Strobe lights bounced off Moses Okundi’s bald head as he danced his way to the stage. A thing he makes fun of during our shoot. He had just been named CIO of the Year Africa 2022. The crowd had surged to its feet with a roar of applause like there had been a rehearsal, and the introverted, tall, almost lanky Okundi had been stunned. He would later use words like “Surprised,” and “Unexpected.” For this one night, when he is the toast of Diani and yes, Africa, he literally actually beams. Manly hugs with pats on the back accompanying him the rest of the night. Not many experiences can live up to that moment your name is called to receive an award. The crowd loves you – happy for you in that moment, they share your success and for one brief shining moment, being on top of the world doesn’t feel lonely.
Okundi fancies himself a back-office guy. Even his office as CTO/CIO of Absa Bank is located away from their headquarters. But don’t get it twisted. He, and his team, are certainly on top of things.
This is apparently the number 1 question people ask before any interview on the planet so here goes. Tell us about yourself.
I’ve been a techie for about 30 years now. I’ve worked through various stages in my career right from being a technician to doing value-added services. I worked at Vodafone Ghana as a CIO, and now I am finally in the banking sector. That’s my career in brief. I am a father of two 11 (boy) and 9 (girl), and of course, there’s my lovely wife Olga.
Do any of them show signs of being techies?
My son does. He is a gamer, he loves tech, and he really shines in his ICT class. My daughter is a bit more artsy. She loves the arts, and she’s asked me to help her sell some of her paintings.
You won CIO of The Year Africa 2022. What was that like for you?
It was mind-blowing. In my career, I am used to hard work, long nights, and rallying the team on socialising the technological changes we need to make and how they can influence and support the business. It is usually about delivery; about making it happen. When we get awarded – it happens sometimes – it is not at that scale. I am really humbled and honoured to have received the award.
Aside from this Award, you must have other proud accomplishments and achievements that you are proud of. Please share.
In my two-decade career, I have gone through a number of ups and downs – more ups. I have to be grateful to the leaders and colleagues I have worked with where together we have achieved some great things. I recall a solution that my team and I delivered to reduce international calling fraud that resulted in significant changes for the business. Most recently we deployed a solution that aggregates all mobile money transactions for the bank which resulted in significant savings for the business and efficiency. The journey to get our colleagues cloud certification so that they can be comfortable with that new technology was really rewarding and satisfying.
When you won the Award, and even now, you talk about ‘we.’ Who is the ‘we?’
One of the philosophies I try to live with is that you bring people up. You have to create a team in order to be able to deliver sustainably. It’s not just individual effort. In my leadership, I have always led a team, and I want to build a team to deliver for the business. When I say ‘we,’ ‘we’ in this instance is my technology colleagues, the team that I work with on a day-to-day basis.
You talked about your successes. What about your failures? How do you take ownership of those?
Failures are a great thing especially in the technology space because no one can tell you for sure what the future outcome will look like. In any case, technology is evolving rapidly, and you must adopt new technology. At the same time, you need to understand the existing technology that is delivering the bread and butter. Sometimes when we are ambitious or creative and we try some things, we do encounter challenges and delays. Of course, as the leader, I take ownership. What is more important for me is to ensure the lessons are learned. What is it that we could have done differently in terms of stakeholder engagement, communication, delivery, and structures around delivery? Those lessons are critical for me.
Are you comfortable sharing any of your failures along with some of the lessons you have learned?
Definitely. As a pure technologist, sometimes you can be interested in the technology alone, and perhaps not spend enough time to bring the actual users on board. Earlier in my career there was a solution I was sure would help my front-line colleagues in the call centre. Technically, it was a very good solution that would have helped them serve customers better. But we looked at it from the back end only. There were some challenges with the usability. If we would have engaged the users and discussed the challenges with them earlier on in the process, it would have really helped us have the impact we were pursuing. Do very good stakeholder mapping and ensure that they are on board and giving feedback during the development and delivery process. That way, by the time they are using it, there is a graceful and seamless transition.
You won two awards on the night of the Digital Transformation (dx100) Awards. The other was the Infrastructure Award for the SD-WAN project you collaborated on with Huawei. How did this partnership come about?
SD-WAN is a very good solution in that it allows us to digitise how we use our connectivity infrastructure across our national footprint. That level of seamless handover between the various connectivity infrastructure really positions us to do other things with it. That way, as we are adopting the cloud, we can also deploy SD-WAN to manage resilience and connectivity. We were looking at a solution for the very low building block area. I refer to it as a Lego because at the very bottom, when you are doing your digital transformation, it is important to have a very solid foundation. The connectivity is right down at that level. We were looking for a partner and as we engaged various partners, Huawei seemed to have what it takes to deliver this project. We told them what we required strategically and engaged with them.
