CIO Spotlight: Amarjit Singh, Persistent Systems Ltd

Does the conventional CIO role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? "The Digital CIO has to focus on adding IT to the capabilities mix in a manner that enhances the competitive advantage of the business."

Name: Amarjit Singh

Company: Persistent Systems Ltd

Job title: Chief Information Officer

Date started current role: February 2017

Location: Pune, India

Major General Amarjit Singh is a veteran of the Indian Army (Corps of Signals) and has been the Global CIO of Persistent Systems Ltd since 2017. As part of that role, he leads Persistent's internal Technology, Services, Applications, and Information Security teams, incorporating the functions of the CISO and CDO within his ambit. Under his watch, Persistent has successfully completed a major Digital Transformation, aligned with ongoing transformation of the Indian software industry and Persistent's business model. As part of the business transformation itself, he has built the internal IT and Information Security capabilities into viable and growing Managed Services businesses.

What was your first job? I joined the Corps of Signals of the Indian Army in 1979 and rose to become a two-star general, superannuating in 2016. I handled a range of roles in my career, spanning Communications and IT support in peace and war. I was an Assistant Professor in Computer Technology, a United Nations military observer, handled Combat Operations Planning, Strategic Analyst, and Head of Administration & Logistics and Cadet Training.  

Did you always want to work in IT? Whichever role I undertook, it was always my interest to look at improving processes and targeting outcomes in a methodical manner. While I spent almost every alternate tour of duty on the technology support side of the organisation, thus being involved in delivering IT solutions, the other tenures allowed me to look at the problem from the consumer's perspective, be it operations, HR, legal, administration, procurement or logistics. For me, the appealing and challenging part of the IT journey was to translate operational data and metrics into long range objectives for the strategic planning cycle at the national level.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I joined the Indian Army with an undergraduate degree in science and acquired three graduate degrees while serving in the Army: Master of Technology in Computer Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Master of Science in Defence Studies from Madras University, and Master of Management Studies from Osmania University.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I spent 37 years in the Indian Army. I did cut my teeth in the Corps of Signals in a variety of tours of duty, but the journey became interesting in the middle years as I first qualified for a Master of Technology in Computer Engineering and then trained for a competitive position in the military staff. This resulted in a minimum number of tours of duty in roles suited to the Corps of Signals and more roles related to operations and general management. I spent well over a year on the most interesting role of my younger years — a U.N. military observer in Mozambique — combining that with the role of a Military Mission Officer at the U.N. Headquarters in New York. This role gave me tremendous insight into how the processes of a global organisation are organised and the dynamics of working with diverse international teams. This experience has been most valuable in Persistent Systems as we operate with our teams spread across the entire globe.

Another interesting role I played was a National Security Analyst at the United Service Institution of India. This was a unique experience that equipped me to understand how we bring data and insights to bear on decisions about strategic competition and allocation of resources in constrained settings. Having a deep understanding of application of organisational resources to support security and strategic objectives is something that has helped me ever since, but has been a core skill that I bring to my role as the Global CIO of Persistent.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Persistent Systems has over 30 years of experience in the outsourced product development space and this work continues to expand into cloud environments. Our investments in public and private cloud are a centerpiece of our strategy and this extends to automation, operations and security. Not only will we be spending on adding capacity and building capability, but we will also be focusing on speed of operations and cost optimisation. Another area of focus for IT investments is to secure our complete IT environment, with special focus on dedicated capabilities that we use to serve our customers. We have been diligent enough to ensure that none of our customers have suffered from a supply chain risk from our side; we will continue to make improvements here and develop the ability to demonstrate this to our most demanding customers. Internally, being a global company, we have almost completed moving all our corporate systems to the cloud.

We will now concentrate on ensuring the resilience of those systems and building our systems of intelligence using trusted and harmonised data from these systems.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? As a software services company, the basic expectations for me from the Board and the CEO are that our systems of delivery will remain available and secure and that the CIO's team will partner actively with business units to drive down IT costs so that other strategic initiatives can be better funded. In our effort to expand Persistent's business offerings, my team is on the frontlines supporting the business units in engineering custom IT environments for our customers and growing our Information Security and Managed Services business. To this end, my teams continue to innovate and build IT solutions for business to leverage and host several reference implementations. A very demanding requirement from the next tier of business leaders, including my compatriots, is to adapt to how we continuously restructure business operations and still provide operational insights to control risk and enhance profitability.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? My view is that the "conventional" CIO role, often referred to as VP of IT or a similar designation, is severely limited in the context of what enterprise IT has come to mean for technology-led businesses. The Digital CIO has to focus on adding IT to the capabilities mix in a manner that enhances the competitive advantage of the business. In Persistent's case, we recognised this early as I took over my current role and the scope of my work has continuously expanded to include engineering efficient IT for our business units (something that they did autonomously earlier), assuring customers of the resilience and integrity of our systems, working closely with the CISO (who reports to me) and the Chief Risk Officer and supporting business units in delivering IT Operations and Managed Services capabilities to our major customers.

