The evolving role of CIOs

IT certification has been an area of constant growth not only in the Middle East, but also around the world. IT professionals with multiple industry qualifications are still in pursuit of further certifications.

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By  Sarah Gain Published  July 24, 2005

|~|Terier-QGEWS-Body.jpg|~|Terier: Every year CIOs have to throw 25% of whatever knowledge they have in the trashcan and then update it. If not, they will become obsolete.|~|CIOs have always prioritised industry qualification, striving to keep up with the increasing demand for skills in the face of rapidly advancing technological development. IT professionals have struggled to achieve the skills and knowledge necessary to stay ahead of the game. There are currently one million IT professionals certified for Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle and Novell products and services worldwide, and there are no signs of a slowdown.

According to a survey conducted by the CertMag certification magazine in 2004, 79% of the IT professionals who already have IT certifications plan to pursue additional qualifications in the coming year.

“Every year [CIOs] have to throw 25% of whatever knowledge they have in the trashcan and then update it. If not, they will become obsolete. They will be totally ignorant of the technology world,” says Mohammed Yousif Terier, systems support for IT at Qatar General Electricity and Water Services (QGEWS). “The frequency of technology change is quite rapid. It is difficult to keep up and I think the timeframe for the turnover of technology is getting shorter and shorter,” he adds.

As IT implementations become more complex, professionals are seeking multiple certifications from various vendors. The choice of certification depends on the goals of individuals — if they wish to target tier-one vendors, oil &gas or service providers, top level industry certifications become an absolute necessity for professionals.

“Large enterprises look for employees who are highly qualified. They want to make sure their employees know the technology and industry certifications like Microsoft Certified Software Engineer (MCSE) prove an IT professional’s knowledge of a particular vendor’s technology,” says Sultan Ali Rashed Lootah, IT division supervisor for the Government of Dubai’s Department of Economic Development (DED).

Industry certification demonstrates an IT professional’s technical capabilities. This engenders the confidence of colleagues and the organisation as a whole. Microsoft says certification verifies an IT professional’s expertise in working with a certain IT solution. It also helps businesses identify experts who know how to use certain tools and solutions to the best of their abilities.

“In today’s competitive work environment an IT credential serves as a validation of knowledge and skills gained through experience. Take Microsoft certification for instance, it shows that the certification holder is a technical leader with the ability to successfully implement Microsoft solutions,” says Jean Gebrayal, partner account manager at Microsoft Eastern Mediterranean.

High earning power is another factor that is driving the certification boom. CertMag’s survey reveals that IT certification can help professionals earn anywhere between US$1,200 and US$8,300 more every year. Most certification holders get a salary raise within the first year of receiving their primary certification. Cisco Systems, for instance, has three levels of certification, Cisco certified network associate (CCNA), network professional (CCNP) and internetwork expert (CCIE).

There is a huge pay disparity between the associate and expert levels of certifications simply because there are not enough CCIE holders in the Middle East. Cisco reports that the average worldwide salary for a CCIE holder is between $US90, 000 to US$100,000, and GCC nations rank at the top when it comes to paying highly qualified IT professionals.

For the CIOs themselves, the potential financial rewards are a great motivator. “Training courses are not cheap, but they are worthwhile — it is in effect a long term investment. You could say they deliver return-on-investment (ROI) because the benefits outweigh the expense,” says Lootah.

Furthermore, vendor-neutral certification is influencing those seeking industry accreditations and bodies such as the Computing Industry Association (CompTIA) and the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium are providing a cost effective option for security certification, providing training useful for certifying baseline capabilities.

As internet and network security threats fuel the demand for certification, vendor-neutral security qualifications are becoming highly prized in the region. High-level security certification such as the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) programme, which is recognised worldwide, is being offered by training centres. New Horizons delivered the first CISSP programme in March this year to an audience of high profile IT managers and professionals from the government, oil& gas, private and banking sectors.

“[CISSP] is an ISO accredited certification that states a certified CISSP has four years experience as an IT security manager. CISSPs are employed by some of the largest multinationals and government agencies all over the world, and have one of the highest average salary ratings internationally in the IT field,” says Mohammed Aslam, New Horizons’ branch manager. Z.I. Siddiqui, Grand Stores’ general manager, who attended the course, believes it to be beneficial. “CISSP is definitely an added advantage to enhance the career of an IT professional. The course provides a vast concept of security, planning, designing and implementing the policies to the physical environment,” he says. ||**|||~|Aslam-New-Horizons-Body.jpg|~|Aslam: As well as boosting skills, training is a great motivator. It makes staff feel appreciated, which mans they are less likely to seek employment elsewhere.|~|As economies of the Middle East continue to evolve, enterprises are realising that in order to maintain a competitive edge they need to put in place a system of continuous learning in all areas of IT. Vendors are making moves to support this realisation with their own learning initiatives.

