a lot harder.

And it's not as if wasn't hard already. As a region, the Middle East seemed to be on the fast track to success earlier this year. Companies were surging full steam ahead with acquisitions and grandiose announcements, putting even more pressure on their IT teams to deliver seamless results behind the scenes.

IT decision makers findthemselves juggling a number of roles within an enterprise. On one hand, they have to work closely with their respective boards to ensure that the company's business needs and IT projects proceed in harmony.

On the other, they have to contend with selecting the most future-proof technology possible from a bewildering array of choices available from aggressive vendors. And most importantly, they have to ensure that they are capable of providing excellent support to their end-users - which include the board, remember.

But now with the advent of the credit crisis, there's a new dimension - cost. Or rather, ensuring that the IT department contributes as little of it as possible. That's now the real challenge for the current generation of IT professionals - finding a way to keep IT cost-effective without letting their organisation fall behind in the race for technological leadership.

It takes a special individual to be able to do that - and we think our 2008 IT managers of the year are the ones for the job. This year's list is particularly diverse - three from the education sector, two from finance, two from the real estate sector and one each from retail, hospitality and manufacturing sector.

Last year, we attracted controversy for putting general business executives with a specific IT title on the list. It was a decision which the ACN editorial team discussed but eventually considered correct considering that the aforementioned individuals were more directly involved with decision-making than many of the actual IT personnel within their organisations.

This year, we've again included a non-IT manager - but we've also included an individual who literally constitutes the entire IT team for his organisation. Both, however share the same qualities as the eight fellow list members - an ability to take tough decisions when needed, cut costs, and most importantly, show their companies the way forward in IT.

It's always difficult to draw up a list of this nature, especially when there are so many contenders from the regional IT community. We believe though, that this year's ten decision makers - the most diverse list in our history - represent the very best.

They are the men who've gone against the grain, who have got it right every time without expensive trial-and-error. They are men who have brought projects in early and under-budget. They are the men whose leadership shows the way forward for regional IT projects and whose expertise will be invaluable in developing a knowledge base for future generations.

They are our 2008 IT Managers of the Year.

Selection procedure

Our top ten IT managers this year were selected on the basis of a number of criteria, including their experience and overall standing in the regional IT community as well as their industry background and knowledge. The single most significant criterion in our eyes though, was a demonstrated ability to align business and IT needs.

The ten IT decision makers are listed overleaf in alphabetical order. John Nash

IT Manager, Star International School (SIS)

Regional CIOs who think virtualisation is too expensive, complex or difficult to implement - you've been put on notice. One-man IT team John Nash has built one of the first IT labs in the region based solely on thin clients and supported by virtual operating systems on a central server - and he did it on a shoestring budget of just $38,000.

But it wasn't a desire to save money that drove Nash to adopt virtual infrastructure and open source software at Scholars International Academy. For him, it's actually about minimising the destructive impact of IT on the environment. Nash claims the new systems consume only the quarter of the power required for a regular Windows/Intel-based PC lab.

And unlike many IT managers, he didn't unilaterally choose to implement the systems. Nash worked with the board of trustees at Scholars International Academy, making sure that his IT goals aligned closely with their stated objective to not just appear environmentally friendly but to actually incorporate green thinking into every aspect of the school.

"What we actually believe is that we should not only tell children about environmental issues, we should be showing them that we're taking steps to actively be part of the solution," he says.

Nash is now IT manager for the Star International group of schools and has already begun work on another thin client lab. He's likely to continue showing what's possible without having huge budgets or IT teams - a worthy motif for our troubled times. Faris SaddiCIO, Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBI)

Some people get all the breaks - but Faris Saddi isn't one of them. When he first arrived at CBI after a successful stint working with Srood Sherif at NBAD, Saddi found himself in an organisation with just seven IT employees, virtually no modern banking functionality and infrastructure that was dangerously out of date. His mission? To drag the bank into the 21st century.

