CIO Spotlight: Mohamad Zahreddine, TrialAssure

What's the best career advice you ever received? "A mentor once told me, 'Always have a plan. Then, organise around the plan. Don't plan around the organisation

Name: Mohamad Zahreddine

Company: TrialAssure

Job title: Chief Information Officer

Date started current role: February 2017

Location: Canton, Michigan

Mohamad Zahreddine has more than 20 years of global experience in Information Technology (IT), Enterprise Business Systems, and business processes. As Chief Information Officer (CIO) of TrialAssure, Mohamad is responsible for overseeing the operational and strategic aspects of the company's IT infrastructure, Business Process Transformation, product strategy, process and application development. Prior to TrialAssure, Mohamad held several leadership positions in the industry and led multiple IT and business systems transformation initiatives. He has established governance over key enterprise business processes, as well as led the formation of cloud strategy and architecture. As a member of the elite Forbes Technology Council, he is proficient and experienced at emerging technology needs within the pharmaceutical industry

What was your first job? My first professional job following college was at a global wire harness automotive supplier - Alcoa Fujikura - where I started as a print checker and moved on to a programmer position. Being in the Detroit area, many of the jobs, even today, are connected to the automotive industry.

Did you always want to work in IT? I immediately knew I wanted to work in IT from the moment that I took my first programming course in college. When you know, you know.   

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a Master of Science in Computer and Information Systems from the University of Detroit Mercy and a Bachelor's in Computer Information Systems from The Detroit College of Business. I have earned certifications and worked through many continuing education courses, including the Oracle DBA Master's program, MS SQL admin courses, Cisco Admin courses, and Checkpoint Firewall Admin certification, to name a few. The last educational programme I attended was at IMD in Switzerland as part of a global leadership programme.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I have always been in the IT realm; although I have had additional responsibilities in varying industries throughout my career. I have a strong passion for business process improvement and for leveraging technology to the greatest extent to gain competitive edge. In 1995, I moved to lead a small IT department at Alcoa Fujikura and became the only application programmer in my division and the system administrator for a Novel 3.12 network, multiple Unix CAD, and Windows workstations, eventually becoming responsible for IT and CAD/CAE functions.

Following that in 2001, I joined Siemens Yazaki JV with the task of building an IT function and carving out systems, network and people from both companies. In 2005, I became the director of IT at Yazaki, where I initiated a business systems transformation initiative that integrated seven IT departments in the Americas. In 2008, I was appointed Vice President of IT. In this position, I developed IT shared services in Mexico and the US and established an Operational Governance structure, and led a team to standardise business and manufacturing processes, and implemented SAP in over 80 manufacturing locations.

In 2015, I was assigned ownership of the Sales & Operations Planning (S&OP) process in addition to my IT responsibilities. In 2017, I joined TrialAssure as the CIO & CTO - a leading, global software company focused on developing clinical trial transparency tools for the pharmaceutical industry. In this role, I have focused on the overall strategy, application development, and product architecture and launches.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? There has been a growing level of interest in transparency tools from pharmaceutical companies and CROs of all sizes, as the industry moves to greater transparency of clinical trial data and its use. With that, TrialAssure has been experiencing massive growth and we are actively investing in local developers and related tools.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The top priority is to make TrialAssure the recognised leader in pharmaceutical transparency software globally. We are working to achieve this goal by actively listening to industry needs, implementing new technologies, and working in partnership with different organisations to make the industry more compliant with health authorities' requirements and patients' expectations.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Given my own experiences, my answer is yes. CIOs are much more effective when they are true stakeholders of the business. I always advocate for some operational responsibility beyond just IT.  

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? At TrialAssure, we consider ourselves as part of a larger digital transformation that is taking place in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. We are laser-focused on transparency tools enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In our niche, the need is growing greater every day for companies to use our software. Every piece that we explore and implement has positive effects on customers, revenue, and how we operate.   

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? With our clear strategy and strong data science methodology, I consider TrialAssure to be ahead of the game in this area. The value of IT is prominently portrayed in everything we do at TrialAssure, beginning with our Detroit-based developers and ending with industry experts that use our software every day.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? For me, a good organisational culture begins when everyone's voice is heard and everyone is clear on the company's mission. Senior leaders play a leading role in company culture, as they should invest time to make everyone feel connected. When this happens correctly, colleagues place a greater value on the workplace and feel a sense of ownership.

In regards to my team, I have created a strong culture by praising the strengths of individuals, while giving them an opportunity to grow in areas where they may be weak. This is compounded by providing my team with the right environment to work, play, grow, and feel challenged in their daily work.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? The most difficult roles to fill are strong data science solution architects and data scientists - especially when trying to stay local. It can be easier to find people in other areas of the world but I hold a strong emphasis on having a local team that can work together face-to-face on a daily basis. Fulfilling this challenge is worth it.   

What's the best career advice you ever received? A mentor once told me, "Always have a plan. Then, organise around the plan. Don't plan around the organisation." This has always stuck with me. It is less about fitting into a template and more about having a clear focus to bring positive strategies forward faster. Many times, I have come back to this idea in my career and each time the company grows stronger because of it.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. We have a Talent Management Process and that includes succession planning. There are many challenges in training and developing high-performing staff. The greatest challenge is making succession a high priority at a time when most are running at full or greater than full capacity. Competing priorities become the biggest challenges. However, this is reviewed on a regular basis and remains an important part of our culture.   

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Stay engaged with your teams and your peers from the business. Once you make it to the top of IT in an organisation you are indirectly responsible for the health of the business process supported by IT tools, infrastructure and people. This engagement means meetings will be taking up a majority of the day. If you have to schedule the time every week to stay engaged with your teams and peers, do it. The other piece of advice I would give is to stay current with industry trends. Part of your job is to educate your team and peers. IT in general evolves so rapidly that it is in everyone's best interest to educate themselves daily.  

What has been your greatest career achievement? My greatest achievement has always been my ability to earn the respect of my team and my peers. In TrialAssure, it has been leading an organisation and helping change an industry with a tech-first approach to be more transparent.

My greatest achievement prior to this was leading the Business Transformation Initiative in Yazaki. For this initiative, I led the integration of multiple IT functions from different companies and cultures; while leading the development of an IT structure and operating system based on ITIL that was adopted globally.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I wouldn't change one thing. I am very thoughtful in my approach and take any setbacks as unique learning opportunities.

What are you reading now? American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company, by Bryce G. Hoffman.

Most people don't know that I… received a full ride to college on a soccer scholarship and helped coordinate the World Cup coming to Detroit in 1994.

In my spare time, I like to…program, exercise, and play soccer.

Ask me to do anything but… fold clothes.