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Offshore attraction

Offshore attraction

Are you considering an overseas posting? Read how one CIO swapped the comforts of home for the rewards and cultural challenges that go with a top role in a large Saudi bank.

As the cardboard moving boxes pile higher throughout his home in Sydney's leafy northern suburbs, former Bank of Queensland chief information officer Iain Blacklaw is unexpectedly relaxed amid the chaos and hubbub that precedes a move overseas. In fact, Blacklaw looks a little too casual, pottering around the house in comfy slippers, expertly dodging those boxes. Perhaps all the years managing huge, full-scale outsourcing deals have taught him not to sweat the little things.

In this case, the little things are the logistics involved in moving 12,000 kilometres to lead the IT services and property functions at an Islamic bank that's planning to grow within a relatively new but substantial banking market during the next two years.

The Saudi-owned Al-Rajhi Bank is the largest Islamic bank in the world by market size. It has six regional offices in the Middle East and 19 branches in Malaysia. It intends to expand to 50 branches throughout the South-East Asian nation by 2010. Blacklaw's new role, which includes responsibility for IT and property, is seen as central to that expansion.

Blacklaw says his decision to take on the role is all about opportunity, although he admits there is a downside to temper the lure of Saudi Arabian tax-free dollars.

"The technology department cannot be created in my image," he says. "But having spent 20 years building up similar operational [processes] in Australia and Europe, it is a great opportunity for me, despite [the inability to drink alcohol]."

The only chance Blacklaw will have for a cold one is to fly out of the country to nearby Bahrain. But, in all honesty, that doesn't bother him.

Blacklaw spent three months negotiating the deal earlier this year by telephone and will have an established IT team to greet him in his new Saudi Arabian office, the spectacular new-world, steel-and-glass architecture of the Al-Rajhi Tower.

The sight of this beauty, combined with the 50-degree heat of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, should be enough to drive away any memories of his previous digs on Brisbane's Queen Street. Tax-free dollars and swish offices aside, the strict banking codes, customs, environment and sometimes patchy critical infrastructure feeding business in Saudi Arabia's capital city will no doubt pose meaty challenges.

He will, however, find the cold comfort of home in some of the challenges that are uniform for CIOs worldwide. First on the agenda is plugging skills gaps. Finding senior management to complete the bank's expansion into South-East Asia will be an immediate and pressing issue, made more complex given local hiring laws.

The Saudi government has mounted a campaign to raise the proportion of locals in senior management positions to at least 60 per cent, and media reports suggest the country is woefully short of finding the estimated 500,000 prospects it needs to meet predicted local demand.

Blacklaw says an important element of his initial appointment will be overseeing local staff retraining to avoid having to ship in vast numbers of scarcely available talent from other countries.

"Clearly, some of the IT is available from external resources and the technology skills can be trained easily, but I have yet to start thinking about developing the leadership and managerial skills," he says. "That was part of the attraction."

Lost in translation

Another concern for Blacklaw is differing interpretations of data centre "operational robustness". He says the phrase doesn't mean the same thing in the Middle East that it does in Australia.

"Some of the initial transformational work I will do is in infrastructure provisioning, and most banks here have already invested in data centres and robust buildings but I don't think the idea of operational robustness, for IT at least, exists to the same extent in the Middle East that it does in Australia," he says. "Forty years ago, they had completely different physical infrastructure there."

The Al-Rajhi Bank uses a mixed sourcing model. Blacklaw says immediate infrastructure decisions may include a significant outsourcing deal, but nothing concrete can be decided until he has the chance to pick apart the IT infrastructure.

He has been hired principally for his experience in managing outsourcing deals and big vendor contracts. It is an area he has worked in from both end-user and supplier sides of the fence, and he is quick to dismiss the idea that he will broker opportunities for large outsourcing companies in the region.

"I'm not there to push any models, nor am I there to give EDS and IBM a leg-up in the Middle East," he says.

In mid-2004, Blacklaw was promoted to vice-president of service delivery for IT services at EDS, having worked previously as director of operations for EDS Asia-Pacific south and director of financial services for SAP Asia-Pacific.

He left EDS following a restructuring in November 2005 and joined Bank of Queensland in September 2006 to oversee an IT platform shake-up and manage the outsourcing agreement with EDS.

This involved migrating Pioneer Permanent Building Society's systems across to BOQ, which the bank bought in November 2006 for $50 million. Then in 2007, after the failed $4 billion merger with Victorian rival Bendigo Bank, BOQ spent $600 million on Perth-based Home Building Society. That meant another systems migration.

