Digitalisation GM Hamzah Asmall brings engineering experience to tech thinking

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Hamzah Asmall, the GM for digitalisation at Al Baraka Bank, explains how consulting paved the way for his career in IT, how his religion keeps him grounded, and underscores the fulfilment derived from paying it forward.

Accenture was coincidentally recruiting junior consultants, right around the time Hamzah Asmall, the GM for digitalisation at Al Baraka Bank, had completed his studies in Industrial Engineering. He says that the two aligned: he had an interest in IT, and Accenture was one of the biggest tech consultancies at the time.

“When I joined Accenture, like all big consultancies you get put on a project where there is demand, and luckily for me I ended up going on to the SARS modernisation project,” he explains.

“I really took those engineering skills and applied them within the roles of business analysis. After about two years of serving as a business analyst, I was seconded as a strategist to SARS’s own modernisation strategy team within the operations function,” he adds.

“Our goals at the time were to make things easier for the taxpayer, while reducing waste and increasing efficiency for the people on the tax administration side,” Hamzah says. “We had some really cool achievements, one being helping SARS to become the first revenue organisation globally that had the capability for customers to file a return from their mobile banking app.

“We also were the first globally to have a co-browsing capability where you could be filling out your tax return and an agent is logged on to your computer seeing the same tax return, and working through it with you.” Hamzah is really grateful for his time spent under the leadership of Intikhab Shaik, where he learned how to shape and drive digitalisation initiatives.

Bankers as engineers, business people as solutionists

Hamzah later joined Al Baraka Bank, which at the time was looking for a software development manager. He quickly ascended the ranks from development manager to digitalisation manager to ultimately being promoted to GM for digitalisation at the bank.

“Accenture’s latest report talks about bankers becoming engineers and how the business people need to start becoming a solution people,” he says. “I think my foot into the COO space and the synergy I have with him is aligned to that: I bring the engineering and the technology thinking, and I partner very closely with the business people to couple that to the solutions that are going to really add value for our customers.”

Hamzah adds that this is very much a forward way of working as opposed to the old way of working, where business would define requirements, and then IT would go and deliver. Now, he says, digital people and the business people are sitting at the same table, and reporting to the same exco. This strategy is paying dividends with Al Baraka being awarded “Best Digital Offering in South Africa” at last year's IFN Awards.

“My core responsibility at Al Baraka is to define the digitalisation roadmap,” Hamzah explains. “We work on a four-year-old map and I need to work out what that roadmap looks like in terms of a portfolio of projects and budgeting that out, while making considerations like whether the business cases get built into Al Baraka’s budgets and agreed with our stakeholders.

“The next step is taking those resources and going ahead and delivering on those projects, which means creating the right structures under me internally, finding the right vendor partners to outsource, and finding the right technologies to adopt to make those ambitions come to life,” he continues.

Hamzah prioritises maintaining strong vendor relationships as a keystone for success and he thanks the bank’s COO Mohamed Kaka for teaching him shariah business principles that enforce always dealing in a manner that ensures vendors are never taken advantage of, and treated with utmost transparency and fairness.

Advice for aspiring CIOs

With most matriculants having recently graduated from high school, there is a group among the crowd who are seriously considering a career in IT, but aren’t sure where to start. Hamzah reassures them that the landscape has evolved significantly over the years, making entry into the field more accessible than ever.

“While pursuing a degree in IT is quite valuable, especially in the long run, it’s not the only way to get into IT,” he explains. “There’s the certification route, which makes candidates immediately employable, and that’s because these Microsoft certifications are characterised as an industry-recognised set of certifications or credentials.

“The key paradigm that’s changed of late is that most of the big technology vendors like Mendix and Microsoft have gone on to make their products to be low-code, which means that the learning curve has really been smoothed out a lot. “That’s why nowadays an engineer from a non-computer background like a civil engineer can very quickly take on the new tools and apply them because of the new low-code dynamic, which is drag-and-drop and applying some logic.”

Instilling ubuntu

Hamzah is a religious man and very close to his faith, and he tries to pass on those teachings to his family. He’s married and has three young children: a six-year-old, a four-year-old, and a two-year-old. Hamzah flew his family to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage over the festive season.

“I believe it’s very important for my children to be grounded in our Islamic roots and tradition in the very early stages of their lives,” he says. “For me, taking them to the birthplace of Islam was very important, especially feeling in today’s world where youngsters are bombarded with social media and norms and values that are not traditional to us as people born on the African continent – it’s important to start instilling humanity or value systems or ubuntu in our children at a young age.”

Hamzah also enjoys fishing. He says it’s the only time he can really switch off. He’s managed to find some good fishing spots, and if he doesn’t catch anything good on that day, there’s always an opportunity to take a dip in the ocean.

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