Fuelling Growth

With a clear vision of becoming the world’s number one producer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2009, Athar Masood, IT manager at Qatargas, is making sure that the company has the systems and processes in place to deal with rapid business expansion.

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By  Stuart Wilson Published  January 31, 2007

|~|qg2am200].jpg|~|Athar Masood, IT manager at Qatargas Operating Company Limited, heads a 40-strong internal IT team.|~|With a clear vision of becoming the world’s number one producer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) by 2009, Qatargas is making sure that it has the IT systems and processes in place to deal with rapid business expansion.

Athar Masood, IT manager at Qatargas, works for a dynamic and fast-growing company with lofty ambitions. The LNG producer is undertaking a significant expansion plan and the IT department is playing a pivotal role in the development of the internal infrastructure and solutions required to meet the changing business needs.

“There are close to 2,500 direct employees within Qatargas and that number has increased because of the expansion plan,” explains Masood. “However, if you include all the contractors and construction teams involved in the expansion, there are probably between 25,000 and 30,000 people working for Qatargas.

“In terms of the Qatargas IT systems, it is only our direct hires and in some extreme cases a number of contractors that have access. The contractors undertaking the construction projects bring their own IT systems and their only requirement is to access their own company servers from their temporary offices,” he adds.

Masood and his 40-strong IT team are concentrating on Qatargas’ internal systems across a wide range of segments including, but not limited to, telecoms infrastructure, IT security, helpdesk provision, procurement, support services and application development. The company has established a clear IT procurement policy to ensure that it is both cost-efficient and effective.

“The IT department follows the procurement policies laid down and defined at corporate level,” explains Masood. “Basically, the process varies in accordance with the dollar value of the purchase. If it is less than US$500 it is normally just a case of filling in a purchase requisition form but if you are talking millions of dollars then there is a much more formal system that requires the correct documentation. This type of purchase also goes through a structured approval process,” he says.

The length of the sales cycle varies, according to Masood, depending on the urgency of the project and how critical the solution is to the company’s evolving business needs. “If we start well in advance we can take a little longer in the sales cycle,” he says. “But if that time is not there we are quite prepared to push the sales cycle through quickly – it can be as little as two to three months for a significant IT project.”

Forward planning is the name of the game for Masood and his team. Acutely aware of how Qatargas plans to expand its operation during the next few years, the IT team is committed to aligning itself closely to these changing business needs and ensuring that the infrastructure, applications and system capacity are all in place by the time they are actually required. For Qatargas, IT is always an enabler in terms of business development and never a bottleneck.

When it comes to enterprise IT projects, Masood contends that in today’s highly consolidated vendor landscape, there are normally a limited number of suppliers able to meet the company’s needs.

“When you’re talking about the enterprise level – with deals worth millions of dollars – there could be between three and five suppliers playing in a particular space,” says Masood. “We would expect that number of vendors to respond to an RFP. It is also important to remember that we are looking for solutions that are compatible with the systems that we already have in place within Qatargas – that can limit the selection of vendors that respond as well.”||**||Post-sales matters|~|qgplant200.jpg|~|LNG producer Qatargas is expanding rapidly and the technology department is playing a pivotal role.|~|Regardless of the quality of a technical solution pitched by a vendor, the availability of local post-sales service and support is a top priority for Qatargas – and one that the company pays significant attention to during the sales cycle itself.

“We look at the history of the vendor,” stresses Masood. “We look at how well they have worked with us in the past. If we are buying from a vendor that we have not used before we carefully assess how they approach the pre-sales cycle to ascertain their responsiveness and we also check customer references.”

Within Qatargas, the technology decision is based primarily on the recommendations of the IT department. Other elements of the internal procurement process ensure there is a transparent selection process that allows all vendors a fair chance of winning the tender for projects that are always based on Qatargas’ business needs. “The criteria for the solution are always built ahead of time based on the business needs,” continues Masood. “The vendors are contacted and they may prepare demonstrations. We ask them to send through relevant information, supply references and sometimes we will go and visit their existing installations. We then narrow down the list of vendors to those that we believe are suitable, define the precise scope of the project and send out the tender – it could be an open tender or a closed one that is only sent to a limited number of suppliers.”

Making it to the tender stage is only the first step for vendors hoping to secure projects with Qatargas. The quality and accuracy of their response to the tender can make or break their chances of winning the project.

“The vendors that win projects are the ones that respond to exactly what we asked for in the tender,” declares Masood. “If people provide either more or less information than we require, their chance of winning the deal goes down. We do not have time to read a 150-page document, and similarly, we don’t just want to see a two-page document. We might ask 50 questions and we want specific answers to those questions in an appropriate format.”

Given the size of Qatargas and its need to work alongside established and secure IT suppliers, the company tends to concentrate its vendor engagement on a limited number of high profile industry names. Masood claims that this is due to the dynamics of the global IT industry, not a desire to reduce the overall number of IT suppliers that Qatargas works with.

