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Ahmad Al Mulla - Dubai Aluminium

Tuesday, 05 October 2010 11:32
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A fresh computer engineering graduate of the University of Arizona Ahmad joined Dubai Aluminum in 1988 as an RPG programmer on IBM System 38. Then he moved to the process computing department as a systems engineer developing in Fortran and designing control systems that interface with the aluminum smelter. In 1997 Ahmad became responsible for IT services including user support, infrastructure, security and quality assurance. In 2001 Mr Al Mulla was promoted to IT Manager reporting to the general manager of corporate services. Between 2003 and 2005 Ahmad left IT to manage Dubal’s procurement and supply before moving back to IT as the company’s CIO and later on VP of IT and a member of the company’s executive committee. He is managing some 85 people in the IT department.

Mr Al Mulla has spent 23 years at the same company Dubai Aluminum.
Ahmad’s hobbies include jogging, reading, playing football.

 

The Interview

CIO2CIO: Talk to us about Dubal, this huge success story in Dubai
Ahmad: Well Dubai Aluminum is considered by many as one of the best investments the late Sheikh Rashid has made among others like Emirates Airline, Dubai Cable and Port Rashid. Dubal is in the business of making or smelting aluminum ranking the 5th in the world in terms of total production. We produce around one million tons per year. About 90% of our production is sold outside the UAE. Dubai Aluminum also produces about 30 million gallons of water per day, which is a bi product of the power generation plant.

CIO2CIO: Dubal is essentially pure play aluminum smelter, so you are one of the lucky CIOs who don’t have to support multiple industries in a conglomerate. Does that make your job easier?
Ahmad: I don’t know if I’m lucky. I think I’m probably unlucky because that limits your exposure, your learning and your experience. To be very honest it does make your job a bit simpler to be responsible for IT in a single industry enterprise. It becomes much easier to understand and align IT with business. On the other hand I am lucky because Dubal is such an international company, most of our suppliers and customers are international, and have very high standards.

CIO2CIO: In your view what are the biggest challenges facing CIOs today? Is it budgeting? Is it finding the right talent? Is it managing technology change?
Ahmad: Finding and retaining talent will always be a problem and I think it’s not limited to IT, I think the biggest IT challenge is demonstrating the value of IT to the business, that is the real challenge. Sometimes you have to use reverse logic, what would be the cost of not having email, or having an un reliable network? The basic thing is that the CIO needs to be a capable technologist who can get projects executed well and manage his budgets and resources efficiently. Then you have the business understanding and the alignment site, and then you have to be able to join the management team in a pure business discussion and contribute intelligently. If you do that, you will not have problems with credibility, budgets or in being nominated for the board. Not easy though.

CIO2CIO: You have been here at Dubal for 23 years. You have been through many projects, some big, some small. There must be one project that’s very close to your heart, something you’re very proud of?
Ahmad: That would be our SAP project but let me start from the beginning. In 1997 the company decided to go for an ERP, and selected Oracle Financial. Unfortunately the organization was not ready for any ERP, Oracle or another because the culture was really “I want it my way, I want to customize it” So we implemented Oracle with huge customizations, consequently it became very difficult to manage, upgrade or take advantage of any new developments Oracle has released. In my opinion that was not a problem that was caused by Oracle.
The company was growing very fast and our over customized ERP was no longer able to support the business, when I was asked I said ‘we need to go for an ERP’ and the answer was “but we already have an ERP”, I said “no we don’t have an ERP, we have heavily customized ERP, we really need to do everything from scratch, follow best practices and stick to what the product offers.”
Later on, I was asked to go ahead with a new ERP evaluation, selection and implementation and I was given very strong board support in terms of adoption of best practices and change management. We went through an evaluation of Oracle and SAP, both products were able to meet our functional requirements but psychologically many wanted to move away from Oracle.
We selected SAP and the implementation went very well, again it was not because of the product but because our collective mind set has changed, we wanted to succeed and people listened. And I must say I had the upper hand as well as strong support from the board, we enforced the best practices and avoided customizations. That is the project I am most proud of.

CIO2CIO: You are one of few CIOs in the region that have dealt extensively with both Oracle and SAP, tell us about your view of the two companies, their people, products, support and relationships.
Ahmad: Yes I did deal with both companies extensively. Today I am convinced that technology itself is not the problem, it is the way you apply the technology. When we had Oracle Financials we were not using 5% of what Oracle had to offer, we had the software modified extensively, people fell out of love with the environment and said we don’t like Oracle. But it was not Oracle; it was what we did to it that has caused it to be psychologically rejected by the users. In my y dealings with both Oracle and SAP, I find both of them highly capable and highly professional. And today we are still using Oracle in several areas of the business, we use Oracle in manufacturing process control, BI and even the database powering SAP is Oracle.

CIO2CIO: Technology comes in waves, SOA, virtualization, cloud computing. How do you deal with those innovations keeping in mind that some of them evaporate before you get a chance to even implement them?
Ahmad: The trouble is that our executives also hear about those, and sometimes they think the marketing messages are true, someone said that we should move to cloud computing because that will reduce our maintenance cost by 80%. I wish that was true! Of course it is not but then you have to explain this to non-technical executives. Generally we do two things, we evaluate new innovations, and consider when they are becoming mature and second we educate our executives about technology trends so that they are not surprised when they hear the new buzzwords in the market. In many cases marketing is miles ahead of the product, for instance cloud computing, great concept but is it really ready for me, ready for for Dubal? can we move today? I think not, there is technology issues, security issues, regulatory vacuum, service level agreement enforcement issues and many other problems. Buzzwords don’t scare us and we do not feel intimidated or pressurized to jump on the bandwagon of immature technology.

CIO2CIO: What is your view on the suite versus best of breed discussion?
Ahmad: I am definitely not for best of breed, and I don’t know how to justify the cost and technical complexities associated with it. I can see how user departments may  ask for different products because they have had experience with some product or another. But we technology people have a responsibility towards the business to keep the architecture sound and running at low cost. Suites are becoming better and better every day, that is my preferred approach.

CIO2CIO: BI is on every CIO priority list but not so much on their project list?
Ahmad: That is true for many reasons, first ownership, IT can’t own a BI project, it is a business project but often the business wants you to own it and you know it won’t succeed without heavy business sponsorship and involvement, and second it is often difficult for the business to articulate exactly what they need, they say we want this product or that product and we say no it is not the product it is what you want to achieve with it, they find it hard to articulate their needs. And thirdly, BI architectures offered by the various vendors are vastly different, this does not make it easy to compare especially for business users .. and remember that BI also has the suite versus business breed issue.

 

 

CIO2CIO: What would be your advice to new CIOs?
Ahmad: My advice to new CIOs is very simple, first network with other CIOs. Second, never set expectations, never try to push for a project [other than IT infrastructure projects]. Let the business come up with the projects this way they are more committed. Projects like CRM or BI, you can’t initiate, you can’t own and you can’t succeed, they must start from the business, be sponsored by the business. And last but not least learn about the business, understand its processes, challenges and priorities.

DUBAL IT Profile

ERP: SAP ERP
Database: Oracle
Middleware: SAP Netweaver
BI: Oracle BI and SAP BusinessObjects
Other Applications: In house developed Oracle based plant control systems and the power station is controlled by an application from GE
Servers: IBM and HP
PCs: Mostly HP
Networking: Cisco



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