CIO Interview | Zubair Ahmed
Zubair Ahmed is SVP, Head of IT and Business Innovation at Emirates Islamic Bank based in Dubai. One of the few IT leaders that have been educated and brought up in this region, Zubair recently spent time with ThinkTech. This insightful interview highlights Zubair’s total belief in technology as a business enabler and also his view on what the future holds for technology leaders in this region.
How long have you been in the region?
I have been here since my childhood – this place never tires you. There is always so much change to keep you fresh - for example watching the government and the community coming together through the help of technology has been huge.
What brought you here in the first place?
My father’s work initially – in 1978! Post my education, in 1992 I started work here with Mashreq Bank.
Give us an overview of your career background?
When I left college I was a passionate software developer! I joined Mashreq Bank in the domain of Electronic Funds Transfer and was soon working on a projects relating to ATM and POS acquiring. I thrived and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the technology efforts creating genuine business benefit.
I then moved into the world of a solutions’ architect and was soon leading and running projects. The exposure I got to different stakeholders in the broader business (both on Retail and Corporate banking side) was huge and I found myself getting more and more absorbed into work flow automation. The outcome of all of this was change and it was all done through collaboration. I found us ‘breaking the boundaries of limitation’ and having both technology and business working together to achieve success for the bank. This was way back in the late 1999 and early 2000. Concepts of Innovation and Agile were already getting practiced without the noise around the theory.
I took on higher responsibilities and sizeable projects within the bank delivering significant business impact. This was partly through my ability to collaborate and partly through my hunger and appetite for more. Some of my projects included, launch of new functionalities and payments on ATMs, implementation of a new software standard for POS, automation of the corporate credit policy and referrals within the bank etc.
We were forward thinking both in terms of technology and also the way we worked internally. I was very lucky to have a fantastic broad minded boss. His ultimate success was he took IT and created a technology business to service other banks in the region, and therefore we became commercially independent.
He took 5 people to set up this business - I was the youngest one in the group. The entire new company was conceived inside-out, from our positioning, to what we stand for, our offerings to how we intend to serve and compete. We launched in Feb 2002 and were founded on the basis that we were ‘bankers that understand technology’. The fundamental change journey was the paradigm shift from a “cost-center” to a “profit-center”. It was an overnight success. During this era, I got the opportunity to serve multiple banks in the region and greatly benefitted from change management implementations across diverse settings based on culture, technology maturity etc.
After serving 4 rewarding years with this company, I moved on to join a young up and coming bank. This bank presented an opportunity to work without having any technology legacy issues. With the executive management of the bank, we put together a 3-year IT strategy and executed it to 2 times around from 2007-2012. The entire technology landscape was laid a fresh, and was architected ground up on the principles of modularity, agility and reusability. In 2012, as part of the merger, I became part of the largest banking group in UAE and led the Islamic bank’s technology and business innovation functions. In the recent past, we just concluded the major Islamic Core Banking transformation journey, which helped us modernize the entire IT echo system within the bank. In one go, we replaced 6 systems, and upgraded another 44 systems to generate value in the realm of unified processes, STP, paperless origination of products, bank office digitization front-ended by a suite of customer facing digital platforms.
How does being a CIO in this region compare with other regions you have worked in?
Based on my working experience with other banks in the region and by the virtue of visiting and learning from banks elsewhere in the world, it is clear that the strategic use of IT has come late here in UAE. Traditionally, IT has been looked upon to keep the bank running with service disruption. This expectation is fast changing towards “change-the-bank” needs whereby IT is seen to be the key enabler in creating strategic value for business.
If you were to advise an IT leader coming to the region to work for the first time, what would your key bits of advice be?
- The culture in Middle East is all about relationships where its ‘all about a man’s word’
- What worked before may not work again – rethink and rework. ‘The cut and paste mentality must be left at the door’
- Quality and agility of decisions are at times competing with each other rather than complimenting