by Jeremy Daniel

Q&A: Altron’s CIO takes leadership lessons to a managing director role

Nov 01, 2020
CareersCIOIT Leadership

The new managing director of Altron Group's Karabina unit, Collin Govender, talks about leadership lessons learned as a CIO that he can carry into his new role, the advantages Africa has when it comes to deploying emerging tech, and managing a remote workforce.

collin govender
Credit: Collin Govender

Collin Govender, Group CIO of South Africa-based systems integrator and application developer  Altron Group, is set to take over as managing director of the company’s Altron Karabina subsidiary at the beginning of 2021. Altron acquired Karabina in 2018 for R225 million(US$14 million) in order to create a Microsoft solutions business within the group with a special focus on cloud computing and data analytics.

With over 20 years of experience in the IT industry, from fixing staff PCs in the early days to leading large teams, Collin is as passionate as ever about helping companies drive efficiency, improve their customers’ experience and drive revenue streams from new business models.

We talked to Govender to ask him what makes a great CIO, and leadership lessons he’s learned that he can carry into his new role.

What are the attributes of a world-class CIO?

A lot of CIOs are caught up in their own IT roles and don’t think about the big picture. They’re very out of tune with where the business is going… which is why you have so much shadow IT happening within large organizations without the CIO’s knowledge. Shadow IT happens in a large organization that has different business units. Those units end up doing their own IT because they send requests through central IT departments who tell them they can’t help with a particular issue. So what happens? That business unit ends up doing its own thing and comes up with its own solution. That’s a big problem for the CIO.

A solid CIO needs to be someone who is pragmatic and who is in tune with the business and the problem it’s trying to solve. He or she should ask themselves, “Is what I am doing going to add to the bottom line and generate business revenue?” For me, that is the lens that you should be looking through.

How much technical knowledge should a managing director have?

If you asked me five years ago, I’d say it’s kind of important. But in the context of almost every company becoming quite automated and quite sophisticated, it’s become more important than ever. Without it, you won’t understand the customers that you are serving. I don’t care what role you’re in — whether you’re in an IT business, or you’re in distribution, telco or healthcare, you’ve got to have a solid understanding of how all the pieces fit together so that you can serve your customers better.

What emerging technologies are you most excited about?

We are on the cusp of driving incredible automation, usable bots and self-service which are all coming together to create easier ways for things to be done. Let’s take a silly internal process as an example. Say you have an IT problem in a large corporate environment — usually you have to phone the service desk, book a technician and battle to get hold of the right person. By the time you get the right person, you’re so frustrated that you’re already shouting at someone.

We’ve addressed that scenario by using a WhatsApp bot. All that happens is you send it a WhatsApp message in ordinary language, for example you say “I have a problem on my PC”, it automatically recognizes who you are, what your number is and within a few seconds, an agent calls you back. That takes out so many steps and so much time out of the process. The same person who calls you back is the one who’s going to solve your problem.  That’s just one example of using everyday technology and making it accessible for staff, and making it frictionless. What I’m most excited about right now is creating frictionless experiences.

Why is Altron Karabina primarily offering Microsoft services?

When you look at its adoption rate, Microsoft is quite pervasive in Africa. From a software POV, it’s huge and there’s already a large, existing adoption in the corporate sphere. The way that Microsoft has democratized IT, and has changed the way they license things and operate, has made it so much more accessible for most markets to consume.

Cloud has enabled that. You no longer need those big on-premise servers. You are literally just consuming a commodity service now. The opportunity within Africa right now is around thinking about what we have learned here, practicing it in our own organization and coming up with ways to make frictionless services for customers to consume in a competitive way. Our customers know that we will go there with them.”

 Does Africa have advantages over the rest of the world that it can leverage?

 Our biggest advantage is that we don’t carry legacy. If I look at territories like Uganda and Rwanda, they never had a copper network to start with. They can lay down fibre from scratch, and the effect that has is to make broadband connectivity that much more accessible. They’re not carrying older solutions that they then have to migrate to the next storyline. So they can decide on what is fit for purpose. I’m a big believer in post-modern approaches to application architecture. With the way solutions work today from a business services POV, the ability to connect solutions and integrate them is so easy to do. You can pick the best-of-breed, fit-for-purpose solution for your kind of business, and I think that’s where the African continent has got the advantage because it can leapfrog and embrace the new ways of working. We can consume services in a different way, we can really monetize the data so much quicker than more traditional, legacy businesses, and as a result, we can pick up opportunities before everybody else.

Thinking about Africa from a singularity standpoint. If you’re going to leapfrog your competition, then you’re most probably going to do it at an exponential rate. You’ll be so far ahead of your competitors on a global stage because of that ability to leapfrog.

As a leader, how are you thinking about the new work from home environment?

I’m quite a social creature. I love the feel of people around, working with my team, brainstorming. For someone who’s wired like that, I’ve found it very difficult over this period. I’ve had to find different ways of connecting and still be able to drive innovation around services that have impact and purpose and that move things forward.

We really force visuals and video in our team. I know everyone has challenges. That’s why I take calls in my pyjamas because I want people to feel comfortable and relaxed. I do it deliberately to show that it’s OK to work in different ways. If my kids come in, I bring them in to say hello and show that we’re all dealing with stuff at home. You have to create an environment that says it’s OK to bring your two worlds together and to still create community.

Ten minutes in the morning on video to say hi, have a good day, look each other in the eye and create a start of the day that says I’m part of a team. The other thing is I insist on no communications after 5:30. Because people are burning out. Everyone is paranoid of being fired as the economy is not doing well. So people are pushing themselves to crazy limits and working longer and longer hours. We need to guard against that going forward.

How important is diversity in a workforce?

Diversity for me is not just colour, gender, age — it’s about different ways of thinking. We try to create the atmosphere for it. The simplest solution is to create space for everyone. If someone is over-talkative like me then I try to reach out to the quieter types, ask them a question and bring them in. I also believe in actively having people on your team who disagree with you and even rile you up to a degree. That creates the kind of tension you need to create unusual solutions. A lot of people push conflict away and imagine they should be getting rid of the detractors from the team but I say it’s important. How else do you recognize what your blind spots are?

What leadership lessons have you learned from being a CIO?

One of the things you learn very quickly is that what makes a good CIO is good stakeholder management. There’s a whole school of thinking about that. I am paranoid and hyper-focused on the customer — you have to treat them like gold. I spend a lot of time doing customer surveys, and creating scores on how well we are doing and evaluating our performance.

A good CIO has that stakeholder management as a skill that they can cultivate and that goes for your employees as well. Do the simple stuff well, think about your partners and make sure your technology solutions are geared towards solving big problems.