Saddi regarded the seemingly-hopeless situation as a challenge and charged headlong into the fray. His first edict was to replace the 1991-vintage core banking system with what he describes as the largest possible integrated system available - and what's more, he planned to implement every single module at once.

For some, this might represent an audacious path to take with a $4 million system. For Saddi, this was a calculated risk that was the only way to ensure CBI re-entered the market on time - but he cut his odds by rapidly building up his IT team to 40 within a short period of time.

However, that wasn't the end of Saddi's woes. Halfway through the project, his CEO resigned - leaving Saddi with the job of solely driving the project within the bank. Meanwhile, he continued to aggressively cut costs - in one example, he saved vendor Silverlake $700,000 in rental fees by accommodating the latter's 45 implementation staff in Mirdif villas.

So if there's an IT crisis afoot, Faris Saddi has proved himself to be truly the man you want to sort it out. The Rambo of IT? Quite possibly. Muhammad Javeed

Director of IT Services, Qatar University (QU)

In what seems to a trend among this year's crop of the best regional IT managers, Muhammad Javeed was initially brought in by Qatar University to oversee the school's ambitious reform project. For some, that would be a full-time job in itself - but not for Javeed, who's used the intervening three years to expand on his original remit.

His first challenge however, was overhauling QU's archaic network infrastructure - a job made more difficult by the fact that the school had just become an autonomous public institution, but still allowed Qatari students to study for free.

Javeed had to overhaul technology that in some cases was more than 15 years old and uprooted virtually every cable in the campus. Today though, Qatar University sports a state-of-the-art network that has 100% coverage throughout.

More importantly, he's also pushed for the university to adopt recognised international practises for standardisation, ensuring that data is available on demand.

"More than 90% of our services are single-sign-on, which makes everything much more efficient - and that's the key. It isn't about technology, it's about how easy it is for people to adapt to using it," he says.

Javeed also believes that entrenched traditions should never constitute a barrier: "Every university is different but what we've done is to turn Qatar University upside down. This is a major investment in the future of the nation, as well as the university." Mohammed Thameem RizvonGroup IT Manager, Kamal Osman Jamjoom (KOJ)

Foresight is an essential component of the character of any successful individual - and Mohammed Thameem Rizvon has it in spades. As IT manager for one of the region's largest retailers, Kamal Osman Jamjoom, he demonstrates daily the ability to correctly forecast and implement IT in a manner which allows his firm to maintain its current impressive growth.

Just over two years ago, Rizvon predicted that the firm's rapid growth would eventually lead to a situation where the IT systems would no longer be able to cope. To counter this, he instituted an enterprise-wide SWOT analysis to ensure that business and IT needs were in sync - which resulted in the firm installing a complete new infrastructure.

Within just ten months, KOJ completed a number of major projects under the banner of its SMART programme (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound) - which wasn't just a name that Rizvon picked out of a hat.

The name was actually coined by KOJ employees in a company-wide contest instituted by the IT department that drew over 500 entrants. It was a canny move; but then, Rizvon understands the importance of energising the base.

"This is a 21 year old business so along with this come processes which people have been using for a long time. When things change, you need to not just change the screens, but bring in some enthusiasm so people use the application better," he explains.

Rizvon's current Oracle implementation is one of the ambitious in the region. But with his winning combination of foresight and strong people skills, problems should be few and far between. Marwan Al Ali

CIO, Jumeirah Group

The hospitality sector is rife with any number of contenders for our honours this year, but there's only one man who rises above the crowd to secure a spot on the list. And in a hardly unexpected development, he comes from the Jumeirah Group, one of the leading lights in this sector.

That man is of course, CIO Marwan Al Ali who's had a busy time since first taking charge in May 2007. Soon after landing at Jumeirah, Al Ali revamped the overall direction of the group and instituted what he describes as a five year strategic plan to ensure that the company's business and IT needs are aligned.