In October 2007, between the mergers with Pioneer and Home, Blacklaw was appointed group executive of IT and operations. This expanded his role to include national operations of property services and BOQ's enterprise program office.

In contrast to BOQ when Blacklaw arrived, Al-Rajhi has already standardised on a core transaction platform, which puts it ahead of some of its Australian counterparts. The move is a factor in enabling the Saudi bank's looming expansion to proceed.

Blacklaw will be glad he doesn't have to go through replatforming again. At BOQ, it is an enormous, ongoing project that spans all operations. The work began in 2004, cost an estimated $40 million and was hit by five months of problems following the upgrade. This resulted in patchy service for internet banking and point-of-sale systems.

At BOQ, Blacklaw leaves behind only the need to upgrade the front-end teller systems. Most of that work is due to be completed late next year. But the Al-Rajhi Bank completed this task two years ago, selecting one name-brand database and applications for warehousing, financial services and customer relationship management across all group call-centre telephone and online banking services.

Experience overseas looks good back home

Australian recruitment consultants believe a posting overseas makes an ideal addition to the resume of any local technologist. CIOs such as Blacklaw are attractive to entities such Al-Rajhi if they can display skills that are underdeveloped in those organisations. Often this comes down to greater exposure to international vendors and bigger deals.

This direct experience in the vendor-client side of outsourcing, combined with a background of handling the IT heart of a bank in the middle of an aggressive merger or acquisition, would also have contributed to Blacklaw's hiring, says the CIO practice leader with recruitment firm Talent2, Paul Rush.

Rush says a move to the Middle East would be more lucrative for senior technology executives than moving to the United States or even Asia because of the phenomenal regional growth and demand for talented managers.

"A position like Blacklaw's new one in the Middle East is a two- to three-year gig," he says. "With the financial power of the Saudi sovereign states, businesses in the Middle East have more cash than they know what to do with."

There are many behind-the-scenes issues CIOs considering overseas postings must consider, including cultural sensitivities and extreme differences in business protocol. IT professionals must also dissect the internal reporting structure and IT funding before signing on the dotted line, otherwise they may find their hands tied by budget or bureaucracy. In short, CIOs need to know if they have the mandate to do what they must to affect business change or transformation through IT.

If incoming IT chiefs are expected to report to the finance department or chief financial officer, Rush believes it is critical that they know whether they can use technology as a competitive advantage, or if the organisation considers it only a cost of doing business.

"And if you are expected to report to the chief executive, you also need to know how many other executives report to the CEO, and whether or not [the CEO] will have the necessary time for you," Rush says. "In this situation, you have to be prepared to not get as much mentoring as you would like personally or professionally."

He advises managers vying for CIO roles and information chiefs working in mid-tier jobs who are eyeing positions with top-50 organisations in Australia to consider moving overseas.

He says if your organisation has a head office overseas, a posting there means you get direct experience in developing, managing and implementing an organisation-wide IT strategy.

"Its broader than just doing your job," Rush says. "It's about size and scale, and owning the strategy. And if a local CEO or chairman wants to recruit a CIO and not a head of IT, the differentiator at that level is whether you have demonstrated ownership of an IT strategy and delivered on it.

"Also, being a technology leader from both sides of the fence sits in the top five competencies and behaviours that executive search consultants focus on."

Blacklaw's package includes unlimited air travel, although he doesn't believe he will be jetting into Sydney regularly, basing himself instead in the capital of Riyadh.

"I think the most likely outcome is that I will spend more time in the Middle East and in Europe," he says.

Making the move overseas

* When negotiating a role, ensure you understand the reporting structure.

* Understand why you are considering such a move; it may be money, career progression, or the appeal of a lifestyle change.

* Think of the move as part of a career plan, perhaps over five years, and determine what new skills you would like to acquire by the end of the contract.

* Will local roles give you the same experience? Will an overseas posting look good on your resume?

* Consider whether there are any language concerns.

* Does the financial package include housing? What is the local infrastructure like?

* Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the perception the hiring business has of its IT department.

* Can you create the department in your own image, or will you have to follow stringent executive demands?

* Do you have any existing contacts overseas, and can they help you in your new role?

* Will the job help you improve your skills and will extra training be required or provided?

* Do you know any other CIOs who have moved to the region? Their advice and local knowledge can be invaluable.

ISLAMIC BANKING

In this system, banking must be consistent with sharia law, and in theory this means sharing profits and losses, and denouncing interest charges (usury). Investing in businesses considered unlawful, such as those dealing in pork products or alcohol, is forbidden. Strict business banking rules stipulate that loans are given and paid back according to the company's rate of return.

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