She didn’t know it yet, but the entire CIO Africa sorority was rooting for her. A female CIO of the Year. Was there anything we could do to make that happen? It turns out sending these vibes to The Universe worked! Alright, alright. I will be the first to admit that Jaine Mwai’s brilliant work did all the heavy lifting.
For someone whose future was predetermined from the moment she joined a fleet of outstanding, high-calibre top Kenyan schools within several feet of each other namely Nairobi Primary School, Kenya High School and St. Mary’s School, Jaine was set to succeed. This trinity led her to the University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada) for a BA in Economics from 1991-1993, at which point she segued into McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) for a post-grad diploma in Public Accounting. The theme of threes shows up again later in her career when she submits not one, but three projects for CIO100.
The moment she graduated she joined Standard Chartered Bank where she was a Process Analyst for seven years. She briefly strayed but came back to what qualifies as her home for 14 years since, where she blossomed in of all things, IT. “Interestingly, my background is in economics and accounting though I did take a couple of IT related courses as electives. When I joined the Bank, the department I was working in at that time was part of IT but looking at process re-engineering. As we reviewed and re-engineered processes, I worked very closely with the tech team. I developed a passion for tech, and it all took off from there. Over the years I lost the desire to move into finance and instead chose to grow my career in technology.”
When Jaine’s name was called out that warm Friday night, she did not make an appearance. She was with us in spirit, watching the event virtually, and live, and says she was in shock when her name was called out. I tell her that we would have loved for her to walk on stage and collect her award. She gets a do-over, however, during the HerNovation End Year Cocktail, when she finally gives her winning speech, saying she found it “very overwhelming” and that she hopes her award “inspires” other women, those in attendance and in the industry. Her journey then becomes clearer.
What she did not lack were guides who made such an impact in her life she still remembers them vividly. She has certainly not suffered a dearth of role models from former managers such as Chris Wingfield, “who employed me twice,” Geoff Githinji, Paul Sagnia, Peter Gitau, Richard Etemesi and more recently Mohamed Abdel Razek. “I credit these giants for believing in me, pushing me to take on bigger challenges, run big projects. Thanks to them I challenge myself to go out of my comfort zone and take on whatever challenges come my way.”
Before you ask yourself, where are all the women? Hold your horses. “I have also learnt a lot from female leaders in the organisation. To name a few who shaped my growth, Nancy Oginde, Florence Nyokabi and our former MD in Zambia Mizinga Melu.” The latter gets a special mention. “One thing I will always remember about Mizinga was her advice on networking. She gave me a different perspective on how to network as a woman. That totally changed my perspective and thanks to her I started to network more.” Like pretty much any successful woman I have ever interviewed, Jaine will not take the credit. Instead, she thanks her teams, wherever they are and maybe, insisting that she came to rely heavily on them especially as things turned more technical.
When I was growing up, I never heard of anything that sounded remotely like a CIO. Right up until 2020. Basically, being a CIO has meant playing a central role in driving change and innovation within the organisation. CIOs are the visionaries and innovators who become early adopters of tech, the wrap business acumen with technical expertise, they need to possess the COO’s bird’s eye view perspective, the CEO’s insight and the CFO’s budget-juggling capacity, have to be great communicators and managers, be constant learners because come on, it’s technology. It has never had a reputation for being static.
Much is expected of a CIO. Much is also given to the CIO. In fact, the buck is increasingly stopping with them. It is therefore hardly surprising when Jaine says, “The modern CIO role has transformed into one that is less technical and one that is more business-oriented. Today’s CIO is a driver for innovation and business change agents. The role is ideally all about understanding the business needs and meeting these needs through technological innovations. The modern CIO will also look at how technology can drive new business and revenue opportunities and accelerate company growth.”
The next two to five years are critical. “The role of a CIO started changing a couple of years ago and I see it continuing to evolve in terms of evaluating innovation, partnership development to deliver service, more involvement in business flows rather than pure technology (which becomes more of a commodity at the infra levels). The continuing expectation is for the CIO to help transform the business through technology, be a change agent and most importantly be able to simplify tech speak into business language.” See? Communicator extraordinaire.
Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Buying tech seems to be one of the most vital parts of being a CIO. What do you take into account when you are purchasing technologies?
I will look at a couple of areas such as case to compare build versus buy, the edge it gives and the adaptability of the technology. The key thing to look at is though how the new technology will be relevant for business growth. It should be something that will help drive business growth or address an existing issue. I also conduct peer reviews, research the new technology, carry out a proof of concept when considering purchasing a product or a service.
This decade has started out quite unpredictably. It has skewed everyone’s perspective of the future. Yet as a CIO you still need to be able to forecast. What are some of the trends you can see coming up in the 2020s?
Today, we refer to the future as being here now, so the trends that are already here include AI and machine learning, using data to drive decisions, growth of IoT, DLT and blockchain, smart spaces and cities, growth of cloud computing at a local level, 5G (or maybe 6G), and we’re likely to see more robots doing mundane tasks.
You’ve been with Standard Chartered for just about your entire career. In the 7 + 14 years in your various roles at Standard Chartered, what do you keep in mind when drafting strategies aligned with the Bank’s vision?
