“Future CIOs should prepare for a journey full of paradoxes”

In a conversation with CIO&Leader, Mushtaq Ahmad, SVP and Chief Information Officer at CSS Corp—one of the rare cases of a frontline business executive taking over as CIO—explains how the role is changing, the challenges in the industry and the technologies that he has invested in

“Future CIOs should prepare for a journey full of paradoxes” - CIO&Leader

Is the CIO’s role very different in a technology company?

Before taking over as the CIO, I have spent close to 15 years at Infosys in business roles and joined CSS Corp in late 2016 as Vice President and Global Head for Cloud, Infrastructure and Security Services Transformation. I had the opportunity to serve many leadership roles in technology systems, platforms and transformation wherein I had the chance to design and develop several next generation offerings, GTM and, solutions for Infosys, where I had joined infrastructure management services or IMS. It was exciting as a new growth engine was formed for Infosys with IMS. We were a handful of people and put our best effort to grow this unit exponentially.

I have been serving as the Global CIO for CSS Corp for the past two years.

As CIO, my charter is to set the organization’s technology strategy and roadmap to drive overall efficiency and productivity. Additionally, I constantly collaborate with different functions, customers, end users and other stakeholders to elevate customer experience and service agility within the organization.

What foreseeable change do you see in the CIO role in the next 2-3 years?

I believe, in the last couple of years, a CIO’s role has transformed from a support function to a more complex and agile, core business function. The role will become even more multi-dimensional and challenging from all fronts. CIOs will be working more closely with other business functions across all levels of the organization to innovate on smarter technologies and identify newer ways to create impactful business outcomes. With technology being at the core of all new age organizations, more CIOs are likely to secure a place in the boardroom. CIOs are already working towards honing business acumen to effectively execute digital strategies and creating an impact in the larger scheme of things. A CIO will also hold more important responsibilities in data management functions going forward.

What are some of the key tech trends you foresee in the IT industry?

Adoption of emerging technologies will continue to exponentially grow in the future. This includes cognitive technologies, such as open stack, artificial intelligence and machine learning. I strongly believe that these trends will fuel newer possibilities in specific areas like ambient computing and augmented reality. From an economic infrastructure point of view, 5G, cloud and SDX are likely to be the key trends that will open endless opportunities for organizations to bring their innovative ideas to life. In parallel, stackable technologies are also gaining more importance for its potential to supercharge the digitization efforts across organizations. Apart from this, there is also a keen focus on quantum computing. Though this technology is in its nascent stage, we can expect it to take the ecosystem beyond supercomputing in future. We will also see a shift towards an integrated automation approach. This approach will take intelligent automation, from desktop automation of disparate tasks, to the next level of business process transformation by effectively bringing together technology, talent, organizational change, and leadership.

What kind of technologies has your organization invested recently? What technologies you intend to explore in the future? 

We have invested heavily into technology and continue to invest in the emerging and niche areas. At CSS Corp, we build outcome-based services using cognitive technologies to help organizations integrate our solutions into their environments in a hassle-free and risk-free way. In terms of advanced technology adoption, we are investing significantly in our innovation lab, where we have built over 25 digital solutions that accelerate technology adoption and drive business results. These solutions are implemented for our customers and have yielded great results.

We are also evolving our cognitive customer experience suite to not only transform the customer experience but also drive system efficiency and boost engineer experience. By leveraging AI technology, we aim to augment agents’ experience in contact centers and improve their productivity. On the other hand, we are constantly upgrading our cognitive analytics capabilities with emerging data sources and platforms.

Additionally, we have built a robust intelligent automation suite for monitoring and managing IT operations for our customers. Another area of focus for us is advanced location analytics and insights, which have become essential for organizations to provide personalized services to their customers.

In the telecom domain, we are developing a comprehensive NFV automation suite for rapid deployment of SDN/NFV platforms across multiple network elements. With our 5G lab, we can now enable our customers to accelerate their 5G efforts. We have also piloted augmented reality-based solutions with few of our customers in networks and electronics domains, wherein the results are very encouraging. CSS Corp is revamping its internal systems with a huge focus on data security and privacy using DevSecOps.