Having established itself as key contributor to global open source code Sun Microsystems, for example, has reaffirmed its commitment to educating emerging creative talent across the Middle East IT industry through its OpenSolaris initiative, which has seen the release of the source code for the Solaris 10 operating system released across the Middle East as open source. Solaris’ core operating system, networking, system libraries and commands are now accessible for both the SPARC platform and the x86/x64 platforms. The project will enable IT professionals to develop their own advancements for the Solaris system and gain an insight into the technology.

“If the Middle East is to become a true technology hub, we have to start developing our own innovations. While school and university courses and the government’s encouragement of start-up IT companies represent a great start, the open sourcing of a solution provides the ideal stimulus for creative developers across the region,” says Graham Porter, marketing manager for Sun Microsystems Middle East and North Africa.

While the development of technical skills remains a priority for CIOs, the boundaries between business and technology management are beginning to blur, leading to fundamental changes in the role of CIOs.

The Industry Advisory Council (IAC), which aims to bring industry and government executives together to exchange information, gives this definition: “The CIO must be a senior executive with a business and technology grounding. The CIO will be called upon to build consensus and be a change agent for the organisation in a complex political environment. Based upon the experiences gained, an effective CIO must have both the technical knowledge needed to determine how to satisfy business requirements with technical solutions and the business skills to determine a vision, identify goals, formulate a business plan, construct one or more programs for system development and deliver the technical solution on-time and within budget.”

Gartner Group confirms the traditional concept of the IT department is beginning to change. An increased concentration on business processes and outsourcing means that at least 60% of IT departments will have halved their inhouse workforce by 2008, compared with the average department size in 2000, according to the analyst firm.

At the same time, CIOs are being required to take on a more management-focused role in the organisation, as IT becomes more embedded in business processes. Gartner forecasts at least one third of CIO roles will change or disappear by 2009, and the remaining CIOs will need to spend more than 50% of their time on external relationships to ensure they deliver the expected results.

The issue for CIOs is how to become forward-looking. Understanding business alignment is a big part of the answer. Taking on responsibility that is not related to technology provision will help CIOs get a better all-round sense of the business.

The increasing commoditisation of information services means that technology-focused CIOs will find themselves sidelined, while CIOs that are able to make the shift towards business will be brought into the heart of the organisation. “We need to get to grips with understanding the business operations. IT is a service to the organisation and to provide the service required of us, we have to understand the business needs. Now, CIOs have to think business but execute technically,” says Terier.||**|||~|Miskulnig-FastLane-Body.jpg|~|Miskulnig: Since the role of a CIO requires them to be more business savvy, the content of any training they undertake must reflect this.|~|In an annual survey, recruitment specialists Harvey Nash reports that fundamental changes in the role of a CIO are already taking place, suggesting that 60% of CIOs now have a degree of responsibility outside of IT.

Many see this as a good thing, however, both for the organisation and in terms of job satisfaction. “We used to just be the people you called when something broke. Now the job is more varied and interesting. We are solutions providers now and this benefits the business as we are always looking for ways to improve the services, working out how technologies can enable the business to do what it wants or needs to do to gain competitive advantage,” Terier explains.

The integration of technology systems with organisational demands is set to increase further, as companies search for efficient business processes. Gartner predicts by 2009 the management of business processes will supersede management of technology as the leading value contribution for more than 50% of blue chip IT teams.

While technology still matters, the CIO of the future will need to create a much closer working relationship with the different business functions of an enterprise. “The CIO’s role is moving away from pure technology. Networking, for instance, is getting away from wires and boxes and moving to support the overall business model. As the role of the CIO requires them to be more business savvy, the content of any training they undertake must reflect this,” emphasises Josef Miskulnig, managing director of Fastlane, Cisco-associated trainers in the Middle East and Europe.

The demands of managing technology in the business will be particularly relevant for the growing numbers of CIOs who rely on outsourcing options. For those businesses that rely on external service provision, leadership will become the most important skill for CIOs. “With outsourcing it falls to the head of IT to be a leader, managing the project internally and externally and also reporting to the board of directors at all stages, selling the project to them in the first place and reporting on progress,” Lootah says.

Enterprises and the public sector in the Middle East need sophisticated CIOs to manage the day-to-day running of the IT department and drive the infrastructure toward the business’ long-term vision. Although it is accepted that information and communication technology is mission-critical to many aspects of organisational performance, many management boards still believe there is a complete isolation between users, who decide what they need, and ‘technologists’ — those who translate business requirements into technology systems.

“Companies wishing to see long-term continuity of operations recognise the value of investing in the education and the future of their employees. As well as boosting skills, training is a great motivator. It makes staff feel appreciated and this means they are less likely to seek employment elsewhere. They will also be more productive in their current role,” says New Horizon’s Aslam.

