CIO Spotlight: Chris Handley, Nazarbayev University

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? “A moving culture is a thriving culture. For a culture to evolve and thrive it needs to be infused with the blood of continuous training.”

Headshot of Chris Handley, CIO at Nazarbayev University
Nazarbayev University

Name: Chris Handley

Company: Nazarbayev University

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: October 2018

Location: Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

Chris Handley has more than two decades of experience developing and executing best-in-class strategies to help organisations achieve new levels of growth and success. Through a deep understanding of both short- and long-term technology needs, he has led established and emerging organisations to transform strategies, operations, teams, and outcomes. As CIO for Nazarbayev University, he has built a team responsible for professionalising the university’s IT function and driving a five-year strategy to align IT operations with the university’s administrative, medical, and business administration needs. He built a high-performing IT organisation, while leading change during COVID-19 and the transition to online instruction for 5000+ students. As a technology leader, he is passionate about developing individual talent, building inclusive team cultures, and mobilising teams to lead transformation across companies worldwide.

What was your first job? My first job was bagging groceries in a supermarket. My first job in IT was working on an IT helpdesk and as a consultant in the Social Sciences and Healthcare sector. Prior to that I had held progressive jobs in Higher Education in the field of Psychology.

Did you always want to work in IT? No, I didn’t always want to work in IT. Initially, IT seemed not as important and pervasive as it has it turned out to be since the advent of personal computing, followed by the multilevel series of developments as the Internet evolved into daily life.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I have a BA in Philosophy and a Masters in Measurement, Evaluation and Computer Applications

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I first started my career training to be a priest, then became a research assistant in Psychology, and then a Psychology instructor. Once I was working in IT, my career was relatively predictable in moving between IT management and consulting positions.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in you organisation in the coming year?

  • People:

Enabling Digital Transformation by changing the way people work.
Ensuring that all of our IT co-workers receive professional training every year.

  • Strategy:

Embedding lessons from Covid in daily life: we have learned that we can trust our IT professionals to work from home.

Revising University processes to make the most of Hybrid work patterns

Exploiting the evolving abilities of AI across the university

Encouraging the administrative work of the University to become more standardised and less unique

Further enable the strategic work of Learning and Teaching, Research and Patient Care

Invest in Software As A Service (SAAS) solutions to enable cost awareness and management of transactions

Hardware As A Service (HAAS) as we explore outsourcing daily activities which can be delivered with better security by vendors at a comparable cost to enable us to focus, in house, on tasks which are more relevant to our strategic objectives

What are the CEOs top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT?

  • Make administrative transactions efficient and cheaper
  • Use Business Intelligence to convert data into institutional wisdom
  • Raise the service standards for software, hardware and classroom readiness
  • Embed and support Health Care research at a more strategic level within the university

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? The “old” CIO role was simply to be the Chief Geek and obsessed with Bits, Bytes and Connectivity. It isn’t that there were responsibilities that should not be held by the CIO, but we need to let go of a restricted vision and scope of what the CIO should be.

The current, capable and organisationally valued CIO is first of all an executive and partner with all of the C-Level executives both in central and distributed departments and offices. The CIO is a strategic advisor and business partner. The CIO and co-workers enable new business models as we saw during the Covid pandemic. We created models of remote work which enriched both the work of the individual and the workplace by reducing the expenses of the occupied footprint. As the datacentre ascends into the cloud to achieve higher security and more flexible storage practices so the workplace has been distributed into the home to enable better use of office space and more comfortable work habits.

Are you leading a digital transformation? To me, this is work transformation by means of digital enablers rather than digital transformation. As the leader of the introduction and improvement of software and hardware the CIO directly is a major transformation leader by amplifying work effort

If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? All the above; operational efficiency, customer experience and revenue growth are interrelated and start with operational efficiency leading to customer satisfaction which together produce revenue growth. We don’t balance the first two but manage them together with an eye on the revenue growth.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. Our digital business is growing but not as fast as it should since we struggle with work culture.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? A moving culture is a thriving culture. For a culture to evolve and thrive it needs to be infused with the blood of continuous training. Based on my experience, most organisations spend more money on service contracts for hardware (at least 10%) and annual subscription costs for ERP software (15 to 20%) than they do on education and training for their largest expense, people (under 5%).

A good culture fit is one that is constantly refitting itself to both the changing needs of the organisation and increasing rapid evolution of technology. we have moved in that direction by spending 5% annually on training and retraining for our Information Technology staff while educating them about the organisational business.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill?

  1. AI support
  2. High Performance Computing support
  3. Health Care data analytic support

What is the best career advice you ever received? ‘Trust your gut’ and that ‘Developing your emotional Intelligence in the workplace is crucial.’

Do you have a succession plan? Yes but, up until now, only for the top two levels.

If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Performance reviews which are objective, sensitive and educational. Recognising that, while performance reviews are related to compensation, the importance of the review is the practical mentoring since a recession might eliminate a raise but should not get in the way of solid mentoring. Mentoring endures. There should be constant mentoring and practice of the tasks that the level above the employee being reviewed engages in.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders?

  • IT is all about people: both service providers and customers
  • Trust your gut
  • In IT, true success is mainly silent
  • There will always be mistakes, so admit them, learn from them and then leave them in the past. There is no point in paying the price of errors more than once.
  • IT has to do the basics very well to get the credibility to partner on strategic initiatives

What has been your greatest career achievement? My greatest achievements are the people whom I have mentored, learned with, and still in contact with many years and jobs later. No project or position is as important as that.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have listened to my gut and responded sooner, doubled the number of pilot efforts, and pushed harder.

What are you reading now? The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Than and Land by Simon Winchester

Most people don't know that I… am an introvert who struggles with shyness.

In my spare time, I like to…spend time with my family and friends, travel and explore new places, be physically active every day and, when I can find the time, read fiction and non-fiction.

Ask me to do anything but… stop learning and also to stop asking “Why is that?”