“I don’t think it is true that we want to reduce the number of suppliers that we work with,” he explains. “When you look at certain technologies and what vendors can really do today, there are only a few names to choose between. For enterprise e-mail you have to consider Microsoft; for ERP it is SAP or Oracle.

“In the notebook space there are a few A-brands such as HP and Dell. For UNIX servers, there’s HP, IBM and Sun for example. It is not like there are 50 vendors in each category to choose from,” he says.||**||Internal skills|~||~||~|Building long-term relationships with vendors is an important part of Qatargas IT development plans.

“We have been supporting enterprise resource software for 12 years now and we have used one vendor,” adds Masood. “It suits us not to change this vendor. We buy new servers, new hardware and it is compatible with the enterprise software. The [enterprise software] vendor helps us because we have built such a strong relationship.

“Changing to a new vendor for a core system involves a huge amount of work and frequently it means building a brand new relationship as well. You don’t want to change your enterprise resource software every other day,” Masood continues.

While outsourcing and the use of external third party service partners remains a buzz topic for many CIOs and IT managers in the Middle East, Masood remains cautious in terms of the suitability of this delivery model to meet Qatargas’ internal IT needs. “We have tried to provide services and undertake projects internally as much as possible,” he says. “We do internal project management on just about every software, hardware and application implementation that we undertake. If we do need additional resource, we will hire consultants and bring them into the company. We very rarely hand over a turnkey project in its entirety to a third party and sit back and relax while they do it all.”

While Qatargas has placed significant emphasis on the skills development of its internal IT team, can they really replicate the deep solution expertise of an external consultant or third party integrator that has worked on multiple projects in a specific are? Masood believes so.

“It takes time, effort, dedication and a strong team with a superb set of skills and I think I am very fortunate in that respect,” he explains. “I have a team that will work to midnight and through weekends if that is what it takes. They are interested in what they do and the team is very stable – that is a fortunate position to be in.”

With the role of IT managers evolving at lightning pace in the Middle East, Qatargas’ Masood is acutely aware of the need to balance his technical knowledge with the development of his business skills.

“I am now both an IT person and a business person,” he explains. “I am IT inasmuch as I manage the IT department, but I would never consider bringing in a technology that does not mean business benefits. Technology must bring business value and if I see a project coming up that does not do this, it will be questioned immediately.”||**||Business needs|~|qg1am200.jpg|~|Masood: “Everything flows from the business need into the application layer and then into the infrastructure requirements.” |~|Qatargas is pushing ahead with numerous projects at present including the implementation of an SAP joint venture accounting package - a solution that fits neatly with the company’s expansion plans. Masood and his team are also working on a SAP business intelligence solution. For both projects, external consultants have been drafted in to complement the in-house expertise.

The company has also started its 2007 IT planning process in earnest, loading the business requirements on to project planning systems and crosschecking them against the existing IT resource availability.

The organisation has not yet started an evaluation of Windows Vista, preferring instead to look at the initial reaction of users and assess the stability of Microsoft’s latest operating system based on this information.

The focus on internal delivery of IT services looks set to continue. “Outsourcing and managed services may look attractive in the beginning but once you move into that model you can still face operational issues,” declares Masood. “Some companies have gone down that road and then decided to turn back.”

Masood estimates that some 50% of his time is spent looking at the application layer with the remaining 50% taken up by hardware and infrastructure-related tasks.

“Everything flows from the business need into the application layer and then into the infrastructure requirements,” he adds. “It has to start with the business.”

“We have to get value out of technology. We do not implement technology for the sake of technology itself. Even if a solution promises to reduce cost of ownership by cutting the number of servers we need from 50 to 10, I am still not sure unless there is a clear business process improvement involved as well.

“You don’t want to spend US$5m just to bring your TCO down – you want to spend it to bring an extra US$50m revenue to your business,” Masood concludes. As Qatargas pursues its goal of becoming the number one LNG producer by 2009, Masood and his team are adamant that internal IT systems and services will not hamper this ambition in any way.||**||CAREER HISTORY|~||~||~|Athar Masood is the IT manager at Qatargas Operating Company Limited in Qatar. Masood has been involved with Qatargas since 1995 and manages a team of approximately 40 people. Masood’s responsibilities span the support of corporate information systems, network infrastructure, Microsoft Windows-based applications and telecommunications. His team also provides the IT support function for Qatargas’ operations both within and outside Qatar. Prior to joining Qatargas, Masood was an employee of IBM Corporation working out of Austin, Texas, USA, from 1990 to 1995. During his time at Big Blue, Masood worked for the IT department supporting the RISC/6000 server manufacturing plant. ||**||CALLING ALL CIOs & IT MANAGERS|~||~||~|ACN is committed to ongoing interaction with the leading IT managers and CIOs in the Middle East. If you’re one of the best in the business and you're interested in contributing to upcoming features in ACN — or just want to discuss your own approach to balancing business and IT objectives — please e-mail stuart.wilson@itp.com||**||

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