Who else did you partner with on this project?
We have an array of partners we work with but not specifically on this project. In our IT organisation, I have about 50-60 partners I work with. I really try to make it a partnership so that we benefit from their insights and knowledge. We also share our vision with them. True partnership is coming to a sweet spot where you deliver solutions. If you are not deliberate about that then the engagement can be very transactional. You miss out on the value that exists because partners interact with very many people across the space, and I can benefit from their insights.
How do you solidify these relationships with your partners?
We have an operational relationship we define at a service level because we expect them to work with us and deliver at a certain level. In so doing, we have quarterly engagements where we assess their delivery. Part of the agenda becomes sharing our strategy and vision and what we would like to achieve, and we get feedback from them about possibilities, and what they have done in a similar manner that perhaps we could benefit from. Sometimes they say what they can and cannot help us with. We also organise training for knowledge-building and exchange.
Outside of the relationships with your partners, let’s go in-house. How do you build relationships with the C-Suite and senior management especially when you are working on a project?
That is very critical. Again, the reason I re-emphasise this is because it is important to me. You can’t do technology for the sake of technology. Being a CIO, I kind of have to wear two hats. I must wear a business hat, as well as a techie’s hat. Whatever tech I get involved with, must make sense for the business. It is not necessarily just to keep the lights on which is critical, and we do as BaU. Additionally, we invest in strategic tech that can empower our business. Allowing the bank to access bigger and new markets. We also look at the data we are getting from existing customers, and how can we harness it. Knowing that value from a business perspective, when I engage with a C-Suite executive or colleague, I can tell them ‘Look. This ambition that you have and this target you want to achieve, this is how technology can help you.’ I talk about the investment we need and the shift in how to do things to achieve it. Once you have the buy-in you can deliver on the technology because the idea is so clear, they can see how you are going to translate it into value and deliver on that.
This must mean you spend many hours trying to stay on top of things like technology trends and business trends. How do you do that?
That dovetails with the partnerships and engagements conversation – through which we learn a lot. Through the colleague environment across different sectors, you get to learn a lot about what they are doing and what seems to be working. Through engagements with commercially oriented colleagues, we get to understand the importance of the organisation and their business. In so doing, they can curate technological solutions to deliver those business ambitions for their organisation. Additionally, you must be part of the many tech forums to understand how technology is evolving. The Internet is littered with horror stories about bad investments many organisations have made that have almost bankrupted them. You have to be careful. That foundational technical knowledge that you gain over the years and that experience help you to make good judgement calls, really support the business, discover, and enable new business areas without disrupting existing bread and butter.
Tell me something technological that you learnt this year which surprised you.
Let me think. We spent a good amount of time trying to investigate a vulnerability called Log4Shell. I learned that this is a significant exposure that could potentially cripple an organisation. We really deep-dived into it, and it is almost exactly a year since it came about, and we have been working to contain the vulnerability. In so doing, we were inspired to consume a lot of information. I joined the banking industry in September 2021 and was looking at the core banking platform, how to do ledgers and deliver banking solutions to customers. I’ve really gotten my hands dirty with regard to core banking specifically in that 15-month duration.
Before this interview, my team and I were discussing the idea as to why every bank wants to be a fintech and every fintech wants to be a bank. Is this even true, or is it just one of those statements that have been repeated so often they have become ubiquitous?
I would say it is not necessarily true. That it depends on the fintech or on the bank. The sweet spot, for me, is the partnership. The fintech cannot do end-to-end banking but they can offer the solutions. Through a partnership with the bank, the portfolio of solutions can be more holistic. Think offering credit facilities, money transfer, cross border transfer etc. And banks are in a good spot to provide this capability. They are regulated and have been for a long time. While a bank would like to have the nimbleness that a fintech may have.
If you, as Moses, are looking at banking, how do you focus on future trends, stay current and learn from the past simultaneously?
I usually focus on the 3 Ps. People. Processes. Platforms.
Platforms: How do you position yourselves to really benefit from future technological trends? You build platforms that can interface with external parties or adopt open standards while ensuring the bank remains secure. You create an ability to provide ease of partnerships.
People: there has to be a cultural shift. Looking at the Kenyan space in the past two decades, there has been rapid adoption of technology. Even those who could not read and write embraced mobile technology. Solutions around USSD banking and the proliferation of the Internet; there’s Internet banking as well. People in traditional banking need to undergo a shift in training without losing their institutional knowledge of the value traditional baking provides. They have to adopt new ways of working while using their experience and expertise to unlock more value.
