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

“Unless we build organisations that are able to adapt to and to use whatever technology comes along we are actually wasting our time."
The real threat is our inability to react and adapt appropriately.
The real threat is our inability to react and adapt appropriately.

Dawie Olivier, CIO at Westpac New Zealand, smiles when asked about technologies that CIOs are checking out.

“I am much more excited by cultures and methods than in flavours of the month.”

Every week, there is a new top of mind technology, because that is how disruption works in the digital era, he says.

But for Olivier, the killer app for today’s CIOs and their teams has nothing to do with technology.

“It is the ability to transform the organisation – ICT and beyond – to be able to adapt to anything coming down the track,” says Olivier.

Much as technologies represent the threat, he states, “the real threat is our inability to react and adapt appropriately.”

Thus, he says, “The CIO’s mission is to build a team that can adapt to these changes, and more importantly, can test and learn with the market all the time.

“That is where our future lies.”

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Olivier joined Westpac in April 2015, his third CIO role. He joined Westpac from Standard Bank Group in South Africa where he was executive head of group technology build and before that, its CIO. He was also CIO at Sasfin Holdings.

He is likewise concurrent director at Paymark, which runs the largest electronic payment (Eftpos) network in New Zealand. Paymark is jointly owned by Westpac, ANZ, BNZ and ASB.

He has completed the banking board leadership programme for non-directors at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in South Africa, and has a degree in maritime studies at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

He has been responsible for designing and aligning IT to Group strategies, and been the “custodian” of the successful implementations of a number of these strategies.

“The satisfaction of seeing a team, comprising diverse talents and skills, pull together and unlock the value of a well-designed strategy or architecture is one that cannot be underestimated,” he states.

“The more so when these results are delivered in the implementation of complex, cutting edge technology solutions in support of strategic initiatives with immediate economic paybacks.”

When asked how he has seen the role evolve through the years, Olivier responds instead with what has not changed.

“What has remained constant is the fact that IT is a people business and that focusing on the technology for its own sake is pointless,” he states.

“Unless we build organisations that are able to adapt to and to use whatever technology comes along we are actually wasting our time.

“We quite often see new technology teams being built next to the 'old' technology teams as opposed to transforming the technology capabilities to do what you want to do. To my mind, that is a vote of no confidence in your own teams.”

He says one of the things he liked doing is building great teams and letting them be great.

“The team here at Westpac New Zealand is certainly deeply talented and populated with driven, ambitious people. These people love doing great engineering and my job here is to make that possible for them. That is a challenge I am up for everyday."

At Westpac, the ICT team is composed of around 500 people and is restructuring around how they do things.

We spend a lot of time creating and implementing Lean and Agile engineering practices, he says.

“We are focusing heavily on automation across our stacks so that we can get to the point where these things are part of the stream of delivery on any technologies."

“Going Agile” is a phrase I absolutely hate,” he says. “It assumes someone is going to arrive here with a book, and we are all going to do that. It is way too easy to say we will do scrum or we will do continuous delivery or we will do XP (Extreme Programming).

What we are creating is the space to use the appropriate tools and techniques for different delivery requirements.

He prefers this approach: “We need to figure out for ourselves what is appropriate and what culture we want in place to make it possible for us to act in an agile manner.

“This is a culture journey before all things and we spend much more time exploring how we would like to feel when we come to work, than we do on what is a specific method.”

He prefers an approach that will make the team want to feel part of a great outcome, to collaborate with other people, understand how they added value, and whether their output has been valued.

“Those are things that make Lean and Agile great philosophies.”

What has remained constant is the fact that IT is a people business and that focusing on the technology for its own sake is pointless.

Dawie Olivier, Westpac NZ

Theory and practice

As CIO, Olivier is directly involved in decision making across the broader running of the business, and ensuring a strong technology presence and focus at the executive level.

With Westpac’s goal to become the leading digital bank in New Zealand, Olivier organised the executive team to witness first-hand the technology organisations that they are working with as they move into digital platforms.

In September 2015, Olivier and members of the Tech Leadership team at Westpac visited technology companies in Silicon Valley and in the East Coast in the United States.

“The practices that we all should be implementing, the concept of Agile, DevOps, all originated there,” explains Olivier.

“Seeing it in practice with the people who have done it from the beginning is very different from reading it from the book,” he says. “Also, it is quite important which practices are not appropriate for us and the way you can understand that is to go there and spend time with these companies."

Among the companies they visited were Amazon, IBM, Pivotal Labs, Microsoft and Chef software, which specialises in automation tools.

He believes C-level executives will benefit from a similar trip. ”If you don’t, you are limiting yourself to what you read online.

“The internet is like any other media you only get what people want to tell you,” he states. “When you go there you get a different opinion.”

Incubating innovation

Olivier readily cites some of the standout projects the ICT team has worked on with other business units in the past six months, which were launched ahead of competitors.

One of these is Westpac Airpoints Credit Card. He says that the products team identified the market opportunity for this card, but realised that a strong focus was needed on ensuring the onboarding and fulfilment process was as simple, efficient and seamless as possible for the customer. Thus, the cross-functional team removed as many “pain points as possible” utilising customer-centred design principles and processes.

