What do you do with your Saturdays, especially in the mornings? Do you lounge in bed taking the opportunity to Netflix and chill? Or are you like Alkane Patel who calls Saturdays his Development Days? He works half a day every Saturday and would advise you to, “Dedicate your Saturday for playing with new technology.” Even I have to admit that is much more fun than say, you know, that Netflix app. Alkane has been in the industry for 23 years now, making him a tech veteran who has a thing or three he could teach the young ‘uns.
For instance, stop bumming because, as Alkane declares, “Physical fitness is also important when you do digital fitness, so try to balance your time.” Maybe you play around with YouTube and find one of the 1.69 billion workout videos on it. Unless, of course, you want to follow the once legendary, albeit controversial Google example, the 20% Project, by dedicating 20 per cent of your working hours on a pet project that releases your creative juices and that could become the next Gmail. That, or the next CIO East Africa Company of the Year. I also see why he is referenced as a visionary. With his digital thinking that has led to a digital culture at BIDCO Africa, Alkane does not solve today’s problems. He solves tomorrow’s problems, sometimes before they even happen.
You describe yourself as a technocrat on your LinkedIn page. When did you know that you wanted to be in technology?
I do not even remember when I realised. But I guess it was when I selected my Bachelor of Engineering, Electronics and Telecommunication back in the 90s (1991-1996 at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, India). I did not start my career in IT, but as a management trainee, working with all depts, and later, as an Instrumentation Engineer. You might say I wasted those years as an engineer, but I was on the other side of the table. It is at that point in my career that I learnt firsthand what shopfloor users think about IT and their expectations from the systems. Those years have helped me out when it comes to supporting the business with technology.
No one, no matter what they, or the world may say, is self-made. Who are some of the giants whose shoulders you have stood on?
The first name on my mind is Dr Vimal Shah, Chairman of BIDCO Africa. He has always thought 10+ years ahead and poses new challenges and opportunities on technology locally to make us competitive globally. Give credit where it’s due, I work with a team of dynamic quick learners who deliver without constant supervision. As such, our working relationship then enables me to focus on emerging trends in technology and innovation. Then we have our end-users who time and again inspire me to find new solutions from their challenges. Our system gives them the freedom to explore then based on feedback and interactions, we always end up with new solutions and breakthroughs. It is all about relationships. I say everyone has an opinion, and not only that, but they also trust us to be an advisor to them. This has helped me become what I am today.
Tell us about your winning project. The same one that won you the East Africa CIO of the Year win.
This was creating an AI to help the customer care team and shared service centre team, for them to improve their productivity with real-time information 24/7 in their own language, on their own platform and on their own time. That is why we have used conversational AI. We also used natural language processing and in-memory computing. We developed bots and various journeys to solve that problem. It is called Rafiki, Swahili for friend. Rafiki serves all our customers and is available on WhatsApp 24/7 without our customer care team. The chatbot can help in providing the customer’s personalized information which they need in their day to day operation with Bidco.
Services Available on Bidco’s Rafiki include and not limited to:
- Outstanding Details: – Rafiki can help to perform several account management services. These include checking current outstanding, account balance, ageing analysis, list of open items and many more.
- Payment Details: – Rafiki can get a summary or detailed statement of the payments done over time.
- Order Status: – Rafiki can also help retrieve current order status as well as pending order status for customer to plan their day. It assists in tracking items in transit as well as transporter details, vehicle numbers and various other details related to order shipment.t
- Sales Analytics: – Customers can get a variety of information related to their sales performance. This will enable a single version of truth for them and BIDCO’s representative to plan and hit their agreed sales target.
- Sales Promotions: – Rafiki comes handy customer wants to find out more on products on offer.
It took us 30 odd days to build our first bot. Later we came up with a few bots for employees, the shared service team, the sales team and the supply chain team to check their KPIs and various analytics for their day to day operations.
There is always a reason behind any innovation, especially for a CIO. What inspired this one?