Don't think that this is a small task - the group's overall holdings are expected to stretch to 60 hotels worldwide in the next three years, so he's placed agility at the top of his list today.

But this is only just the beginning. Highlights from his achievements in the past year include reducing the need for corporate travel by introducing videoconferencing systems at all worldwide Jumeirah offices, instituting vital best practices within the IT department based on COBIT and ITIL global standards, and launching a project management office to oversee the group's not-inconsiderable number of technology deployments.

So it's clear that behind Jumeirah's appearance of effortless luxury and decadent levels of service, pivotal individuals like Marwan Al Ali are working tirelessly to ensure that IT is up to the job. Think about that next time you visit one of their establishments in the region. Ahmad Al Mulla

Vice President for Information Technology, Dubai Aluminium (DUBAL)

Dubai Aluminium's IT chief Ahmad Al Mulla has pulled off the rarest of coups at this year's Arab Technology Awards, scooping the Manufacturing and Construction Implementation of the Year prize for the second consecutive year.

His first success was in the 2007 edition of the event, when Al Mulla replaced several legacy Oracle systems at the plant - many of which still ran on ancient AS/400 hardware - with a new comprehensive SAP implementation. The ‘Shamal' project fulfilled his vision of transforming DUBAL into a demand-driven resource company and becoming more customer-centric in its approach.

Al Mulla's next mission was an attempt to transform nearly 30 years of raw data from the smelting operations into useful information that could aid in the decision-making process. With the help of a team of technical experts and his own business users, Al Mulla designed and developed the Smelter Applications System.

More than just a simple business intelligence implementation, the system provides deep analysis into the trends underpinning the aluminium business and allows decision makers to compare key performance indicators over periods ranging from days to years.

Other Al Mulla-led IT initiatives include overseeing upgrades to the plant's power monitoring systems, lowering response time in the event of incidents and ensuring that the lifeblood of the smelting organisation remains operational at all times.

Will Al Mulla make it a triple this year? Only time will tell - but other CIOs would be advised to come prepared for a fight. Farhan Al Bulaihed

Director of General Maintenance, King Abdul Aziz University

As many of our picks for this year's list have already illustrated, Farhan Al Bulaihed does not easily fit into any of the IT manager boxes. For one, he's not actually the CIO of the university.

An engineer by trade, Al Bulaihed manages the maintenance department for one of the biggest educational institutions in the Kingdom with close to 40,000 students on its rolls. The seven million square metres campus generates more than 80,000 preventative maintenance orders every year - a tall order for Al Bulaihed and his team of just 40 employees.

Don't feel too sorry though; he also has a small army of nearly 600 contractors to call upon. However, Al-Bulaihed realised as far back as 1991 that it was more useful to able to predict when things go wrong rather than afterwards. To this end, he set about installing a computerised management maintenance system to administer the US$2.67 billion worth of assets on the campus.

Al Bulaihed embarked on the Herculean task of tagging every piece of equipment on campus in addition to using RFID ones for mission-critical equipment in the HVAC and water plants. Now, he can survey all work orders at the click of a mouse and find out which ones have been completed or are outstanding.

Winner of the Hariri Award for Operation and Maintenance in 2005, Al Bulaihed's next plan is to integrate the successful system with the main IT infrastructure of the campus. He may not be an IT manager in name - but there are a good many correctly titled individuals in the region who could learn from his proactive lead. Srood SherifCIO, National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD)

Our 2008 CIO of the Year is one of the capital's best kept secrets. As the man responsible for IT in one of the region's largest banks, there's no doubt that Srood Sherif has a tough job - but he certainly makes it look easy.

Rare among his peers, Sherif has spent virtually his entire career at NBAD. He first came to Abu Dhabi more than 30 years ago after a successful stint as an Olympic-level basketball player - and only joined the bank because he needed something to do in the daytime!

Throughout the 1980s, Sherif worked what he himself describes as crazy hours - if he managed to leave after 14 hours, it would have been a very good day. All this hard work paid off in spades when he became CIO in the early 1990s.

