It’s about getting somewhere, according to the CIO, but you need to bring everyone along.
Dr Stanley Mgobansimbi Mpofu, chief information officer at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), is a perfect example of starting from the very bottom, as far as one’s entry into the IT world is concerned. After completing A-levels and while unemployed, he was one of the the few people selected to participate in Transnet’s then-IT division, Datavia, which was looking for COBOL programmers.
“I took part in a gruelling day-long examination, where we were asked five questions to be completed in five hours,” he explains. “Fortunately, I was one of the people who passed, and I went on to further my studies in IT with Van Zyl and Pritchard, located in the Johannesburg CBD.”
Having secured his qualifications as a developer, sitting in isolation and spending the entire day programming didn’t sit well with Dr Mpofu. He much preferred working as a technician, fixing computers. He worked himself up the ranks after completing A+ exams, and ended up leading the team of the technicians who fixed computers for a division of Spoornet called PX as a Datavia employee – the very same team he was once a part of.
At a certain point Dr Mpofu had acquired the developer, technician, and network administrator role, and felt like he needed a change – to move onto more managerial roles. He ventured into project management, studied till he got a master’s in commerce in project management, culminating in getting a job at Eskom as a project manager.
“I started my tenure at Eskom Technology Services and was deployed to Matla Power Station. After a two-year stint I was transferred to Megawatt Park,” Dr Mpofu explains. “It was then when my responsibilities changed, and I was now in charge of documenting a project management methodology for IT projects for the generation IM department. It was a lengthy document that took me six months, and which I completed by the end of 2004 Two years later I was appointed to document a benefit realisation process under the CIO for all IT projects in Eskom. This was completed in about June of 2005 and had to implement it across different divisions till the end of 2005.
He later went on to establish a project management office for Eskom Enterprises IM projects supporting the engineering areas in the new build and refurbished power stations when the new Kusile and Medupi Power Stations were being built. At the same time, he was pursuing his PhD in strategy and leadership at Wits.
Dr Mpofu’s portfolio grew even more when he was promoted to an executive in 2010 to manage all ICT portfolios at Eskom Enterprises Group’s eight unregulated entities. The challenge here was that there had been gaps not complying with Eskom Group IT processes, and Dr Mpofu had to fix that while consolidating some federated ICT support activities that had mushroomed.
From energy to education
Dr Mpofu then joined Wits as CIO in May 2017. “It was a big change,” he says. “It is much easier to manage in the corporate world because you are given a mandate and never expect that mandate to be challenged. The biggest difference at Wits was that I was now in an academic environment with different ways of doing things – very liberal and needing careful understanding of the terrain. where every complaint on email was a thesis,” he jokes.
“I didn’t let that intimidate me, though, because I was very confident in my capabilities. I had to allow the stakeholders time to understand what I was up to and warm up to my ideas, which in most cases were foreign due to the state in which CNS (now ICT) service culture was.
“However, I did find a similar situation that I had experienced in the non-regulatory companies in Eskom where there were shadow ITs all over the place, which I had to consolidate into one. At Wits, some faculties had established their own IT departments, but I made it clear from the outset that I can’t be responsible for things that happen all over the place – everything has to be under my control in order for me to manage it properly,” he adds.
Dr Mpofu had very frank conversations with the management at Wits, starting with the vice-chancellor, vice-principal, COO and deans. This helped to understand the needs and direction in which the university was heading, and made life easier insofar as documenting the ICT business strategy and its sub strategies (mobile, cloud digital and cyber) which was taken through the governance structures for approval.
In 2018, Dr Mpofu introduced the concept of a smart classroom, two years before the Covid-19 pandemic. “It allowed people to attend lessons from anywhere, without having to sit in a lecture room,” he says. “It was well-received, and a year later I had three classrooms, one on the east campus, one on the west campus, and a third in the management school. So, when the pandemic and its lockdown phases happened, it just became a matter of expanding the concept and normalising online learning and teaching. In fact, our semesters weren’t affected at all, because we had already put measures in place.”
Dr Mpofu says it had nothing to do with being able to predict the future, but everything to do with his technology reading and being up to date with technology trends, and a bit of international exposure and foresight helped him to have this vision. The support from the senior executive team and the ICT resources complemented a successful Covid-19 period.
Getting everyone on board
According to Dr Mpofu, strategy alone is not enough: you also have to consider issues of stakeholder management and change management in any kind of transformation. “Strategy is also about getting somewhere, but in order to get there, you need to bring everyone on board,” he says. “You will always be met with resistance when introducing something new, but it is how you manage that resistance, in a way that doesn’t break down relationships, and it’s similar to selling – selling your story to people – and getting them to buy into what you are advocating for.”
Although Dr Mpofu carries the title of a doctor today, he comes from very humble beginnings, from Utrecht, a town in the foothills of the Balele Mountains in northern KwaZulu-Natal. His appetite to learn was instilled in him by his parents, who never had the privilege of going to school, but always encouraged him to focus on education.
Dr Mpofu describes himself as a rural boy, and finds most solace when he’s back home. He also enjoys what he calls “peasant farming” and has chickens, goats, and sheep.
He is influential and trusted by his community on community projects, and says he has success with his community work due to his good understanding of the rural set-up and village protocol.