We wanted to provide a ‘wow’ experience to our customers using technology without losing the human touch.
The solution has to be,
- Easy to use.
- Real-time online
- No extra downloading
- No hassle of credentials
- Personalised experience
- Data privacy
- On their preferred channel
- 24×7 availability
- Without overheads on the customer care team
Who were your partners as you were going through this transformation and how did they, or you, choose to partner?
It was a multi-vendor engagement during the project, We have partnered with quick works to leverage WhatsApp, Gupshup, Automation Anywhere, Dialogue flow technologies. We have also engaged ERP partners for APIs to take advantage of in-memory computing.
Since 1986, when the word ‘CIO’ first came into being, the role has been constantly evolving. How would you describe the role of the modern CIO in 2021?
Tough one, huh? There have been several discussions over time on how the CIO has to spend their time on keeping the lights on? Or do they spend time on digital transformation projects? I fully agree that Management expects CIOs to move beyond managing IT, and to leverage technology for the business. But at the same time, I think the CIOs cannot shy away from the responsibility of their existing backend systems. CIOs must put in more effort to ensure the IT platform is stable for the business to operate on.
Use automated tools to reduce time in maintaining the current status quo. And focus more on digital transformation projects which is where the future is. Last year, the whole world came to know the power of digital transformation. IT has demonstrated resilience during the lockdown periods. I strongly believe in 2021 we will be witnessing even faster innovations and dependency on IT compared to 2020. That is where CIOs has to acts as tech translators. We cannot longer be talking jargon. We need to speak the business language. CEO expects that CIO is a business person who knows IT.
In what ways do you see the role of the CIO evolving in the next two to five years?
The “I” in “CIO” now seems to stand for innovation more than information. CIOs are expected to interact with the business in different ways to come up with revenue-generating business models that read Lead – Challenge – Disrupt – Transform.
You must have an annual budget of sorts for buying tech as a CIO. What do you take into account when purchasing technologies?
There is something very popular at BIDCO which is ‘need to have or nice to have.’ When we evaluate technology, we have to define our needs in what is nice to have and need to have. We are never rigid with our business needs. We are open to learning the “look-alike” features set because sometimes you will come across a better solution than what you wished to have.
- Speed is the critical element as is scalability. Today’s business needs are not going to be there tomorrow. Place a high premium on in-built scaling functionality so you do not have to go for another upgrade project to scale.
- For BIDCO, cloud computing and mobility is the first choice and if the tech is to be acquired on-prem, then we prefer to go for virtualization.
- Measuring a security risk and the privacy of data is also crucial now. If the tech or solution is not secure, we don’t even try it out. Sometimes the small loopholes may create bigger problems.
- Systems integration is the most important aspect of a solution. If a solution is not having out of box integration, we will wait till it is ready for integration. We do not want to be part of a suppliers’ learning curve with our systems.
- We also check the product roadmap to try to understand the background of the supplier and their vision. This gives us a commitment that whatever we are buying are being enhanced in future
- Finally, cost. This is of course a very critical factor. That is where the game is a bit different. Instead of focusing on cost, We see how fast we can get the ROI (return on investment) with the technologies.
As a CIO, the ability to predict technologies’ futures or forecast is one of the talents one is expected to possess. What are some of the trends you can see coming up in the next decade?
- Software-as-a-Solution (SaaS) is going to be more popular, along with
- working-from-home (WFH). This will still persist because in 2020, it was forced but now, I see businesses do not want to lose out on the benefits of WFH.
- Cybersecurity is going to be the main focus of a CIO.
- Cloud and in-memory computing will be in an acceleration mode.
- Customer-facing solutions will be adopted in the business. You will be seeing many solutions coming into the market locally and globally.
- Last year everyone was trying to cut costs especially in doing business with AI implementation. Tapping Into AI is inevitable.
- Investment into the tracking and tracing technology will be a feature of the post-COVID world.