Both Lootah of DED, and QGWES’ Terier concede it is crucial for a CIO to foster a culture of ongoing learning, where members of the technology department can develop the ability to communicate and work together, rather than learning technical skills in isolation.

“We are using a different methodology. We have a team for each project that we carry out and we allocate people depending on their individual specialties. This gives them a rounded knowledge base and everyone has a chance to gain experience. If you keep people in specialist sections, they may know a lot about one thing and nothing about anything else and IT is, ultimately, an integrated science. Sitting at a desk and staring at a computer is not developing [an individual’s] skills. This way, the projects are varied,” explains Lootah.
||**|||~|DMC-Body.jpg|~|At DMC, students can shadow trained technical consultants, greatly enhancing their exposure to real-life projects.|~|Many enterprise-level technology leaders in the Middle East still fail to recognise that innovative, IT-intensive environments require complete integration between relevant stakeholders, including the board of directors, end users, customers and suppliers. It is up to the CIO to recognise that if stakeholders work well with each other, an organisation is likely to gain profound competitive advantage over its competitors.

“CIOs need to understand the new technologies in the marketplace. New deployments need to be driven by the business needs of the users. Vendors and suppliers will have lots of ideas, often conflicting ones, for the best way of doing things and the CIO should have the ability to find the best solution for the users. Implementations should not be carried out for the sake of it, but equally user needs cannot be ignored,” Terier states.

With businesses leaning heavily on technology, the demands on new employees are also growing beyond simple office skills. Administration and sales staff, for example, now need high levels of IT knowledge, while IT workers are expected to have strong business acumen.

Although pure technology graduates may be able to write codes, they lack skills in areas such as project management and are often unprepared for business operations. “[When recruiting] we look for good quality staff — certificates and qualifications are certainly not everything. In a situation where there is an applicant who is highly qualified and one who has lots of workplace experience, personally I would choose the experienced person because they are better prepared for the job. Education can come later,” says DED’s Lootah.

Academic institutions have a responsibility to help students integrate into the workforce. The IT component of traditional computer science courses is still essential to equip students with the skills to handle the technical aspects of their future work. A second major is also seen to be increasingly important, however, allowing students to develop skills in areas such as finance, marketing, supply chain operations, management, corporate communications or sociology. Such courses give students a stronger grasp of non-technical issues their careers will entail in the future.

These options add an important dimension and new perspective to business IT studies, giving undergraduates a grounding in business-related areas and in the ‘soft skills’ that are important for the effective communication and consultation that is increasingly becoming a part of the CIO’s role. “To my understanding, IT is a tool for the business so I am in favour of an IT professional who is a business graduate with technical knowledge, rather than a technical guy with business qualifications,” states QGEWS’ Terier.

The network of Higher Colleges of Technology in Dubai offers various training programmes with a combination of theory, practical training and on the job experience. The information technology programmes have been developed in consultation with employers and are regularly reviewed and updated through employer advisory committees.

Courses such as computer information processing (CIP) and computer network technology (CNet), available at Dubai Men’s College (DMC), aim to develop students' technical understanding, equipping them with computer skills to enable graduates to work in positions equivalent to a junior computer technician or entry-level trainees in computer internetworking. These areas of study give learners a sound knowledge of applications software and personal computer hardware as well as.||**|||~||~||~|DMC also offers a course in business information technology (BITE), the goal of which is to develop skills in business, information processing and information technology.
Graduates acquire general skills such as algorithm design and also specific skills such as relational database design, furnishing them to work in a business environment either individually or as part of a team. The courses are
characterised by the blending of theoretical knowledge and practical applications at a technology level.

“[We are] training our students to the latest technologies and building a national skills force that will lessen the country’s dependency on imported expertise,” says Bill Vega, director of DMC. “The students [can] shadow trained technical consultants, which enhances their exposure to real-life projects. We believe this fulfils a need in the marketplace for fresh, talented graduates with technical and project management experience in sophisticated technologies,” he adds.

Management skills covered in the DMC syllabus are important and, realising the need to develop in these areas, even well-established CIOs are starting to contemplate augmenting their existing technical qualifications in order to move with the changing times. Lootah will be pursuing his Master of Business Administration (MBA) over the coming months in order to become more business-focused, while Terier is currently considering embarking on the Project Management Institute (PMI) certification, an American standard for project management.

“My strong belief is the trends in this region will show that IT professionals are increasingly choosing to pursue business qualifications. We should always be asking ourselves what the business needs — we are a service provider within the corporation, and have to think of the end users as our customers. To have this mentality we need to be, or to become, a businessman,” he summarises. ||**||

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