CIO Spotlight: Rizwan Akhtar, Cartus

Explain your career path. "I am a technologist at heart and have a passion for transforming organisations - this always remained my North Star, and all I had to do was follow it to carve a career path for myself."

Name: Rizwan Akhtar

Company: Cartus

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: August 2018

Location: Danbury, Connecticut

Rizwan Akhtar joined Cartus in the summer of 2018 and will lead the technology department at Cartus into a new phase. He has extensive leadership experience in creating and supporting business strategies that enable growth and transformation and a solid track record in leading the delivery of large-scale, mission critical complex enterprise initiative. Before coming to Cartus, Akhtar worked as a senior IT Executive for 20+ years with broad and diverse experiences in business focused IT leadership, with 8+ years in Financial Services.

What was your first job? I started my career as a software engineering writing C++ code working for a software development company (Cybersoft) that did Cell site frequency synchronisation work for Bell Labs.

Did you always want to work in IT? Not really, I wanted to be a fighter jet pilot due to my passion for speed and precision - both critical for a jet pilot. Circumstances didn't allow for that, and I ended up playing simulation games. As I played more and more on my computer, I became more interested in learning how they worked, which lead to the development and building of computers that naturally transitioned to a technology major.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I did Bachelors in Computer Science, followed by Masters in Computer Science - specifically software engineering and ended up doing an MBA to build a more comprehensive understanding of what technology can do for the success of any business.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Starting my career as a software engineer who dealt with cell site synchronisation software, I worked through all the transitions/transformation the technology industry has experienced over the last three decades. I held many positions in a variety of roles from a software engineer to a solution architect to an enterprise architect which looking back at it almost seemed like a choreographed move. As more tasks and responsibilities continued to increase through the last twenty years or so, the depth of knowledge continued to deepen as did the level of responsibility.

One thing I felt played a pivotal role in my career progression was working with a variety of businesses, including Xerox, GE. I was a consultant in the healthcare field and banking industry and now here I am in Relocation and Real Estate. This provided a unique perspective on how each is different in their needs from technology but also how similar they are in how technology provided solutions to their problems. Differences in technology stacks widen the experience while at the same time further validates the consistency and overlap of how technology strategies can be leveraged across industries. I found myself leveraging a great deal of financial industry transformation experience pertinent to the business Cartus does even-though there may be no overlap of the two industries. I am a technologist at heart and have a passion for transforming organisations - this always remained my North Star, and all I had to do was follow it to carve a career path for myself.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Relocation industry, like every other industry, is experiencing the forces of digital and need for digitisation. Customer behaviour and needs to stay connected and informed real-time is an expectation that cannot be ignored. As such, digitisation of our business, irrespective of levels of customer satisfaction scores we may have through hand holding the customer, is imperative. This is driving our business initiatives to define a connected and a digital experience that offers a real-time and a complete view for our customers. The speed at which things need to continue to evolve, and in many cases, change is a customer expectation due to the digital world we live in today. Customers are willing to pay for the velocity as the desired value, making it essential for our business to not only offer a comprehensive digital experience but also continue to provide new capabilities quickly. Agile plays a crucial role in reducing time to market, and at Cartus, we are offering new features as soon as they are produced. Responding to this need, our business and technology investments are geared toward digital and digitisation leveraging Agile delivery models.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Technology is front and centre of our CEO's business strategy. She describes "Speed and focus" as being paramount to producing a highly connected digital customer experience. This requires my technology organisation to transform ourselves to a nimble organisation that offers digital products, focused on providing optimal customer experience, multi-channel product offering (online, mobile, voice activated, and wearables), with an expedited speed to market.

Our technology organisation has adopted a product versus a project-based approach and we a building our next generation of products leveraging Agile delivery model. We are adopting a mobile-first API-based approach for developing our next generation products to expose our business capabilities and data. Tapping into our big data gives us an opportunity to help our customers in making real-time informed decisions through predictive analytics - this gives us a competitive edge over our competition because of the millions of moves we have helped our customers with for decades. My technology organisation is going through a massive transformation as we move away from building systems to developing a digital inventory of our business capabilities. This is the secret sauce for becoming a nimble organisation, and that offers highly re-usable technical architecture and enable speed to market.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? CIO's roles have changed significantly over the years as the position has become and needs to be more technical and tech savvy compared to a traditional CIO - who may be more focused on organisational operations. Although operations, keeping the lights on, and spending time with score cards, and reporting is important; it is imperative that CIO's spend more time on developing strategies that drive the organisation to profitability. CIO's need to spend even more time in strategic thinking and defining organisational strategy today as the digital revolution and customer behaviours continue to drive business imperatives. Technology must move from an order taker mindset to a decision-maker role on the table to ensure and CIO's must ensure that this happens.

