When technology is your business

When technology is your business

Three CIOs who didn't start out in IT now work at businesses that rely completely on technology

Between them, they have revenue of $1.1 billion and market capitalisation of more than $7.1bn. All three of Australia’s online classified sites – leaders in their particular area – are also so reliant on IT (their very existence in fact, depends on it) that their CIOs are at the forefront of dramatic corporate developments and personal journeys that typify leading-edge IT management and business acumen.

Employment ‘marketplace’ company, Seek Ltd, and its IT component have certainly been on a journey over the last few years, according to CIO, David Gibbons. The focus has shifted in recent times towards the ever increasing importance of product and IT within the company. This has put a lot of emphasis and investment in IT, but also a greater level of expectation and accountability.

“As a function, the importance of our not playing a ‘service provider’ role is greater than ever,” Gibbons says. “We must now ensure we have a strong understanding of the business challenges and are working together with our strategy and product functions in delivering the right outcomes.”

Likewise, technology is the business at its CIO Ajay Bhatia, says. “This makes the CIO both a business and technology leadership role,” he explains. “Every part of the business works hand-in-hand with technology to build, market and commercialise our products. This makes my role broad and interesting.

“It does, however, come with pressures of prioritisation. All executives look to technology to support and grow their business that little bit more. A key for Carsales has been to constantly innovate the best way to prioritise what we do.”

Nigel Dalton, CIO of owner, REA Group, also says his organisation’s core structure has IT integrated into it. “This is our customer-focused, line-ofbusiness structure. Developers, site performance engineers and many more IT people spend their days working in multi-disciplinary teams with product, marketing and sales team members, not in a big IT shop,” he says.

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Nigel Dalton, CIO of owner, REA Group

“It’s also a measure of how different we are that as a CIO I also look after a multimillion dollar line of business –”

But while technology might be at the heart of their organisations, none of these three CIOs started out in IT.

Diverse backgrounds

Dalton was originally a social scientist, not an engineer. “I have a passion for machines that has proven powerful when combined with an innate passion for people,” he says. “I have worked globally in both IT and business roles [marketing, sales, product and service], and often in the twilight zone between those more traditionally defined professions. In modern digital companies, they are the same thing.”

Gibbons was always interested in technology, but hadn’t initially considered IT from a career perspective. “I ended up in the industry through a friend who suggested I attend a two-week assessment process with a large UK insurance company. I’ve now been in IT for the last 24 years.”

Bhatia has the least IT-oriented background of all, starting as a kitchen hand at a small Pizza Hut in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst more than 20 years ago. He took up the job just one week after migrating to Australia.

“The interest and unemployment rates were sky high and I considered myself lucky to have a job,” he says.

“We had a tight SLA with our customers to deliver ‘hot and tasty pizzas’ within minutes of the order. At times, it was very stressful as I was the only person in the shop both cooking pizzas and working with the customers at the counter. Initially I struggled but soon learnt how to organise myself better.

“Not long after, I was enjoying working with customers and got to know all the regulars by their first name.”

The academic backgrounds of these three future state CIOs are equally diverse. Dalton has a degree from Waikato University in New Zealand with a list of subjects ranging from economics to geography, statistics, sociology and computer science. He claims this made him a behavioural economist by profession. The computer science part involved punch cards, he says. “I suspect I am the only CIO on LinkedIn with an endorsement for Fortran and who is actually proud of it,” he adds.

Gibbons’ initial tertiary education was in finance and accounting, but he soon realised that wasn’t where his interests lay. “The lack of such qualifications was holding me back and I knew studying again would be necessary to help me achieve my career ambitions,” he says. “I now have a Masters in Business Administration and I’m also a Certified Executive Coach. The finance and MBA studies help support my commercial view of how IT integrates and supports the greater business and its goals.

“More than anything, you have to trust yourself and your abilities and, with time, you’ll find the right industry to establish that career. I was fortunate enough to have opportunities that led me into IT and I’ve been constantly challenged and stimulated by the industry ever since.”

Bhatia was promoted to store supervisor at Pizza Hut within months of his start date. “It gave me a sense of achievement and taught me that hard work and passion for your job pays off.”

Shortly after that, Bhatia enrolled at the University of Technology, Sydney to pursue a ‘sandwich course’ in engineering. The course involved study semesters in between work experience semesters.

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