Starting from scratch

From programmer to software projects manager, Jawad Abu Farha has climbed his way through the ranks to get where he is today. Having secured his position at the top, Juma Al Majid’s IT director takes time to reflect on some of the highs and lows of his career in the Middle East’s volatile IT industry.

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By  Sarah Gain Published  December 5, 2005

Arabian Computer News (ACN): What changes have you witnessed in the industry during the course of you career?|~|Jawad11-BODY.jpg|~||~|Jawad Abu Farha (JAF): In the last five years I found myself more exposed to the business side of operations. IT has come to revolve around providing strategic business solutions to help the company achieving its business objectives. The industry has moved very quickly, especially over the last five years. For example, in this time I have had to carry out a complete renovation of IT at Juma Al Majid. When I started here there was nothing by way of information technology, just scattered systems. There were users that did not even work on a PC, were not even trained to use a PC. There was no ERP at the group level, there was no integrated systems at all. I worked with the company’s vice chairman to carry out a feasibility study and develop a strategy for implementing information systems at the group level. I built that entire system from scratch, from the bottom up. Now we are approximately 90% automated in all the Juma Al Majid divisions. We have united the group with centralised IT systems and standardised everything across the 29 divisions. We have implemented Oracle applications, and Great Plains, and have carried out in-house training for all the users. We have come a very long way in a short time.||**||ACN: What do you enjoy most about working in the Middle East IT market?|~||~||~|JAF: The most enjoyable thing for me is the challenge. IT here is not like it is in the West. There you have systems in place that are 20 years old. You have people who have been exposed to technology for many years and are used to it. In the Middle East we started late. Take enterprise resource planning (ERP) for example; there are still many companies in this region that have not even begun to implement this type of application. The margin of change in this region is huge. We start from nothing and quickly install state-of-the-art technologies. This pace of change is very exciting to watch, and to be a part of. The things that make this an exciting and enjoyable place to work can sometimes be the same things that frustrate me most, however. Although the Middle East IT market is booming it is still in its infancy. We lack maturity of resources, of systems, and in the attitudes of people. While the fast pace of change is exciting, sometimes it is too fast — if you don’t keep up-to-date you are out of the market, and this can put a great deal of pressure on people.||**||ACN: What are some of the other challenges facing CIOs at the moment?|~||~||~|JAF: Recruiting good, qualified staff can be a pain point for many IT managers. At Juma Al Majid we are fortunate enough to have been able to recruit and train people ourselves, and by doing this we have created a skilled IT team who are committed and loyal. If you do not have the resources to do this, however, finding the right people, and keeping them, can be very hard. Using IT to strategically support business is also definitely one of the biggest challenges that all companies are facing. Businesses as a whole are more dependent on IT now than ever before, and this means that we have to look for the most strategic implementation to support business processes. We must consider what will be the most cost effective and give us the competitive edge. That comes down to the best implementation of the best technologies. ||**||ACN: What technology trends do you see for the future, and how will this affect IT professionals?|~||~||~|JAF: I believe the internet will continue to have an increasingly important role in businesses, especially in terms of wireless internet technologies. Wireless is going to play a big part in business life in the future, and wireless internet will be at the heart of this. Businesses are starting to demand more mobility and 24/7 connectivity. Already, I have to have my mobile phone integrated with my emailing and other functions at the office. I don’t doubt that mobile phones will soon play a bigger role in business and this will enable people to work more flexible working hours. This will have a huge impact on enterprise IT departments, because the more facilities and the more simplicity the end user demands, the more complex things get for us. We have to make our systems more robust, available, and secure. We have to be prepared for all kinds of challenges. ||**||ACN: Do you resent the intrusion into your private life that 24/7 connectivity with the office entails?|~||~||~|JAF: I cannot afford to ignore calls coming from work, at any time. There may be a critical situation that I have to deal with immediately. I have to say that I don’t really mind — I am loyal to the company, and if I know there is a problem then I would not be able to enjoy my evening or my vacation. I would want to login and deal with the situation there and then, offer help to other people dealing with the situation, or at least I would want to be able to monitor what was going on. I don’t believe that we will find ourselves in a situation where office hours are 24 hours a day. Nobody wants to work continuously for 24 hours, so it could never become the norm. It’s like with mobile phones. We do not talk constantly all day, but if you did need to make a call at three a.m. you could. The option is there.||**||ACN: You are clearly very career-focussed. What do you feel has been the biggest achievement of your career to date?|~||~||~|JAF: I would have to say it is the Oracle E-Business Suite ERP implementation here at Juma Al Majid. This is the thing that gives me the greatest sense of satisfaction looking back. I say this because the project was so outstandingly successful. We implemented the system, within the budget, and within the allotted time frame across all 29 divisions. Also, with our office information project we changed the way people here work. It is rewarding to see people who had no basic PC skills emailing, using the internet — they are able to be more dynamic. We changed the way people interact and enhanced their skills. I am proud that my work could have such a positive impact for so many other people.||**||ACN: Having overseen such major projects you must have developed strong management skills. How would you describe your management style?|~||~||~|JAF: I am pretty hands on and I like to monitor in detail what each individual is working on, but at the same time I try to give everyone enough space to act independently and use their own initiative. I also believe 100% in the importance of teamwork. Each member of the team is an expert in his own field, and each person is no more or less important than any other when it comes to getting a job done. ||**||ACN: Do you have any tips for other CIOs?|~||~||~|JAF: Firstly, I think it is important to work hard in terms of enhancing your technical skills and keeping your knowledge up-to-date. Then you need to know and understand the company and the business practices, and provide the right tools for these business needs. You must keep constantly push to learn more — there is no time to rest on your laurels because the industry is moving so fast. Always strive for more.||**||ACN: How will you ensure that you keep striving for more? |~||~||~|JAF: By continuing to build on past success. At Juma Al Majid, our future projects are going to concentrate on business intelligence. We are going to also implement a centralised call centre for the whole group that will enable the interaction with end customers faster and more efficient. It will be a huge project, but it will increase and improve our interactions with customers substantially. It is a very strategic business move. We have done our internal housekeeping, standardising and improving our internal systems and this project will extend the benefits of this to our customers. On a personal level, I also have ambitions. I have a great deal of experience that I have gained through the job and I need to organise this knowledge somehow. I am considering pursuing a business qualification of some sort. This will help me organise and align all the technical and business experience and knowledge I have gained.||**||

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