Processes: Because banking has been regulated in Kenya for more than a century, there are processes that perhaps worked well in the past and still work today. Then there are aspects of them that can be transformed, made more efficient, and automated – and it requires looking at all processes. Where you can deliver efficiency, measure it. Whoever was manually involved is a good candidate for training and deployment so they can discover new skills and challenges.
Would this be Moses the CTO or Moses the CIO speaking?
I tend to play both roles and I’m not big on titles. I’m just driven by value and as long as there is value on the table, then I will look for a seat on that table and will work at delivering it. I’ll bring people on board so that we can work well together in delivering that value.
Part of delivering value means bringing in everyone, not just senior management, and the C-Suite. It is all part of the culture. How do you inspire people to understand the role technology plays in the organisation and the business? That it is part of every aspect of the organisation, and that it is not limited to the IT department.
That falls squarely in the people space. You can’t use tech for the sake of it. One thing we are working on is partnering with the local talent and teaching them about cloud, cybersecurity, data science and agile ways of working. Look at Python You don’t need to have an ICT degree to learn how to code. You just need to be interested. I really want to raise awareness and understanding through this programme. The targeted people will see the value of future technology and shift the interest of people who want to embrace it into other areas of the business. As we bring on the platform and the technology, I expect easier adoption as you look at processes. With these combinations, the experiences people have can be seamless.
What has your experience been like working across generations?
I am a Millennial myself. It’s been interesting. One of my values is humility. Through that, I can listen and empathise. I find it quite powerful. You learn from everyone. I really like the younger generation because they constantly challenge me with their thinking and approach. It is very non-traditional. The traditionalists also have value with regard to their expertise and experiences that they have had. Humility allows me to straddle and engage with anyone and everyone regardless of whatever generation they are part of. It is not a challenge for me. Let me put it that way.
Part of my understanding of a CIO’s job is that they have to be switched on 24/7/365. Is this your life?
I used to be like that, but you miss out. When you say you are switched on 24 by 7, really, you’re not. You are burning out. You are ineffective. You are not having the right conversations. You are becoming very transactional. It also hampers your growth making yourself the key man – like the major who addresses everything. It is critical as a leader, and that is one of my key priorities, to build and develop people. It gives me, personally, the opportunity to learn and experience new things and engage more strategically. Once you are a Chief of anything, it is important that you shape and deliver on the strategy. If you are just operational. It is a missed opportunity. My strategy is to build a really strong team that can share responsibilities and duties and I don’t have to put the phone underneath my pillow when I go to bed.
A large part of your career was spent at Safaricom. What are some of the key lessons you picked up and how was your career shaped while in the telco space?
I got to learn about radio engineering, core switching, and mobile network technology. I also developed IT experience through value-added services. There are very good lessons that I can now bring to the bank as well to help people transact on the go digitally. Whilst at Vodafone, I got to work in Ghana. These experiences build up and put me in a great position to deliver the work I am doing today.
I did wonder how your pockets of knowledge come together and make a whole.
The basics of technology remain the same right from infrastructure, application, data, and connectivity level as building blocks. That knowledge coming together puts me in a good position to see what the future could look like for the bank and what approaches should we take strategically to ensure we deliver for the bank. The telco is a much younger industry, and it has been eye-opening in contrast to an established industry. Bringing this together to move fast and try different things and detailed rigour around risk management, managing stakeholders and delivery has been very good for me.
Earlier, you had talked about ‘we’ being your team. How big is it, how do you stay innovative and how do you stay agile?
Our team is strewn across Kenya, India, South Africa, and Prague. Absa is a Pan-African bank. In Kenya, we are just under 100 individuals. We have adopted, and are building on, agile ways of working. We take delivery of a solution we want to put across, integrate with colleagues and put together a team. I am working to get the entire team certified where it is relevant with regards to the verticals, they are working in whether cybersecurity or cloud. With this knowledge, we have the right capability and continuously build on it. We are also not fully insourced. We work with partners who give critical expertise to refine our solutions.
That sounds like a lot of people.
It is. But we work quite efficiently. The teams in SA also deliver for other markets as do some individuals working in Kenya. We have a level of core banking excellence that we deliver for other markets as well.
What do you do for fun?
We like to travel with the family. I recently took up kickboxing as well. I say for fitness, but sometimes it helps with just having a good mental mind frame. I also love cooking. I quite enjoy making dishes and experimenting. I am quite comfortable in the kitchen. It helps clear and detox my mind.
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This article was first published in the December/January 2022/2023 edition of CIO Africa magazine.