Revenge of the nerds

Mohammad Al Khatib, ACN's CIO of the Year, shares his advice and experience in running one of the most technologically demanding institutions in the Middle East, the Amman Stock Exchange.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  November 3, 2007

Mohammad Al-Khatib, CIO of Amman Stock Exchange (ASE), is positively ebullient about being named CIO of the year: "It's recognition of your achievements - especially when it's ACN, which was the first IT magazine in the Middle East and has a very good distribution. It gives a very important recognition - it feels great."

However, Al-Khatib believes the region will soon face a shortage of human resources particularly at the managerial level: "The problem is finding IT managers - not just at the CIO level - but people with special skills who are technical enough to understand the fine details of technology. At the same time, you need people with leadership skills to run the operation. This kind of combination is very hard to find."

I think you need more nerds – people who have a strong affection and desire to get themselves involved in the technology.

His other main concern is that many regional companies have still not attained the scale of their Western and Eastern counterparts, with many firms that are considered enterprises here equating to a medium scale organisation in other parts of the world. The cure to this problem, he believes is the recent regional shift towards consolidation.

"New laws and regulations encouraging investment and the excess liquidity that is present in the region in the past few years have had a great effect on us. Companies with resources are trying to expand and creating huge companies which can reach the level of enterprise users. For example, mergers and acquisitions in banks and the telecom sector create bigger companies and slowly you can achieve the scale of companies in industrialised countries. It's not just normal growth but companies starting to operate on a regional scale," says Al-Khatib.

As a CIO, Al-Khatib often has to consider the issue of how to integrate business practices with the work of the IT division. Again, he considers people to be the lynchpin of a successful strategy.

"To be honest, I think what creates an IT industry is that you need more nerds! You need people who have a strong affection and desire to get themselves involved in the technology. These people make exceptionally good technicians, programmers, network and system administrators and in my opinion, are rare in our societies, which doesn't encourage them, "he says.

The drawback with employing ‘nerds', however, as Al-Khatib puts it, is that their technical strengths which are a gift in the world of IT can also rob them of them of crucial management abilities.

"Unfortunately, nerds don't make the best managers. They need to be charismatic and have leadership skills - but nerds tend to be more isolated and individual. They must also understand how to write reports, talk to senior management, know how to handle the vendors - this mix of qualities is extremely hard to find," explains Al-Khatib.

The ASE is one of the oldest bourses in the region, having been established in 1976. It achieved full automation and decentralisation in 2000 with a particular highlight being the move to remote trading in 2001, and the subsequent elimination of the trading floor. Al-Khatib attributes this success to the advanced state of Jordan's telecom infrastructure - although there were teething problems in the early stages.

The main issue was dealing with the website load which reaches 1.5 million hits at peak hours. Initially, the website was hosted in the United States, but this proved problematic due to time differences, as downtime typically occurred on the American weekend. Al-Khatib solved this by hosting the website inside Jordan.

"We have installed an E3 connection over fibre optics with Jordan Telecom and hosted the website on our own service running on IBM AIX machines and 12 processors at the moment. It's a huge setup just to handle the large number of hits. To manage the load balancing, we settled on Juniper's DX which not only load balances across the servers but additionally uses data compression between itself and the end user, saving us approximately 35% of our internet connection. We had to look into solutions and gain expertise in things that nobody else uses," says Al-Khatib.

The successful move of the website hosting from the United States to Jordan is only part of Al-Khatib's challenges. His biggest fear, and indeed the natural enemy of any stock exchange, is downtime.

"This is really our biggest challenge. The problem of a stock exchange is that it has to be operational every day. Every day you have milestones that happen at specific times, like the opening and closing of a session. If they don't happen, it's a disaster because of the importance of the stock market to the country, the economy, and the investors. Such mistakes are taken very seriously - as CIO, you see your mistakes in the newspaper and on the evening news," he says.

Al-Khatib has a full disaster recovery plan in place at the ASE, in addition to redundancy at the production site. He and his staff also conduct frequent dress rehearsals and scenarios. Despite these measures however, he is all too aware of the inevitability of hardware and software failure and the resulting downtime which follow them. As he explains, these occurrences are the real test of a CIO's mettle.

"We have a definition of what is to be considered a major problem. If it affects the whole market, an emergency committee is formed automatically. The members know that they belong to this committee, and immediately report to its chairman. This committee starts to follow the procedure of sorting the problem. For example, if it's an IT problem, the IT department will start to analyse what went wrong and if there is a stoppage in the trading system or a failure of the network, then you need to try to understand if you can recover and how long you need to recover. This committee liaises with all other parties, including senior management and the market," he explains.

3574 days ago
arab CIO

The basics for any decent stock exchange is to enable interent trading. Till date the amman stock exchange is not able to provide this basic service.  
Customer's satifaction should be a main critirea of selecting the 'Cio of the year".. i am sure that this was not taken into consideration.

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