As part of IT and strategy, we are also investing in auto incident response tools and user behavior analysis tools that leverage AI, ML and analytics to predict and pre-empt incidents and breaches. We have adopted server less, micro services architecture, CCaaS, SD-WAN, Zero Trust security approaches to deliver IT and security services. We are also investing in tools to simulate, conduct drill and educate end users on IT security and data privacy in digital world.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face, in your industry?

A key challenge we face lies at two extremes of a spectrum− either it’s lack of trust in technology to deliver any results or expecting technology to be the magic bullet to all problems. To overcome this, we spend ample time to understand our customer’s apprehensions and business objectives, and work with them to craft a pragmatic solution that delivers on the promise.

The other challenge is more tangible in nature. The exponential growth of digitalization has posed huge cybersecurity threats like phishing, DDoS attacks, crypto mining and botnets. It is becoming a challenge for CIO’s to keep organizations safe with teams lacking specialized cybersecurity professionals and the ever-increasing cyber incidents gathering under their belt every year.

Hackers are using sophisticated technologies and other new ways for more targeted attacks on security. Any breach can not only impact operations but can also hurt our customers’ trust in us. Therefore, it becomes imperative for organizations to have robust planand nimble solutions for such incidents.

Data privacy regulations and end-user awareness is another critical area. We need to understand that IT alone cannot solve all problems through technology adoption. With technology improving and catching up with bad actor techniques, the focus is shifting towards exploiting the end-users to collect information. Therefore, end-user awareness, mandatory certifications about various regulations and social engineering techniques are crucial to secure data storage and transaction.

What's your digital agenda? Do you find the right talent to meet your organization's digital needs?’         

Technology industry is evolving at a lightening pace. According to IDG, “89% of organizations have adopted or have plans to adopt a digital-first strategy”. In today’s day and age, it’s imperative for service providers like us to institutionalize a digital-first approach when it comes to customer engagements. This requires imbibing talent with skill-sets which would complement the strategy.

We strive to hire professionals with the right attitude apart from the digital know how. Since technology and various stacks are getting converged, there is a greater need for various skills to be combined accordingly as well. This is the shift and the demand we are receiving today from the market. Therefore, we are investing deeply in technology training, upskilling and infusing emerging technologies/skills to our employees.

A continuous learning mind-set, hunger and passion can help employees scale-up to meet the requirements in hand. We have also built high value learning and development frameworks that facilitates faster on-boarding and better understanding of technologies, customer products and environments. For example, CSS Corp has co-invested in building labs and solutions with customers enabling employees to understand the customer’s products and resolve issues faster. An engineer joining our customer experience team today, can resolve issues 2-3 times faster when compared to his/her resolution rate few years ago. This is largely due to their increased aptitude to understand applicability of emerging technologies and AI in support processes, and application of knowledge management in business operations. In some of the recent engagements, our AI solutions have decreased the new-hire learning from 90 days to 25-30 days.                                                                                            

To conclude, our digital agenda is a convergent approach. With right skill and attitude combined with the organizational strategy to invest in technologies and processes can help assess talent and build them for the future.  

What is your advice for future technology leaders?

Future technology leaders and CIOs should prepare for a journey full of paradoxes, with steep and sky-high targets with limited means to achieve them. CIOs and technology leaders should lead technology strategy and adoption by being a transformation and change agent.

I would advise new-age technology leaders to constantly invest in themselves and their peers when it comes to continual learning and upgrading skills. Leaders of tomorrow should also build effective partnerships that are outcome-based, revenue generating and customer-centric. They should learn the art of getting into consulting or advisory roles as organizations will increasingly rely on them to guide with their technology strategies. 

Aspiring technologists should also be up-to-date with the latest and greatest trends in the technology world. They should be open to learn from different sources and invest in peer learning, while remaining agile and responsive to the demands of the market.

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