The five minute CIO: Mojtaba Akbari

21 Mar 2014

Mojtaba Akbari, CTO of Sepam Group

The new CTO at project management and engineering provider Sepam Group, Mojtaba Akbari, explains how he set about understanding the business in order to deliver better IT.

You were more of a CIO in your previous role, now you’re CTO: what’s the distinction between the two?

Previously I was mainly looking into in-house IT rather than having to deal with clients. My previous involvement with the Smurfit group didn’t have much input in the technology we would offer to customers because the services we provided didn’t involve technology, whereas with Sepam, the majority of solutions we offer would be around technology. I also focus around what needs to be done internally to help the client. In terms of the mandate, it’s not around cost cutting, it’s about how innovative you can be and how to bring that innovation to the client.

With 3,500 staff and offices worldwide, how complex is it to provide IT services to the group?

More than 75pc of our revenue comes from markets outside Ireland, mostly in the Middle East, so the group certainly is on the global end of the spectrum. We have everything from legacy systems all the way to the latest technology around virtual data centres and cloud.

With such a massively distributed IT infrastructure, our planning has to be optimal to ensure our IT services work seamlessly across all departments. And, providing effective communication tools is a challenge for every company and one that’s significantly amplified for distributed ones.

What does that planning entail in practice?

We are growing exponentially, and we are expanding fast, but as you expand obviously the demands go higher and this is something that needs to be managed. You need to make sure you have the right technology and right investment for the size we are and the size we are going to be, looking ahead.

In the early months of working with the group, I spent quite good amount of time with the senior leadership team in order to understand the organisation’s requirements and the current state of the IT department on a global scale.

I had planned the strategy myself but the way we did it was, I tried to take a lot of input from our senior managers and engineers who would know the business, the operations side and our clients, so that we could put the right IT for our staff that could also help our clients more.

Even though I’m driving that, the team feel they’re part of the IT. Our CEO is passionate about IT, whereas in the past, IT was just a service to the back office. It’s no longer like that. IT is mainly an enabler to generate revenue for the company.

What was that experience like? Did you feel welcomed as a part of what the business was trying to achieve?

It wasn’t really difficult, we didn’t have any issues, we got the operations and technical teams on board and we also involved some members of the IT team with the board to make sure they’re aware of the business side. They now have a better understanding of the direction, where in the past maybe they wouldn’t have met the CEO. Our CEO is quite innovative and forward thinking in terms of investing in technology.

If it’s a business decision, a lot of people are involved. And in a technical decision, we would get a lot of people involved. Each group is looking at things from a different angle. Having senior management around the table to talk technology with you, they make themselves fairly available and that is really important. We didn’t have that issue of having to fight for that level (of attention). When I joined, last November, I felt the culture was there and it was more about how to make that happen and have the train going at the right speed.

How would you describe your approach to the role of CTO?

With regards to being successful, the first step is not to deliver things as a whole, so to introduce service oriented architecture, for example, once the platform is complete then you look to upgrade different aspects.

(With a big project), by the time you want to deploy everything, the demands have changed over 12 to 24 months because of the business requirements … If you had all of those demands at the start, then you would never really finish the project, you would spend time and cost on a project that was never completed. From the first three months, my idea was to get benefit and revenue back from what was being invested.

So the idea is almost an agile model of continuous incremental developments, and regular visible progress?

It’s very much agile and Lean driven, Six Sigma style. This really works for a lot of the projects, especially IT. Getting the buy-in from different sections and business divisions helped: you give them the basics and let them see how that would help. And, looking at the application stack, the idea is to have less hardware, less infrastructure, fewer data centres and be able to offer more.

That focus of translating the idea from the business to technology is sometimes emotional and the immediate response from business is, ‘we’re not going to use that’. If you want success to happen, you need to make the project as small as possible, and the delivery to be quick.

A lot of the time, if the trust is not there, they’ll go elsewhere and buy an off-the-shelf package. All of a sudden you’ve got that shadow IT that you haven’t provisioned and integrated. It’s better to have the trust and alignment. If you’re aligning IT with the business, it makes more sense (to do it this way) than forcing business to align with the IT part.

How do you go about learning what the role would involve?

The first thing you need to do is to learn about the business itself. Make sure you know the business you’re signed up for, regardless of IT. It’s good to be passionate about the technology, but let’s not get too religious about it. It’s best to be agnostic and to be there as the senior technology leader. I’d like to take a step back, learn about the business we are in, what our business partners want to do, and focus on the objectives and goals of the business.

If you ask questions about the business, and query the information we don’t understand, such as, ‘where are the revenue generators now?’, or, ‘if we won that business, what was the reason?,’ once you educate yourself a bit around that, then you can go back and say ‘now, this is how technology can help you by adopting such and such a technology’, or advising a merger, for instance.

The potential the IT department can offer the business is huge and endless. No other department can offer as much to the business because the data is there – and it’s all about the data – but maybe IT people don’t have time to look at that because they’re looking about the operations, or they don’t see that as part of their requirement. It’s a step forward and if your time is invested in something else, you won’t have the time to learn about this.

What are the big trends you’re seeing in the construction sector and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Everyone and everything is becoming more instrumented, interconnected and intelligent at every level. Sensors are getting more and more sophisticated: we saw the trend coming from the internet of things and how devices communicate with each other seamlessly a good few years back, and the dominant differentiator is efficiency. That’s when we started to invest and get a lot of knowledge and experience to be able to deliver the solutions that we do today.

Together with our technology partners, we have been adopting solutions to mega cities to use sensory platforms to gather information, such as CO2 emissions or movement about their surroundings, which helps them optimise traffic control and security. We’re seeing a lot more of such data-related trends coming.

Does Sepam have a large IT team, relative to the size of the company, or do you look to strategically outsource wherever possible?

Our IT workforce is currently IT managers, administrators, security managers, application developers and senior architects covering all aspects of the internal IT operation spreading over four regions (UK and Ireland, Middle East, China and America).

While we all have vertical teams of people that we manage, we are also part of a horizontal team made up of senior managers for the business and operation units, and I need to manage my relationship and collaborate with members of that team. A percentage of the IT work related to our clients and some internal IT has been handled by shared services and supplier operation support but mainly it has been developed and managed in-house.

How much of your role has a pure technical focus and how much is about working with the business – and do you think this ratio will change over time?

I am still responsible for ICT operations, so I can never outsource my technical responsibility, and even at times I have to step into operational issues. But I have assembled a great IT team to assure IT services run smoothly.

I personally believe that being involved in both sides of the coin is critically important to assure success. There are times you need to step in, but you don’t really have to get involved in every single IT issue in the business. That’s one thing a lot of us in IT are reluctant to do specifically because we are responsible for it, so we take ownership and that, sometimes, is dangerous.

It’s about being able to work with the right team so you trust them, and having access to the reports, so you make the C level in technology less about micromanaging people. You need to have your mind free from the operations and for that, you need to have a strong team and strong people within the team.

We need to manage our relationships continuously. If you manage your team properly so the level of trust goes up, those views with regards to IT would be changed. We don’t want to be the guys who always say no. Every time the business comes to IT looking for a new system and they hear, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea’ – if you continue to do that, they end up not coming to you and you end up being disregarded.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic