CIOs need to harness curiosity


Essie Mokgonyana believes that curiosity can give you an advantage during transformational times.

Essie Mokgonyana was recently appointed as country manager and sales director for SAS in South Africa. She has wasted little time in making her lifelong love of learning and development count in her role within a company that has a reputation for being academically driven.

“I grew up in the vicinity of the University of Limpopo in Mankweng Turfloop and my grandfather was a school principal. My family was very active in the community and my grandfather also sponsored students to study even after his retirement. I read a lot from his library, and my love of learning and books has never waned,” says Essie.

As a teenager Essie’s curiosity about the world around her was sent into overdrive when her aunt’s friend went to France through a university exchange programme. “I yearned to travel, work internationally and be a thought leader. I was able to realise this dream at the age of 22 in my first job, with my first international trip being to Paris for business.”

After completing her studies in computer systems engineering, Essie was employed as a software developer at Toppan Face Technologies. However, she soon found herself in a pre-sales role at Gemalto, a French Multinational Company, which required interfacing with multinational customers across Africa. “In a pre-sales role, I was the face of the company and learned quickly what it took to be a business leader.”

She rose quickly to take charge of multiple teams across Africa and the Middle East as technical director with IDEMIA, a multinational headquartered in France, focusing on the telecommunications and banking sectors. She was then promoted to an executive role at IDEMIA while sitting on the boards of subsidiaries AFISWITCH and Oberthur Technologies.

Across Africa
Accepting the task of driving adoption of SAS’s innovative solutions in South Africa was an opportunity she found compelling to pursue. Joining SAS at this juncture brings with it the exciting challenge of charting the right course for customers across Africa considering moving to the cloud, she says.

“This is where curiosity can be a competitive advantage. This is a transformational time for both public and private sectors across the continent, and I see SAS’s role as thought leadership in best practice and advising on the best way to extract value from ethical data, advanced analytics and AI,” Essie says.

Some businesses – especially those in financial services – have made headway in leveraging AI and cloud-based solutions to unlock the enormous potential of data, but many sectors and government bodies are yet to explore the benefits. Essie believes SAS is in the sweet spot of being able to help public and private organisations adopt cloud platforms and analytic capabilities to drive innovation and ensure their sustainability as the pace of digital transformation accelerates.

“There are many barriers, but SAS has a broad customer base and academic network to call upon to solve these problems,” says Essie. “We will continue to be cloud-first, but in reality we have to acknowledge that most CIOs are struggling with hybrid infrastructure that is part cloud and part on-premises architecture. This creates bloated data centres and extra costs that raise the total cost of ownership of infrastructure.

Many organisations struggle with creating a strategy to leave legacy systems behind, but we have a crucial role to play in providing hybrid solutions that eliminate the headache in extracting value from our advanced analytics platform,” Essie explains.

This is one of the many ways she intends to spread knowledge as a thought leader. “Forums like the CIO South Africa community are vital and create an environment for peers to discuss issues in their sectors. I think most CIOs are relieved to find that they have peers who have struggled with the same issues and have found solutions. SAS is always looking to form partnerships to share best practice and thinking across Africa as support for the CIO community. We are an academically focused technology company so our focus is on knowledge sharing. I am very excited about the tools we are making available to drive digital transformation in both public and private sectors across Africa.”

SAS has partnerships with leading universities in South Africa as part of its Global Academic Programme (GAP). It also provides training for customers and channel partners for customer staff.

“This is another reason I am fully aligned with SAS’s objectives in Africa. We need to help organisations tap into the full potential of their analytic capabilities and resources to incubate and accelerate innovation and higher operational efficiencies. By us being cloud-first, and cloud-agnostic, using SAS analytics tools provides our customers with the distinct advantage of analysing intense data in the cloud, whether they’re using SAS Viya or an industry solution,” says Essie.

These capabilities can solve not only business problems, but social and environmental problems. “Innovation drives new ways of thinking about old problems. The annual SAS Hackathon is proof that data analytics leads to novel, ethical and scalable solutions to challenges in education, finance, healthcare, energy, agriculture and public administration. This is what will really underpin African solutions to African problems,” she adds.

It all comes down to curiosity, and Essie’s curiosity is as strong as ever. “CIOs are grappling with many issues right now, and they can seem overwhelming. Defining future architecture and roadmaps to get there, getting around cloud vendor lock-in, dealing with complexity and overcoming regulatory uncertainty are all equally pressing issues, so we are positioned to ease their digital transformation by making globally leading expertise available.”

“Like SAS, I have a strong desire to explore, to learn and to know. This is the kind of thinking that will help organisations and society at large overcome challenges. As someone who is passionate about development, change and progress in Africa, I am excited to join the leader in analytics and who has been present in South Africa since 1995. There is immense potential on the continent yet to be unlocked and data is the key,” she concludes.

This article was originally published in the first-ever edition of CIO Magazine, which is now available for download here.

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