My role also encompasses the functions performed by Chief Digital or Data Officers in some companies. These are reasonable expectations from Boards and CEOs, and CIOs and their teams must proactively take on these functions; not doing so is neither in the interest of the organisation nor of the IT leadership themselves.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? Yes, that is so. Our digital transformation is more a journey than a project, and we are about two and a half years into the exercise. Our articulation of the value proposition is in the title of the effort that we call "Trinity," representing Efficiency, Insights and Experience. Our method for the transformation is a two-track process which involves enhancing and migrating our older systems of record to new systems in the cloud, even as we abolish silos of older systems through an integrated and harmonised data overlay that provides us with insights supporting revenue growth.

In this manner, our digital capabilities are continuously growing, even as the underlying systems of record undergo a modernisation. Our preference for the cloud for our corporate systems is driven primarily by the desire to enhance experience for our employees and our customers who are mostly in the B2B space. Given the need to drive competitive advantage in the B2B space, we prioritise efficiency and revenue growth and ensure that experience is not ignored as we do so. Our approach to customer experience is itself anchored by our systems of intelligence that give our customers continuous visibility into the work we do for them.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? There are three aspects of digital maturity as they apply to IT and we do track all three through a set of KPIs. The first set is operational metrics and SLAs as they apply to the availability of our corporate systems and systems that we field to support our customers. These metrics are quite well developed and there is a lot of data to measure these well. The second set of metrics is the targets we have in terms of the cost of IT - both absolute budgets and as a proportion of revenue. Measuring and tracking these is a bit more complex as the corporate systems and business systems do use a lot of common networking and computing infrastructure. We ensure that we can track this well by treating all internal and customer work as projects and allocating costs on a judicious basis. This part is continuously improving as we benchmark ourselves against our own historical performance, as well as industry wide measures. A lot of the improvement is driven by IT taking over more and more IT functions from business units and the fact that we have been able to entirely eliminate "Shadow IT."

The third set of KPIs are more difficult to establish as the measures are less objective and more judgmental. This set pertains to risk and in our business, information security risk is a predominant component of enterprise risk. Fortunately, I have good support from the Board and the CEO and the measures and objectives that my team has articulated have been adopted by the Risk Committee of the Board, of which I am a member.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? The primary competitive advantage of our company is the people we have that directly generate our revenue and the teams who support them. In organisations like ours, the Customer is still the King, but the relationship with customers cannot be transactional. Good culture and fit in our company are reflected in a natural tendency to collaborate and share knowledge with the aim of demonstrating excellence to our customers and gaining and retaining their trust. For this reason, we identify Ingenious, Responsible, Persistent (our name as well), and Confident as our core values. Cultivating these values is not easy and is a continuous process. Our job is rendered more difficult in that we have presence in many geographies across the globe and our employees and customers themselves come from a range of national and local cultures. Our way of addressing these challenges is through the Life at Persistent program which has three conceptual pillars - One Persistent, My Life and My Work.

The One Persistent track has many initiatives dedicated to ensuring that our core values percolate to all our centers, with due recognition to local sensitivities. We ensure further support by moving key personnel to different geographies for short stints of work. The My Life track recognises and encourages employees to find their personal purpose within the corporate mission and encourages them to be responsible members of their local communities. The My Work track is responsive to the needs of our customers, which we attempt to meet by encouraging employees to continuously enhance their skills. To this end, we run many hackathons internally and in association with our customers. Specifically, Persistent Systems has been collaborating for the last three years or so with the government of India to anchor the Software leg of the Smart India Hackathon. A large number of our employees work with thousands of students across India to solve challenging problems posed by government departments and industries.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? The most difficult roles to fill are enterprise architects since they are expected to have hands-on experience in some systems and the ability to envision and integrate a multiplicity of systems, while managing for cost and effectiveness, as well as continuous change. The professional role is itself poorly defined and the growth track is nebulous, and positions are limited in numbers. From a focused technology standpoint, information security, cloud architects and engineers, data engineers and data scientists are all areas with heavy demand and short supply. In our case, we manage this by training young and inexperienced engineers, but we continue to lose them as external demand for them remains high.

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