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Interview with Zubair Ahmed – Emirates Islamic

Insight World is delighted to speak to Zubair Ahmed, Head of IT & Business Innovation at Emirates Islamic.

Could you describe your responsibilities at Emirates Islamic?

At Emirates Islamic, I am responsible for the overall information technology and business innovation functions within the bank.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in IT? Which aspects of it do you enjoy the most?

Technology has always been an area of curiosity and interest for me. For the last 24 years, I have been happily engaged with IT in the banking sector. Continuous advancement of information technology has enabled banks to find better ways of serving their customers and their needs.

I personally enjoy the alignment of IT with business. IT is a great enabler, and over the years, I have enjoyed creating true business value by employing the right technology to address opportunities and challenges faced by the banks.

What are some of the main challenges that CIOs currently face?

CIOs continue to face the cardinal challenge of communicating the true value of IT to business. This is best achieved by embracing the “co-creator” mindset as opposed to that of the traditional “order-taker”. The role of a CIO needs to be fully understood to be used well. This is a business role leading technology rather than a technology role complying with business. Once employed correctly, CIOs are well positioned to impact the bottom line with the pragmatic and innovative use of technology.

What are your views on how to achieve better business/IT alignment and to bridge the gap between the two?

In order to align to something, one needs to understand it well. The best way to understand is through empathy and focusing on the needs of the organization in a given context. Based on the business opportunities and challenges at hand, technology implications can be identified. These implications need to be addressed in the short and long term and can be well crafted into a strategy roadmap, which by definition is aligned to the business goals.

What IT trends do you see impacting banks and financial services organizations in the near future?

Technology evolution is an accepted norm. Like other industries, banks are impacted, but the adoption to new technology depends on the business models and risk appetite. In my view, the biggest trend to contend with is radically changing consumer behavior. As the end-consumer becomes more technology savvy, intuitive practices are sought after and traditional methods are challenged. Addressing this growing need requires banks to simplify and digitize.

As digitization is increasing what are the implications for business and IT departments?

IT departments are at the forefront of this change. Digitization is a business-led change requiring new ways of offering services and processing transactions. Technology has led the way, but it needs to be intelligently used to thread together a business process that is secure, effective, and efficient.

For banks, data is the new king. What are your thoughts on how to effectively collect, store, process, and analyze data?

Banks are increasingly changing their views about data. Perspectives around data are fast shifting from being a “necessary evil” to a “strategic advantage”. Many technology and retail companies have shown the value that can be derived from using data as a strategic asset. New design principles around data, such as capture only once, duplicate never, and storage of alternative media as data, will dictate how future banking systems are architected and implemented.

Cyber security is a priority for banks globally. What do you think makes a successful security strategy?

The quest for security is a continuous journey. Having a controlled paranoia regarding security is necessary to continually challenge the status quo. A balanced strategy based on the key pillars of people, process, and technology, helps in establishing a holistic view. Having said that, people awareness and vigilance are the most critical aspects of that strategy.

In your view, what can large banks learn from small fintech companies?

A lot can be learned from smaller fintech companies, especially simplicity, innovation, and cost effectiveness. Fintechs are creatively engaged in finding alternative methods of servicing and acquiring customers. Non-traditional perspectives taken by fintechs focus on customer needs rather than being caught up with internal limitations and legacy issues.

Businesses increasingly focus on innovation to sustain competitive edge. What are your thoughts on innovation? Should it be technology or business driven?

In my personal view, innovation is essential to the business and not a nice, fun thing to have from a technology perspective. Innovations are best served when they are business-led and aptly supported by technology inputs and ideas. My article on LinkedIn (Innovation… Should it be Tech or Biz-led?) aims to explain this idea further.

What advice would you give to those who aspire to have a successful career in IT?

Show depth in technology, but more importantly, understand and align with how the business can use technology in the best way to serve its end-customers.

In spite of your hectic schedule, you have authored Power to Kids, which offers an interesting perspective on how to apply quality and management principles to parenting. Could you tell us more about the book?

Sure. The book expands on the idea of building a competent workforce for future organizations. This is best done by instilling behavioral disciplines early in a child’s life. These disciplines such as using core values, knowing and establishing the big picture, harnessing the power of positive thinking, getting things done, embracing change, and producing innovations at will can be taught at an early age by parents and teachers. These techniques are no different than how people are led within major organizations. Since the book was published in 2013, this concept has been written and talked about by many on the international front. Sharing this concept is a personal passion, and I make time to engage with non-profit organizations, schools, and universities to further the discussion.

Zubair Ahmed is the Senior Vice President, Head of IT & Business Innovation at Emirates Islamic, one of most prominent and the fastest growing banks in the region. A Harvard Alumni, with 24+ years of IT & Financial experience, Zubair previously held challenging leadership roles at the heart of the Finance Technology industry. Over the years, he has been involved in the development & execution of IT strategy encompassing implementations of new core systems, direct channels, infrastructure solutions and process institutionalization. 

Zubair is the author of the book “Power To Kids” which serves as a guide in ‘applying quality & management principles to parenting’.  He is also actively involved with a number of non-profit causes across the region.

As an ardent speaker / panelist and a life coach, Zubair is regularly featured in numerous conferences around the world.

About The Author
Insight World Editor