Since then, Sherif has overseen three core banking upgrades at the bank including the recent Project Unity. Innovation has also been at the top of his agenda, as evidenced by his award-winning SMS Money project which allows funds to be sent from an NBAD account holder to any mobile device.

Despite his lengthy service, Sherif says he's still motivated to come in to work every day: "It's the variety of the tasks that I have - every day is something different. Today I might have a problem in Oman, tomorrow it could be in Fujairah.

Problems are exciting for me. When I was a programmer, when I had a bug, I would sit down if I had to all night just to solve the problem." Abdulsalam Rahma Al Bastaki

Director of IT and services, Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA)

In the three years since self-styled ‘technology park' Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority opened, hundreds of companies have flocked into the area to take advantage of its convenient location and strong support for IT infrastructure. The man who makes it all possible is IT veteran Abdulsalam Rahma Al Bastaki, who has proved that the Middle East is more than capable of providing world class facilities and services.

He's certainly proved to be quick off the mark. Just ten months after he joined DSOA, Al Bastaki established the organisation's network infrastructure, constructed a datacentre and implemented a full Avaya IT telephony system.

Security has also been one of his top priorities with firewall deployments across the board to protect DSOA's valuable clientele. For these achievements, earlier this year, Al Bastaki picked up the award for Best Fixed Network Implementation at the Network Middle East Innovation Awards.

His responsibilities don't just extend to infrastructure. Al Bastaki is further responsible for creating a long term technology roadmap that aligns IT resources with the various business units within DSOA, while also overseeing government services within the zone.

It's a daunting portfolio - but Al Bastaki says that technology will always be his guiding light: "We are building everything based on that vision of where we are going to be in terms of future needs.

I have no fear that in five years I will be able to provide whatever service I want, because my infrastructure is ready to integrate with any other new technology." GV Rao

General Manager for ICT, United Development Company of Qatar (UDC)

We've said it before and we'll say it again - they don't make IT managers like GV Rao anymore. His take-no-prisoners, full-steam-ahead style of management is rare in a region which often needs four committees to change a router.

It's served him well in more than two decades of service to IT, which has seen him hold posts across the region in companies including AT&T, Pepsi and now UDC, where he is in charge of planning and implementing ICT for the Pearl Qatar project.

Rao's main specialisation through the years has been in the field of completing massive ERP installations - a job that has claimed more than one unsuspecting IT manager in the past. One of the reasons of his success in this arena has been the fact that he understands that projects of this magnitude require complete buy-in from the very top all the way to the bottom of an organisation.

One of Rao's pet peeves (and there are many) is that many CIOs buy technology without completely understanding it: "When you are putting your dollar in, you should know what you are putting it in for.

Being at the most senior level, a CIO may not really have hands on experience. But at least when he is talking to the vendors or the suppliers, he should know what he's talking about."

After 17 years of glory at Dubai Refreshments, Rao's now taking UDC to new heights, having already delivered a state of the art network infrastructure and ERP systems. With his track record of delivering tangible business benefits and extensive technical experience, the future looks bright for the most plain-spoken man in IT.

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Sudhakar 11 years ago

Congruatulations Thameem!!! I wish you to achieve more and more in your carreer... I am proud that I worked under your leadership....

JONA 11 years ago

Congratulations Mr. Rao..

Yousef Haddad 11 years ago

Faris, you have done really a good job and you deserve to be the star of the year.

Shakil 11 years ago

Its great to be a part of your team.

Hanan Eliya 11 years ago

Congruatulaion Faris I wish UR Bank aprecaite ur effort

hiro bachani 11 years ago

Dear sir, we would like to congratulate the entire ITP team, for selecting such a great group of top-class winners- . They are really worthy of accolades from all of us. May they shine more brightly in 2009 and beyond. And we wish we could afford even one of them on our roster. regards- hiro bachani- mg. director- http://www.merlin-me.com