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? First order of business since I joined Cartus has been geared toward digital and digitisation of our business. Digital for the sake of digital doesn't gain any adoption if the focus isn't to enhance customer experience. The adoption of digital channels to allow for self-serve and turning the control over to users is greatly dependent on the ease of use and frictionless journey across activities customers perform through a digital interaction. We are highly focused on conducting user group studies to ensure a customer experience that accomplishes high adoption of our products and ease of use. Revenue growth must be a by product of adoption that can grow through focus on customer experience where building the right products and features is a given. We are certainly focused on operational efficiency both in the context of being a nimble organisation in terms of automation and also profitability. The balance between emphasis on customer experience and operational efficiency comes from aligning the two, that is, the two should drive toward a strategic objective. In our case that strategic objective that both align to is being a nimble digital product organisation.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? As we find ourselves in the middle of a digital transformation I feel the progress we have made is immense. The speed at which we adopted Agile, defined the right business problems to solve using Design Thinking, and speed at which we have established the products we focus on, are a testament to the motivation and dedication the organisation has toward transformation. The velocity for delivery through our Scrum teams, results from user studies, and focus groups to ensure we are building the right products and features, the realisation of ROI associated to our Robotics Process Automation (RPA) and deployment of Bots are all signs of a successful progression.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Being a market leader in the industry is not a sign of success but maintaining market leadership is and we are accomplishing that through a culture of innovation. Adopting the test and learn philosophy, investing in people to define and continue to improve their skill set, and most importantly defining prioritised areas of focus allow cultivating a culture where innovation is a part of our organisations DNA and that defines the best fit for our culture.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Like any other organisation the most difficult roles to recruit is skills that are mutable and individuals that can adapt quickly to changing technology, needs, and market drivers. Additionally, Agile is a highly desirable methodology for delivery and leaders who truly understand the purpose for adopting Agile are rare. I see most leaders aspiring to be Agile transformers focus on the purist adoption of Agile, which to me is more Agile for the sake of Agile versus pursuing the benefits desired from being an Agile organisation. Furthermore, hiring t-shaped people who can do a lot of different things is a challenge that we find ourselves faced with everyday. This is because of the range of technology and disciplines developer today have to be well versed in that requires to switch technologies when building digital products.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Some of the best career advice I ever received was never to under estimate the power of one very simple word: "Why?" Question everything. Learning starts when you show curiosity and take the initiative to ask why and that curiosity often evolves into "why not"? I find myself acting on that advice every day to question the status quo and break the norm.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Absolutely, this is critical from two perspectives. First, risk mitigation to ensure seamless execution of business and most common reason for succession planing; secondly, and in my opinion the most important is career progression for my organisation. Due to market and business pressures we sometimes get side tracked and do not spend time on succession planning and coaching high performers. Identifying high performers, understanding their career aspirations, helping them with areas of opportunity, and spending time with them helps ensure the culture we want to promote is continued. Understandably, this requires time investment and may pose as a challenge.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? I would like to share my personal quote,"The biggest impediment to innovative is the fear of failure - test, learn, and reset." Innovation is a critical success factor to any organisation. Today our race in the digital world and being profitable is tied to our ability to innovate. Every innovative idea may not be the right one. Being able to define the scope and test the idea is a great way to quickly identify the right one - this requires promoting test and learn.

What has been your greatest career achievement? It would have to be similar to what I am trying to accomplish here at Cartus. Transforming from a waterfall organisation to an Agile culture that I led several years ago at my previous company. I say culture because it is more taking on the entire organisation as a cultural change than it is on technology for adopting a different software delivery methodology.  Most organisations only focus on technology and this leads to either going back to waterfall or taking an extended amount of time to become and Agile organisation.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I wouldn't change a thing. As unlikely as this may sound. I think every step that I have taken and action I carried out or decision I made has helped me in learning new things but mostly importantly it has taught me how to avoid doing things that don't yield good outcomes.

What are you reading now? The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.

Most people don't know that I… love driving fast cars and most times will get on a track to feed the need for speed. The adrenaline rush energises me and fuels my focus and creativity to innovate. It also has made me more open to taking risks and promoting out of the box thinking.

In my spare time, I like to…pick up my camera and go take pictures. I like capturing nature and landscape. The combination of speed and calmness in capturing nature through a lens helps me find the balance.

Ask me to do anything but… skydiving. I guess I have never been able to calm or conquer my fear of heights. I've forced myself to the top of Eiffel Tower, Canton Tower, Willis Tower, CN Tower, but never could get rid of the uneasiness in my legs when at a height. Glad that doesn't continue on when flying.