After taking on technology leadership positions at enterprises in a number of different sectors including finance, mining, retail and consumer goods, Sandra La Bella signed on as CIO for the Alexander Forbes Group — considered to be a very traditional and well-established financial services firm — with a mission to overhaul IT and leverage technology to advance business strategy. Among other initiatives, she set out to bring DevOps and agile development methodologies into the IT workflow.
Within a year, the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) bestowed the 2019 Visionary CIO Award to La Bella, in recognition of her ICT turnaround strategy at Alexander Forbes. The accolade is given to a CIO who has demonstrated visionary leadership in using IT to support, grow and transform business, and/or who has established best practices in implementing technology solutions in an organisation.
We sat down with La Bella to find out more about her efforts and get her take on what it took to transform Alexander Forbes into a digital transformation hero.
What was the business problem you needed to solve?
When I joined Alexander Forbes last year, I found a technology department that was just running to keep the lights on. When you have a department like that, your cost to income ratio is extremely expensive because you’re paying people but they’re not actually advancing the business. I needed to put a strategy together to fix some of the fundamentals that need to exist within any technology organisation. By that I mean putting together everything from rule profiles and job architectures to assessing out-of-life/out-of-support hardware and software and coming up with disaster recovery and business continuity plans. It also entailed implementing the right policies and processes so that everyone knew what they were doing.
How did you determine the requirements of the project?
Firstly, I had coffee with every single employee across the technology team. This gave me a lot of insight into all the things that were going wrong. Then I met with senior executives and spoke to them about their perceptions of technology. I then looked at things from my perspective. Understanding where the technology world is moving, I put my CIO cap on and did some thinking around what sort of solutions the company needed. Based on all this, I put together a strategy document detailing that there were 116 projects needed to turn things around.
Which technologies did you decide to use and why?
I brought agile into the organisation. Every Friday, the whole team would get together and discuss how things went that week and what they were planning on tackling next. I also automated a lot of processes using DevOps so that we could do things faster and I moved all our storage into the cloud to reduce costs.
What were the biggest challenges?
When I came in there was a definite fear factor. I was telling everyone that I was a people person and that we were going to do all of this together and I don’t think they believed me. But because I don’t manage from afar – I’m certainly not afraid to roll up my sleeves and work with my teams – they soon saw that what I was saying was real. That’s the thing about change management; you have to speak the truth if you want people to trust you.
What lessons did you learn from the project that might be beneficial for our readers?
Never let a task that feels like a monolithic monster intimidate you. It’s all about teams, structure and strategy. Your strategy can’t exist as some PowerPoint pie in the sky thing. Your strategy has to be easily broken down in to tangible outcomes that you can focus on. And you must keep checking in on how things are going. I actually got auditors in every time we completed a project to make sure that what we’d created was sustainable. Otherwise you land up going back to where you started.
What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year?
Without a doubt – automation, robotics and machine learning. If you look at the customer today, they don’t want to do anything that requires them to leave their home or their office. They want to be able to do everything using a piece of equipment that sits in their hand. In order to deliver this, your business has to be fully automated and must have embraced digitisation.
What’s the best career advice you ever received and what advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders?
Always look for new opportunities to learn or grow. I do a course every single year. If you don’t aim above where you’re currently act, you can’t be surprised that you stay in the same place. Change can be frightening but it’s good to change. As a female working in a male dominated industry, my advice to my fellow women would be to stop thinking you’re inferior when compared to your male counterparts. Women mustn’t be afraid to share their knowledge and experience. Ultimately, when you’re sitting around a boardroom table trying to solve a problem, male and female is irrelevant. It’s about insight, expertise and not being afraid to take up the challenge.
What has been your greatest career achievement?
I’ve had a couple. The first was when I implemented Absa’s entire anti-money laundering and Financial Intelligence Centre Act (FICA) compliance. The second, still at Absa bank, was when we worked closely with the South African Reserve bank to become the first bank to be approved to move to the cloud. Finally, being able to turn Alexander Forbes around in 12 months has been a pretty surreal and amazing experience.
Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently?
Nothing at all. I have just been so blessed. I’ve loved every minute of my career. I’ve learned exponentially. I have seven official years until I have to retire but I’ll never retire. I can’t wait for the next adventure, which is why I’m moving on. I’ve actually resigned from my current role and in March I’ll be joining a smaller organisation that wants to grow using technology. I’m calling it my next chapter. I want to make a change in another organisation and hopefully leave another legacy.