- We are on a journey from automation to autonomy. In the first wave of automation, enterprises had automated what they thought was automatable, but cloud and AI have opened new possibilities and changed the definition of what is automatable. We can automate almost everything in tech with the right set of technology.
With every step that you take when it comes to tech, there must be expectations not just from the board, but also from the C-Suites and management. What do you need to keep in mind when drafting strategies for BIDCO and how do you align this with the corporate vision?
At BIDCO, We have been made very aware of our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). “To grab, grow and sustain the number 1 market share in African markets by 2030.” Whatever we do has to be aligned. The customer has to be at the centre of all our strategies. Customers can be internal or external and to get this right, we follow PCDQMS.
P – productivity; is the project or solution improving productivity?
C- cost; reducing the cost of doing business?
D- delivery; are you enhancing this operation by reaching our customers better and/or faster?
Q – the quality of product, services or systems improvement? Go for it.
M – morale; Is this project improving the morale of the team/group/employees?
S – safety
This is how we align ourselves as a company.
All this gives me insight into the bigger picture of what you do as a CIO. But what is your day-to-day routine really like?
This should be a day-to-night routine because technology never sleeps. You have to be available 24/7. As an IT leader, there are always new challenges, new demands, new threats, new opportunities. I start my day with the gym, follow with a prayer, then go to the office. I make a to-do list with a clear classification of important versus urgent. Mornings are best to focus on projects which help the company’s bigger goal as it is the most productive period for the mind. I always try to finish as much work as I can over the phone or online meetings and plan for routine work in the afternoons I always put conscious efforts into completing daily routine in the shortest amount of time.
And how do you stay agile when it comes to your career?
By staying close to the market aka end user. Be with the end-user, learn their problems and do not do one-way communication. Let them talk to you about their problems. When you interact with end-users you learn a lot. You can design a wonderful system but if it does not solve the pain or problem areas of the end-user then what is the point of it all? Agility is all about the mindset. Are you willing to learn, willing to change? Our digital team embraces change and they not only accept, but also keep up the pace with change. The team is open to new objectives, but they are also realistic. You also must bridge the talent gap by hiring those whose skills and talents can meet our business needs. Also, provide continuous cross-functional training. A stable IT infrastructure is also very crucial. You do not want to spend time on maintenance and repair as you will miss new opportunities to transform.
Vendors have proven to be essential to any IT leader so how do you build relationships with them?
We look at vendors as our partners. We treat them as the extended digital arm of BIDCO. Transparency in the relationship is critical that helps to run the project. Transparency can be tech, commercial, or even skill sets. Some of the projects we have worked on with vendors where we had prepared ROI jointly and delivered. Being able to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses allows teams to plan more effectively for better future relationships.
There is a CIO who once said CIOs need to embody three crucial personas – communicator, influencer and salesperson. Where do you find that your strengths lie?
If you ask me, I think I am a better salesperson than any of the two. After spending two decades, I feel I am quite good at Internal selling though it is tougher than external selling. Each time you come up with a concept, it requires some investment in money, time, and effort, to change something which has been happening for quite a few years. You must convince from top to bottom to make sure that you are rolling out a better business process.
You are a C-Suite executive. Does your career as a CIO get you a seat at the boardroom table?
Yes. BIDCO believes leveraging technology is the key to success in this competitive edge. The CIO’s understanding of digital business models and operating models together with their ability to spot new opportunities and threats are also highly valued by their colleagues.
What is the one thing being a CIO has taught you about yourself?
I would say real ownership of the IT solution is the business process owner. Going live is just a starting point of the digital transformation. After that, the journey begins. You cannot control everything in digital. You have to let it go. When, and what to let go of, is always a crucial decision. And you have to accept not everything you are doing is going to be successful. Know how to fail fast, fail often and learn from your failures. Don’t fall in love with the tech or the solutions because those things are going to change. Fall in love with the problems that you are solving.
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