BidTravel’s Herby Seedat – the travel-loving technologist with a business bent

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The BidTravel CIO’s blend of business acumen and tech expertise has helped him plot a successful career path.

BidTravel CIO Herby Seedat, also known as Abdurrahman to his nearest and dearest, was born where the Freedom Charter was birthed: Kliptown, a suburb in the sprawling township of Soweto. Here he was exposed to how a business works, forming the foundation for his career path, although at the time, he wouldn’t be aware of the value this experience would bring to his future.

At 15, he was sometimes left to run the family business on his own, and at 16 he was responsible for paying the workers’ salaries. “When I was 18, my parents went on holiday to Comoros, and I was left to run the business for the week. All of that gave me a brilliant grounding with business acumen,” says Herby.

Along with early business know-how, Herby had a keen interest in technology. He knew what he wanted his career path to look like as early as Standard 8 (Grade 10). He opted for computer studies as one of his subjects and didn’t look back. “I already had it plotted out; my mission was to complete my computer studies at school, complete a diploma in information technology at Technikon Witwatersrand (now part of the University of Johannesburg), and then work at IBM.”

Directed to the right place

Herby checked off all the above and quickly realised his vision. He started his IT career at IBM, where he was tasked with making CNA’s systems Y2K enabled. This was a beneficial experience, says Herby. Even though it meant he was slogging away by changing code to change dates from six characters to eight, it exposed him to software development life cycles and allowed him to put his tertiary theory into practice.

If business acumen and technology are Herby’s foundations, travel is his love. He even explored this passion back when he completed his diploma as part of a group project.

“In my final year, we had to produce a project, and, as life would have it, my group’s was an online travel booking system,” he says. “I still think back to that, and that I should have commercialised it, but I didn't. It was 1999 and just the beginning of online travel booking systems in South Africa. It would’ve been pretty cool, but I believe you're always directed to a place that’s right for you.”

A travel industry technologist

Again, as life would have it, Herby was directed to a travel project at IBM, which, he says, “was like heaven” because it combined travel plus technology. Soon after that he joined a travel management company (now CWT) as a software engineer, and within a short space of time he became a development manager.

Here, he says his curiosity got a hold off him, and he “started poking his nose in other parts of IT. I ventured out into learning about other aspects of IT, like Exchange, and this led me to become a natural candidate for an IT manager,” he adds. A couple of years later, he was appointed as a development manager, and then he found himself on the business’s executive team – the youngest executive in the organisation at the time.

“That was a good milestone, and although I was involved in software development, I spent an inordinate amount of time learning about business and travel,” he explains. “That allowed me to transform myself into a technologist with significant business knowledge in the travel industry.”

According to Herby, this made him valuable, and he was asked to become a CTO at group level. “I became known within the organisation as being ‘that guy’ who knew technology, but also knew the business. So, I was asked to run a business venture within the Bidvest Travel division. After a few years, I was then asked to come back into my current role – CIO at BidTravel.”

Automation shouldn’t be at the expense of people

When Herby joined BidTravel as CIO, there were multiple technology challenges. It was no easy feat, but he was tasked with transforming the organisation’s entire technology stack and strategy.

“Over a couple of years, we changed everything: we moved from a development environment that was heavily in-house to enhancing off-the-shelf solutions to create a unique, competitive edge,” explains Herby. He adds that automation now features heavily in the business – but not at the expense of people.

Herby says he often tells his peers that whenever an implementation involves automation, it can’t be done in isolation. “We always have to ask how the people the automation affects can add value to the business,” he adds. “We have to transform them too and take them along for the journey.”

According to Herby, the fruits of the changes he and his team have implemented over the last few years are evident – productivity alone has improved across the businesses by 60 percent.

This is what he means when he says that people should be part of digital transformation and process optimisation, and not simply discarded in the name of change. Herby says it’s also why IT is a forerunner for the business, as often it’s IT that comes up with business optimisation strategies, and not necessarily the business coming to IT for implementation.

Never a dull day

For Herby, being CIO at BidTravel means there’s never a dull day, as he’s constantly on the lookout for new ways of doing things. He is also proud of the fact that whatever his team has implemented has added immediate value to the business.

His advice to get significant funding for a project? “The best way to do it is on a small scale,” he says. “Run the project as a pilot to demonstrate immediate value. Once you demonstrate immediate value, the board can see it’s tangible, and then they’ll support you to spend the big bucks to scale it out. Remember that new ways of doing things can be hard for people to understand. So, you must show them.”

Did Herby mention that he loves to travel? So much so that he looks for every opportunity to get on a plane, and as soon as he returns from a trip, he’s already planning the next. “I’ve visited every continent, let’s put it that way!” he adds.

Although he admits he’s lost count of the countries he’s been to, his standout places include Saudi Arabia (“Being a Muslim, for the religious upliftment it gives one when visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina”), the Maldives (“I’m a beach guy”), and Dubai in the UAE (“It gives everyone everything and it’s not too far from South Africa; it’s just become expensive lately!”).

To wind down, he enjoys playing six-a-side soccer twice a week, and he watches plenty of Netflix. “It doesn't matter what time I get home; watching a series allows me to switch off so I can get a good night’s sleep. And if you don't sleep well, you're not functional enough to perform at your best.”

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