9 attributes of a successful CIO

Kersi Tavadia, CIO of BSE, on what it takes to be a good IT leader. By Shweta Gandhi

“Back in the early 1980s, we used to call ourselves the EDP Department (Electronic Data Processing)—a computer wasn’t even called a computer—so there was no title of technology officer. EDP Officer or EDP Manager used to be the biggest title then. And IT was more of a tool to do back office collections and the laborious work at the end of the month or year. The computer was not considered a management tool but a convenient tool for accountants and storekeepers to streamline and give reports, etc. It was rarely used as a decision-making tool.

“I started my career with operations. It was a thrill to sit in front of a console that looked like a big cupboard and operate the computers. That was then, over the years the computer has changed and technology is constantly evolving and we—its managers—have had to move with the times. Here are my learnings on what it takes to be a good CIO.”

#1 Be flexible
“Successful CIOs are those who have been very flexible in their approach and have adopted technologies very well and tried to move up the value chain. And that is one of the key factors that makes you successful—how fast you adopt, rather than how well you evolve. If you try to stick to your own ideas and ideals, you might just get lost in the race. If you can’t invent, at least adopt the bandwagon and move onto that.”

#2 Stand by your decisions
“We used to take pride in making our own data centres, and in some of my earlier roles I’ve had my own data centres. And four or five years later we realised the setup wasn’t working and we dismantled everything in-house and moved to a co-location data centre services model. At a time like that you need to believe in yourself because there’s nothing to be gained from second guessing past decisions. It was the right decision at that point in time, So don’t try to judge your past decisions as what might be right today may not be right tomorrow and vice versa.”

#3 Innovate, innovate, innovate
“The BSE’s heart is technology—it runs completely around it. Our systems are our assets, there is nothing physical for us to trade. And it is the most complex application of new technologies that are used in financial markets. Banking and capital markets, being the top users, are the innovators and the BSE is a thought leader in this. We’ve been constantly experimenting, innovating in a lot of new business initiatives. These technology innovations are our USP but they cannot last for long, as the competition will try to copy it or catch up. So being the early mover is an advantage but not the permanent one. You have to continuously keep innovating; you can’t become complacent.

“It is always difficult to use a technology to create an easy and comfortable customer experience because the complexities at the backend and for the IT team are many. But that’s where the challenge and the thrill is. We’re lucky that in India we have a lot of talent and we should capitalise on it. It is a make-or-break situation. If you innovate, you can go miles, if not, you’ll be dead. As simple as that.”

#4 Sometimes you have to take hard calls
“There is a very large open source community. It provides alternatives to proprietary technologies being sold by MNCs. We are big-time users of open source. It has helped bring down our costs drastically. Earlier our trading system was proprietary. We kept on upgrading the proprietary softwares, but at one point we took a very hard call, cut off and started anew. That was a conscience call our management took. A decision like this needs guts and you need to find people who will support you. Doing so has totally changed things for us. We’re also not bound to any vendor. And we have enough competitive advantages to have a price advantage. We also use open source technologies and use community version in many cases.”

#5 Be on your toes
“BSE is one of the country’s most critical infrastructures and to maintain its integrity, security and availability is of the highest importance. We can’t afford even a single second of outage. So our infrastructure has to be absolutely robust, our systems have to be continuously monitored and upgraded, and we are constantly working. We do a lot of proactive monitoring, health checks, preventive maintenance, code reviews, etc. Networks are scanned regularly and security is enhanced continuously. All these are happening simultaneously every day. Technology usage requires vigilance, no matter what industry you are in. So a good leader is always proactive not reactive.”

#6 Celebrate your milestones with your team
“You have to take care of your team by listening to them and being patient. This job requires a lot of agility, presence of mind; you have to be alert. Nobody can afford to make a mistake and it is very important to maintain that standard. So it’s important to keep the team motivated and ensure everything is under control by celebrating every milestone however small. It could be something as simple as cutting a cake, distributing sweets, organising a picnic or a party.”

#7 Desire to be the best
“BSE was the first stock exchange in India to migrate all our trading platforms onto open source. We wanted to become the fastest in the world and we did, by giving a response time of 6 microseconds. This was achieved by overhauling every part and piece of application software and infrastructure. It was a long but well-planned procedure. We had to change the equipment in more than 2,000 locations, and all the physical migration happened without any down time. This was the best innovation that happened—when we cut off our old system on a Friday and went live on the new system with the entire market on Monday morning. This was the largest ever migration switchover done anywhere in the world and it was a success!”

#8 Dream big
“Recently, BSE made a new data centre. Our old one was built 15 years ago. We wanted the latest technologies. We successfully migrated a live working site from one location to another without impacting the market participants, even for a single second. For the migration we were all of 55 teams. This is where the challenge lies, and people say that they can’t even think of doing something like this, but we have actually done it! So don’t believe people when say it’s impossible.”

#9 Never give up
“Projects will fail, ideas will get rejected, but if you believe in your idea, you have to keep pursuing it because you’ll be able to convince the management some day. If you give up at your first rejection, you are doing injustice to your idea or your creativity. That’s the first thing I learnt. Keep innovating. Past successes are in the past, and it does not guarantee future success. Even your bonus is for your past achievements. Keep working and keep learning, and that is the CIOs role as you are continuously learning.” 

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