The card was launched in April with a self-service online origination and fulfilment for Airpoints customers transferring from other card issuers.

The service was then extended to Airpoint Debit MasterCard. New customers were able to sign up online (including the ability to establish their PIN) for the card without the need to visit a branch, and in less than five minutes.

He says customer adaption for these cards has exceeded expectations and they continue to receive positive feedback on the speed and ease of use of the process. The online systems also had a flow on to the other channels like the call centres and branches. As a direct result of these initiatives, we can have more thorough conversations with our customers in these channels, he states.

Olivier says having a programme team with members coming from different units, and the adoption of Agile methodology with two-week sprint based approach helped facilitate the delivery of these projects.

Olivier says another standout project was the Direct from Account (DfA) service for businesses. The service allowed customers to make a payment direct from their bank account on a company’s (merchant’s) website in a secure manner.

He says during the bank’s regular review, the bank identified the customer need to secure online payment without the requirement of a credit or debit card. He says this was also a recognition of the New Zealand government’s desire to make their online services available to more New Zealanders in a simple and secure way.

“In order to obtain support for the initiative, we worked extensively with senior stakeholders across the bank to obtain buy-in and provide confidence that the service met the required security and fraud standards.”

The service was launched in June 2015, the first New Zealand bank to do so. This initiative delivered both a new convenient and secure payment product to Westpac customers, together with a new means of payment to New Zealand merchants including government, charities and commercial business, he says.

The service provided the foundation for the bank to quickly and easily deploy new Application Program Interface (API) enabled services, says Olivier.

Next: Navy officer to CIO

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The route to CIO

Olivier came to the CIO role in a circuitous manner. Prior to joining the enterprise world, specifically finance, he was with the South African Navy for 10 years.

“As a youngster, I used to code for a hobby,” he says. “It was easy to decide what my next career was going to be after the Navy.”

He worked as a software developer after a year in the Caribbean as a diving instructor.

“My wife and I spent a year on the beach,” he says, smiling. “When we got back I picked up more formal training [in software development].”

He also taught coding for a couple of years, and then went into project management training. He worked as a contractor for a number of companies including the Department of Justice and a couple of banks in South Africa.

One of the banks, Sasfin Holdings, hired him as GM of technology and then as CIO.

Olivier explains that most of his work outside the Navy has been finance. He has worked in both corporate and commercial banks, starting with IT support for foreign exchange and shares trading.

“It is one of the places where you have access to the most number and the biggest spread of technologies,” he states, of his continuous work in the sector. “It is the kind of world where there is most often budget available to do things, especially if you are going to improve things.

“Lastly, whatever your team does will have a direct influence on the quality of people’s lives, which is a very important place to be… There are many industries where that is not true.”

He looks back on his years in the military as a great grounding for his current leadership roles.

“I believe that the military is one of the best places to learn leadership,” he says. “Contrary to popular belief, military leadership has nothing to do with command and control, it has everything to do with trust and with delegation and collaboration.”

He paraphrases a famous quote from Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., who led the coalition forces in the Gulf War, about the solder in the front line being correct ”unless proven otherwise”.

“Which means, you leave the decision making to the people closest to the fight,” he states.

We can’t wait until high school to influence children, young women especially, to have an interest in maths and technology science.

Dawie Olivier, Westpac NZ

Related: Dawie Olivier on If the All Blacks were an IT team

Working with future ICT teams

Being CIO in a major enterprise allows Olivier to contribute to fixing the gender imbalance in science and technology, "a key issue in the industry”.

Recently, he and his team were privileged to sponsor a session for #SheSharp, an organisation that encourages women to go into computer science, computer engineering, IT, and tech-related fields.

Olivier says some leaders in the ICT team spoke to a group of high school students about the range of interesting jobs they can have in information technology and their own experiences in getting there. He believes, however, children in primary school should get the same message.

“We can’t wait until high school to influence children, young women especially, to have an interest in maths and technology science. We have to start really young.”

He believes the UK government’s overhauling of its education system to have mandatory programming classes is “fantastic”. Locally, he lauds the work of MindLab and in this space.

“It is a lot better than teaching people just pure maths because at least you can see what you make,” he says.

Asked to share a career advice that will transcend technology trends and fast paced changes, he says, “There is a winning combination of traits and behaviours that will get you anywhere.”

“One of them is a good grounding in maths and science,” he explains. “Math teaches you the patterns for problem solving.”

“Then, [have] a really deep curiosity which will allow you to read as much as you possibly can, because that will give you the information to the patterns that maths will give you.

“Lastly, is boundless enthusiasm…You really have to be enthusiastic in everything you do.”

As to applying the oft-repeated dictum for ICT teams to ‘fail fast, fail forward’ to one’s career, he proffers: “Do not be afraid to break things.”

“If something interests you, go for it. Even if you fail, you would have learned something.

“We win some, we learn some is the right catchphrase,” he concludes. “There is no such thing as failure. There is only a whole bunch of lessons.”

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