Technology leaders must widen their horizons. There is a marked difference in stakeholder sentiments and market expectations in the post-COVID world
This is an exclusive interview conducted by the Editor Team of CIO News with Dhiren Savla, Group Chief Information Officer at VFS Global Services Group.
How did you plan your career path to be a successful technology leader?
The genesis of my professional journey began very early in my formative years. The calling to pursue a career through education is uncommon in the Gujarati community I belong to, but my vision was clear. As a result, I was a good student, and my academic performance from my school days shaped my journey. I never believed in rote learning and always focused on learning concepts. I attribute my professional success to this approach. Technology leaders are meant to solve critical problems. While my pursuing electronics and computer engineering could have been an unplanned move, deep within I knew I could provide solutions, and technology became a defining enabler in this process. Over the years, I have worked with organisations where technology is an integral part of business and is treated as a key business differentiator.
What challenges you faced in your career path and how did you overcome them?
I am a born optimist! I have treated challenges, whether professional or personal, as opportunities to learn and excel. For instance, soon after completing my formal education, I started a business that was successful initially, but our lack of any prior experience in dealing with market complexities made it unsustainable, which prompted me to take up my first job. But I did not let the setback pull me down. This was a time when social media, the internet, and mobiles were not part of our lives. I joined the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection (IBPS) in 1992, and within a few years, at the age of 26, I headed a team of 17-odd techies managing the modernization of the critical unit supporting all public sector banks, railways, and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs). It was a large-volume ITeS business running 24×7, which was still very new for the rest of the world. My experiences fuelled my confidence over time. From quitting secure jobs to building the IT journey of start-ups, every professional challenge made me a better leader.
Then, at one point in my career, I was working at Merrill Lynch in India and doing very well, but I had a hunger for a larger canvas. I left that prestigious job to join a start-up floated by a local company, SSKI, to launch one of the most successful online portals, sharekhan.com, which is now part of BNP Paribas.
When I joined VFS Global in 2004, my peers felt it was a risky move as the company was like a start-up. But what a journey it has been! When I joined, we had 14 centres only in India, and today we are a market leader with around 3,500 centres across 144 countries. The organisation also had the vision to make IT not a support function or enabler but a differentiator. Since 2008, the Chief Information Officer (CIO) has been a member of the company’s executive board, which is a clear reflection of the organisation’s culture and vision and where the CIO is also a key contributor to the business strategy.
What are the challenges faced by technology leaders today while implementing digital technologies?
Adoption of digital technology accelerated during the pandemic, but it did not impact visionary technology leaders as they were aligned for this transformation. Businesses that were not future-ready are grappling to keep pace with the increasing demand for digital and personalised services. For instance, VFS Global was well ahead in planning the digital journey for our end users. As a result, we were able to roll out customised solutions when the need for contactless and Do It Yourself (DIY) technologies increased post-pandemic. Solutions such as Visa at Your Doorstep (VAYD), which enables collecting a visa customer’s application and biometrics from their location of choice, have recorded a 5x increase in 2022 over 2021. Similarly, digital solutions such as Digital Application Submission (DAS), Digital Document Check (DDC), and eVisa solutions are becoming increasingly popular across various geographies.
How can technology leaders overcome the challenges faced?
Technology leaders must widen their horizons. There is a marked difference in stakeholder sentiments and market expectations in the post-COVID world. A forward-thinking tech leader should be able to assess this shift. Next-Gen leaders must be visionary and capable of comprehending the market pulse and keeping up with the global business environment. Agility and future readiness enable us to be better equipped to deal with challenges or mitigate them early. It is equally essential for leaders to inspire teams to inherit the larger organisational vision, apart from inculcating enhanced synergy and coherence. I strongly believe that leaders owe their entire success to their teams. My leadership style is “inclusive leadership,” where all the team members collectively work and decide on the way forward and own their successes and failures jointly. I also strongly believe in being a student forever, as you learn new things every day, which helps you anticipate and overcome challenges.
Any best practices, industry trends, or advice you’d give to fellow technology leaders to help them succeed professionally?
Business and IT strategies cannot be very different from each other. Our strategy continues to focus on future-proofing and being future-ready. It is essential to anticipate change and prepare for it. From VFS Global’s perspective, as a market leader, we should play the role of a catalyst for change that would benefit our client governments and applicants. I would recommend a few things to my fellow tech leaders: Think and talk business, not just technology; spend time analysing and planning in order to have a strong foundation and the right balance, as well as the appetite for risk, in order to remain relevant in an ever-changing world.
Also read: Learn relevant tech skills and gain experience
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