Zubair Ahmed - Emirates Islamic Bank

Friday, 05 April 2013 10:24
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Zubair Ahmed studied computer science in Pakistan and started his career in IT with Mashreq Bank in the UAE in 1992 where he participated in many key projects and held various responsibilities, he was also part of the team that developed the strategy which lead to the birth of Mindscape, a Mashreq Bank owned IT services firm that focused on delivering advanced technology services and solutions to the banking sector in the Middle East.

In 2001 Zubair moved to Mindscape and held various management positions but six years later he elected to go back to his roots on the customer side by joining Dubai Bank as the Head of IT Business Management & PMO while the bank was undergoing its massive transformation to Islamic banking.  In 2012, Zubair was appointed as Head of IT & Innovation for Emirates Islamic Bank.

Mr Ahmed’s hobbies include listening to music, fitness activities and spending time with his four sons. In spite of his hectic schedule, Zubair has recently authored a book called “Power to Kids” that focuses on applying quality and management principles to parenting. Published in the US, the book is available on


The Interview

CIO2CIO: What do CIO's in the banking industry consider as their top challenge today?
Zubair: One key challenge banks are facing is how to optimize the use of technology, you will find banks where money has been invested in IT projects without solid business cases. Other banks have invested after developing credible business cases. But at the end how do you really measure the return on IT investment. In this organization [Emirates Islamic Bank] our aim is to cater for the business, basically every bank has gaps in certain areas; one of the most spoken about is the customer service gap and that is why you are seeing more focused investments in this area.

CIO2CIO: Obviously Emirates Islamic Bank is a pure play bank, as a CIO how is that different from the role of the CIO for a conglomerate that combines for instance construction, auto dealership, travel agency and consumer retailing under one umbrella?
Zubair:  It is an absolute advantage for a CIO to work for a pure play organization because you get to focus on the requirements of that specific industry. The role of the CIO is not a technology role, it is a business role, and doing business for the bank requires you to have an excellent understanding of the banking industry.

CIO2CIO: What are the most difficult challenges the CIO faces today?
Zubair: In my view the biggest issue is managing expectations. What has helped us in Emirates Islamic Bank is that we have developed a three year strategy that basically drives the bank, but of course the business is so dynamic and you need to keep re-aligning yourself to changing business needs. From a day to day perspective, our biggest challenge is retaining talent, because IT is a commodity you can buy products, solutions and infrastructure, but what differentiates us is our people, how they think, how they implement and how they innovate. In addition to nurturing and retaining talent the next challenge is to make innovation an explicit expectation. We give people the freedom to think, test new ideas and to make mistakes. For us in this bank, innovation does not mean just an idea, innovation is an idea that expands the business, makes it into a prototype and demonstrated to the business.

CIO2CIO: Throughout your career you were involved in many projects, talk to us about the project you are most proud of.
Zubair:  There is one particular project that I am proud of, that was when I was working with Mindscape. We set an objective for ourselves to become CMM (now known as CMMI) compliant. I lead that project, we started the journey in 2002 and achieved certification in 2003, a span of eleven months and Mindscape became the second GCC company to gain CMMI level 3 certification. And here I must say that it was great to achieve the certification but the real excitement was in changing the culture.

CIO2CIO: Was there also a project that didn't go very well?
Zubair: Several projects, every project eventually gets delivered, but maybe late, maybe at a higher cost and in some cases does not deliver the business value that was originally anticipated. The learning is that longer term projects tend to be more subject to trouble along the way. User requirements change, perhaps because the business itself changes, the project team loses focus and then you start seeing negative energy that makes it even more difficult for the project team to meet the ever changing user expectations.



CIO2CIO: IT is very similar to the fashion industry, in the sense that things come up, they get very hot, they are in every magazine, every IT conference and two years later they may be completely gone. So as a CIO these things come up and hit your desk and people ask, are we going to move to the cloud or when do we get big data. What do you do, how do you evaluate those fashionable technologies and how do you decide whether you are going to adopt them or wait?
Zubair: Of course all new technologies are considered hype at their beginnings; some really prove their worth and some fizzle out.  Two things, as a major bank we need to heavily consider the maturity of any technology before adopting it, and the second consideration is its business impact.

CIO2CIO: Obviously the IT industry has been going through a lot mergers and acquisitions.. In a way that reduces your choices which worries some CIO's. How do you feel about that?
Zubair: I stand in the category of "I don't care" as long as the solution is not monopolised, it does not worry me that there are fewer choices to look at. Having said that, there is a lot of money spent on technology for banks so there are a lot of
players at present and a lot of upcoming players as well.  

CIO2CIO: Every CIO survey tells us that business intelligence is in the top five CIO priorities. But as you look at IT budgets, it is not even in the top ten priorities when it comes to spending. Why is that?
Zubair: One of the main reasons is that every software solution you buy comes with its own BI layer. You inevitably end up with islands of BI, now you have a bigger problem, not only because you cannot integrate the various BI systems (they were not designed to work together), but also because the users get hooked to them and you struggle to replace all those bits and pieces with one uniform enterprise BI system. BI remains a priority because enterprises need end-to- end analytics in order to be able to predict business performance and to pin point areas of improvement. Yet it is sometimes impossible to de- commit or move away from the solution specific BI modules especially after investing in them.

CIO2CIO: What is your advice to new CIO's?
Zubair: My advice would be to align with the business, and to focus on the business more than the technology. This helps in articulating the value of IT and producing solutions which promise higher business returns, much beyond the mere IT declaration of project completion.


Emirates Islamic Bank IT Profile

ERP: Oracle E-Business Suite
Database: Oracle
Middleware: Oracle Fusion Middleware and Tibco
Business Intelligence: Mainly Oracle based
Core Banking System: Misys
Servers: HP and IBM
Networking and Voice: Avaya and Cisco

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