On his way to a succession of IT leadership roles with some of India’s largest manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and electrical goods, Irshad Saifi has sought inspiration in his family’s humble beginnings.
Now chief information and digital officer with law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co., Saifi talks to CIO India about his IT career, which he began by making house calls to repair computers.
Since then, he has learned the value of good and bad experiences, of working closely with business leaders, and of seizing the day.
Here are edited highlights of CIO India’s interview with him.
CIO India: Explain your career path. What has been your greatest career achievement?
Saifi: I was born in a village to a poor family and completed schooling at a government school in Delhi. It’s been an interesting journey so far and appears as if I started my career yesterday. I believe in reinventing myself after achieving the set goal.
My professional journey started as a desktop engineer, which required visiting individual residences and offices to repair computers via public transport. I am privileged to be associated with all the great companies that I worked for, including the current one and global Fortune 10/100 businesses in leadership positions in India and abroad.
CIO India: What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to take in your IT career, and how did you make it?
Saifi: During my early years in the career, I took a job to teach students about Microsoft and Cisco certifications. That job was close to my place, I was comfortable, I became reputed faculty quickly, and I used to earn decent money.
After a point, this job wasn’t giving me real-world challenges. I took a decision to switch my job and take a 50% pay cut, and that offered me entry into the corporate world and put all my classroom theory into practice.
I was confused in taking this decision: I discussed it with one of my close friends, who guided me, and eventually even with my father. He guided me to consider a job that gives a better horizon in the long term than short-term earnings. It helped me to take this decision.
CIO India: What’s the best career advice you ever received?
Saifi: Seeing my father living an inspirational life impacted me the most. Not formally educated, he came from a small village to Delhi, started a labor job, and showed courage by setting up a small business and working extremely hard. He always motivated me and taught me the principles of hard work, excellence, passion, sincerity, strong ethics, respect, and continuous learning that I have been following in my career.
CIO India: What are the prospects for career mobility for a CIO? What roles would you aspire to?
Saifi: CIOs in the current digital age have an extremely responsible position. As CIO, they are expected to know the technical world and have leadership qualities — but they are also expected to understand the business well, identify technologies that can help to increase the bottom line, and transform the business. CIOs are in a unique position that cuts across all the functions, and have an understanding of all processes and visibility of organizational challenges. Such things were once known to the COO and CEO alone. Of late, we see CIOs transitioning to COO, CEO, and CDO roles. I always like the role as it gives unique challenges every day.
CIO India: How do you groom the next level of leadership for the CIO role?
Saifi: I encourage my colleagues to make decisions and build their leadership qualities. Good experiences and bad experiences are both equally important because, in my view, good experiences give us happiness and bad experiences are the ones that teach us.
CIO India: How do you walk the tightrope of IT-business alignment, a much-abused term in business technology?
Saifi: I believe technology groups in any company cannot be successful in standalone. There has to be a tight working relationship with the business. At the end of the day, the existence of a technology group in any company is to enable, support, and transform the organization. And without having a close association with the business, this cannot be achieved.
Businesses are always excited if they see frequent value coming from the technology team rather than waiting for years for it to deliver something huge. I am a strong believer in minimum viable products, and use that in practice.
CIO India: What myths about technology, IT/IS management, digital transformation, and the CIO role would you like to debunk?
Saifi: I would like to comment on a common myth of digital transformation. Most people feel that digitising and automating processes is digital transformation whereas “digitisation” and “digital transformation” are two different things.
Digital transformation is a business transformation, when a company decides to move completely to a digital-based business instead of physical or a mix of both, whereas digitisation is about improving productivity by using technology.
CIO India: In the past few years, has it become easier or tougher for the CIO to get a ‘seat at the table’? How do you equip yourself for it?
Saifi: Due to the digital era and now the COVID-19 pandemic, CIOs have easily secured a seat at the table. The choice is up to the CIO to decide which side they want to sit on: The side that listens and implements business ideas, or the side that gives the ideas to transform the business.
CIO India: How do you build motivation and the right culture in the IT department?
Saifi: The real source of motivation is life itself. Life is uncertain; we should make the best use of this life, help mankind, do our best every day. One should always keep oneself in the learning mode and feel a sense of pride every day by learning something new. No one has seen tomorrow; we should consider today as the last opportunity to deliver and do the best.