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Victor Vae’au on leading in the digital era: ‘It is about changing fast, and changing differently'

Victor Vae’au on leading in the digital era: ‘It is about changing fast, and changing differently'

Victor Vae'au spent eight years at the NZ Defence Force - six as chief information officer. He shares some lessons learned for current and future CIOs.

What creates the most value in the quickest time sometimes is not your traditional big development core systems. Sometimes, it is the smaller more nimble, more agile, more flexible processes or vendors that play a key part.



As with his three predecessors Victor Vae’au became chief information officer at the New Zealand Defence Force, following a portfolio career in business technology in the banking sector.

In his case, Vae’au joined the NZ Defence Force as head of operations and three years later became its CIO.

Vae’au stepped down from the role last month, and is now working as a business advisor and mentor for upcoming CIOs at the University of Auckland’s Future CIO Programme. He is also standing in as CIO at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand whilst a search for a permanent CIO is underway.

He shares with CIO New Zealand some of the insights learned from leading one of the biggest, if most complex, information ecosystems in the country:

"If we talk about disruption, in my view, IT has - not just business - also been significantly disrupted.

If you think about any service or product that we try to deliver, traditional operating models are no longer the norm and many are working their way into new ways of orchestrating products and services. We have had separation of business reconfiguration, requirements, then IT translation of these requirements and finally service delivery.

Amongst all that, there's the traditional divide of the business versus IT, in terms of how to make it a more coherent product or service orchestration that is meaningful or of value. Analytics is a byproduct of that struggle - big data, how to use it, and at speed and now digitalisation and tech savvy consumers.

We now have the ‘as a service model’, the big data phenomenon, and we are grappling with how to make all that work.

So there emerged processes like Agile development, which is really looking for a fast way of doing things.

The ‘smart device' broke a lot of the barriers about the mystique of IT.

Rather than have one person in the room who understood IT, most boards and executives who are consumers of smart devices became tech savvy. That is where the disruption comes from.

They can actually describe the experiences they are looking for. That is where startups came up and where agile methodology became really fast.

It is all underpinned by this intrinsic need for quick, accurate information. It is all about digitalisation - you are getting a quandary of decision-making, based on this flow of information that policy and decision makers have to consume.

The CIO role is really around creating an effective ecosystem with your customers.

You are trying to engage and utilise this fast technology pace to keep customers interested, and to keep them engaged in the right forum.

Read more: Westpac CIO Dawie Olivier on 'The killer app for today’s ICT teams'

It is very different and it is changing the playing field. What creates the most value in the quickest time sometimes is not your traditional big development core systems. Sometimes, it is the smaller more nimble, more agile, more flexible processes or vendors that play a key part.

A CIO and the CIO’s team really are getting more into the value-add conversation around business outcomes, rather than what is the best technology that can do this.

That is a great thing. Because when I started in technology we were always talking about trying to win a valuable seat at the business table. Today, we are becoming more and more integrated into the business.

Digital is not a role, it is a business strategy.

Just creating a role calling someone that will not fix the problem nor reap the rewards. It’s a transformation exercise for the entire organisation - not just IT.

That is why I am not a fan of changing titles. Like any transformation, you have got to step it through rather than just rename it.

I believe businesses and IT should focus on is what is the value proposition in terms of products and services, and information they have, and work out how to do that.

Digitalisation is a holistic business focus - not just a change in IT; that's old thinking. I believe we have got to stop focussing on roles or changing roles (such as CIOs, CDOs, etc) and instead look holistically at where the value proposition lies.

We have to move fast and sometimes we will get it wrong, and that is okay. Otherwise, you are never going to learn; that is what this agile, DevOps, that is currently the 'new' thing [is doing]. It is still, however, a transitory process.

It is about changing fast, it is about changing differently. If you do that, you can be called a help-desk, an analyst and it would not matter.

In my time at Defence, we looked to getting the foundations right.

We had some services, but they were disjointed and were not connected to the core of what the organisation needed nor anchored to its core business - warfighting.

Our approach needed to change to think outside the square - for example, using our constraints (like security) to be more inventive rather than handbrake our own capability as critical enablers to the warfighter.

'The brakes are in the race car to win the race, not slow it down and lose' is an old adage that applies here.

So we had the transformation to get our information systems more fit for purpose. We strengthened our relationship with our critical stakeholders. That takes time. So now that we have it in place, we need to look at this as a critical enabler going forward.

The CIO has a very important role both as teacher and mentor.

This is why I joined the CIO advisory group at the University of Auckland’s Future CIO Programme. I hope to give back to others aspiring to be a CIO someday - and also learn from them.

It is also a nice way to meet new people and to learn things as well. We don’t have all the answers. These young people have great ideas and we don’t want them to lose their will to drive into leadership roles.

The CIO is such an exciting role. But it is often thought of as a service role, a support role. We still have not broken that paradigm in certain areas.

The CIO is a tough job and it is unforgiving sometimes - but it also has great rewards.

We achieved some amazing results in my time in Defence and that was due to great people and motivated teams. But our greatest achievement was winning back the attention of our business which should make the next set of transformation exciting."

Victor Vae'au speaking at a CIO100 event in Wellington.
Victor Vae'au speaking at a CIO100 event in Wellington.


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Tags leadershipCIO100change managementinnovationdigital transformationCIO roleagilebusiness intelligenceanalyticsdigitalconsumerisation of technologymobilityDevopsCDO disruptionUniversity of Auckland in New ZealandVictor Vae'aucollaborationdisruptionnz defence forcementoring

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