When looking at the technology strategy, I will take into account the emerging trends and how they align with the Bank’s vision. As the CIO I have to consider how technology will help the business so everything I do will be aligned with the Bank’s vision. For example, if I’m looking at IoT, I have to look for use cases that will help the business grow a revenue line so I would align that technology to a business objective.
I am made to understand the life of a CIO is actually rather thrilling. What is your day-to-day routine like?
A typical day in my life is a calendar filled with management meetings, meetings with internal stakeholders, meetings with Vendors/ Partners and meetings with my team members. There will be an occasional conference or webinar on emerging tech or cybersecurity that I would attend.
This has to be asked of any tech company. Actually, no wait. Of any company. How do you stay agile?
I have learnt over time to be agile and to have an open mindset about what is happening. A Strengthsfinder test I did a few years ago described me as a “… kind of person who loves to peer over the horizon” so this does make me more open to change and what it brings me.
As CIO East Africa we work closely with vendors. I know you do too. How do you build strong and rewarding relationships with vendors?
One of the things I learnt from my days of marketing software is to give vendors an audience. Even when I know I may not buy your product, if I have the time, I will meet with you. After that, I will keep in contact via email or text. It could be possible that I will buy your product one day or someone I know will, so I keep the communication lines open. For existing Vendors, I am in constant communication about what we’re doing, what they’re doing or exploring ways to enhance our partnership. Where possible we will have social engagement.
In the course of this year, I have read up on so much of what a CIO is expected to be. What are some of the cross-functional skills a CIO needs to possess to get the work done?
The soft skills a CIO needs are communication skills, negotiation skills, influencer skills, people management, stakeholder engagement and management, empathy etc. I could go on, but I think these are some of the key ones.
There is this CIO who had the audacity to say CIOs need to embody three crucial personas – communicator, influencer and salesperson. Where do you find that your strengths lie?
I would like to think of myself as an influencer. Adoption of emerging technology requires a substantial amount of investment and over the years I have to present business cases and use persuasion and influence to make this happen.
What do you find that you rely on when there is a disruption in technology, and you need to find your way out and through?
I have built networks over the years. I usually have someone I can call when I need to know something, or I need help resolving an issue. Over the years, I have called upon many peers when reviewing solutions and making decisions. I also read a lot and research new ideas/ innovations. This has helped a lot in my career.
Does your career as a CIO get you a seat at the boardroom table?
Yes, it does. Technology has become part and parcel of any business strategy. Successful and sustainable organisations are those who have adopted technology in their business operations, product development and service delivery to clients. As a CIO I am at the centre of this transformation and this gives me a seat at the table.
Why do you think female CIOs are not as common?
I would say opportunity and courage to step forward and apply for positions. However, I think that is changing because you see more women in tech today, so I believe this is likely to change in near future.
What is the one thing that being a CIO has taught you about yourself?
That I need to collaborate more because success comes from tapping into peoples’ diverse skills and expertise.
To quote a CIO I once interviewed – ‘people in tech don’t have free time or hobbies.’ I’m betting he was wrong, and that you will prove me right. What do you do to unwind?
I love to go on adventures by discovering new places. The last time I went on leave in October this year I went to Masai Mara. I would love to go to Cuba. I also like to read mainly fiction, especially the ones about crime scene investigations (CSI) or thrillers. I love David Baldacci and Vince Flynn. I also work out once in a while.
What is it, you think, that made you a winner?
I’d like to say it was the winning entries or the personal submission. I honestly don’t know but I’m grateful I won.
How does it feel knowing the CIO fraternity had the final vote and they picked you?
Awed and humbled all at the same. Truth be told, I am at a loss for words and I thank the fraternity for picking me.
How do you balance your work life and personal life?
I’m not sure what this balance looks like but there are things I treasure in my personal life and I ensure I make time for them. I used to keep late hours at work but with working from home I put a hard stop to my day. Usually, by 6 pm, my laptop is off and I’m on personal time. I’m very close with my family and I spend a lot of time with them. Second to my family are my friends who I hang out with often. I enjoy travelling so I will embark on the occasional #tembeakenya destination and foreign ones too.
I like to read though I haven’t done much of that this year. Downloading kindle was the best thing because my books are just a click away. I work out when I can… this month I agreed to a 100K challenge… I’m just about halfway there and hope I knock it before the month ends! I enjoy fine dining and the occasional glass of red wine or single malt.
What would you say is your strength when it comes to working as an introvert?
Good question, despite being an introvert, I form relationships and I leverage those relationships in my day to day working
And what would you say has been your biggest success and what did you learn from it?
I have handled several projects and initiatives within the bank that have been very successful. However, the most memorable one was when I was on a short-term assignment running the data centre and we were in the middle of a major system change for the countries hubbed into our data centre. The project involved a major overhaul of the entire system and IT processes with a potential impact on client service. This was done with minimal impact on customers as well as closing long outstanding issues with the new system. One of my biggest learnings was one needs to have an agile mindset and a good relationship with the service provider to ensure minimal disruption to the Clients. I also learnt that I needed to maintain good stakeholder management as we transitioned the systems
If you would not have been a CIO, what would your career have been instead?
I always saw myself in finance or consultancy. So, I think I would have ended up as a CFO or a partner in one of the big accounting and audit firms.
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