Faith Burn: I love my country, the continent and its people

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Eskom's CIO Faith Burn explains that working for a state-owned entity is the great sign of patriotism – it’s what motivates her as a leader. She encourages everyone to at least once in their life explore the opportunity to work for an SOE.

Eskom CIO – and winner of the 2023 CIO Awards Public Sector CIO of the Year title – Faith Burn grew up in Riverlea, a majority coloured community located in the south of Johannesburg, during apartheid.

She’s a proud township girl who traded a bunsen burner for a motherboard. Faith initially studied chemistry, but was drawn towards the new and exciting world of IT.

Faith had hopes of becoming a lecturer one day and even completed her MSc in mathematics before her detour into ITDeloitte.

She started out in Deloitte’s IT division, building the application maintenance and support division (known then as Enterprise Business Systems) and later moved to the Risk Advisory business unit. That same year that she joined Deloitte, Faith completed her MBL through Unisa with an elective in project management.

After spending 10 years with the professional services company, Faith decided to spread her wings and joined the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) as chief audit executive, heading up the internal audit function.

“It was a rocky start,” she says. “Let’s just say, I wasn’t necessarily received with open arms: I had a lot of naysayers external to the organisation who didn’t believe that I had the necessary auditing skills and added to that I needed to deliver a backlog in audits against the approved audit plan.”

“But in just under a year, I had a budget under control, and completed the audit plan in six months. In subsequent years, the internal audit division received a general compliance rating that culminated in the department being featured in the Institute of Internal Auditors magazine in recognition of its achievement in improving compliance to standards, a recognition deserving and one of many to follow,” she explains.

Her next move was to Novartis, where Faith headed up IT for 43 countries. Under her leadership, the Service Desk team won a global finance award. She later joined Tsebo Solutions group as group CIO, covering 28 countries and, although she was soaring high, something told Faith that she could take things to even greater heights.

Little did she know that this would mean stepping out of the private sector – that’s when she received a call from Eskom’s headhunters.

In May 2020, during the Covid-19 national lockdown level 5, she joined the power utility. “Despite my own fears and the challenges that were relayed to me (which strangely excited me), I generally love solving complex problems,” she explains. “I also had to undergo a rigorous interview process."

“I see myself as a patriot and despite many in my networking circles saying no to joining Eskom. I was like, yes, I love my country, the continent and its people. I wanted to bring my contribution towards positive change to the utility and make a difference, all of those factors combined, aligning with my core values,” she adds.

Power moves

Joining during lockdown meant that Faith could not physically meet the new team of about 600 people that she was meant to lead. It was actually nine months later that she was able to meet her executive team in person.

“It is one of the most unique and complex environments I’ve ever worked in and it has taught me a lot about self-care,” she notes. “It’s also a giant of an organisation with the most enriching life experience.”

Faith says that one of her greatest milestones at Eskom was her first delivery on a software licensing initiative, through which she saved the entity a significant amount through cost avoidance.

Her second-biggest accomplishment was making the decision to migrate to the cloud. “Governance shouldn’t prevent you from getting an outcome,” she says. “There were concerns around the move to the cloud because Eskom is a critical infrastructure. We had to navigate the necessary structures and a couple of layers of governance to obtain approval.”

This navigation included securing alignment from the State Security Agency and approval from the relevant committees in a nine-month process, which involved robust discussions as well as detailed and well thought out motivations. Microsoft Azure on MS365 for over 40,000 users was the first of the workloads moved to the cloud.

“We developed a chatbot aimed at improving Eskom customer service as part of an omnichannel customer experience strategy, the first in a combined integrated team between my IT team and the divisional distribution team. This chatbot now averages over 200,000 chats a month. My team and I have various other initiatives including analytics," she reveals.

Patriotism and servant leadership

Faith won the Public Sector CIO of the Year Award at the 2023 CIO Awards, which were held in November last year. She says that she never expected to be nominated, let alone win the award “I was pleasantly surprised and it was great to receive the external validation,” she says. “However, you are only as good as your team and I think our synergy and my leadership skills also played a huge part, but in the end it all boils down to sacrifice and hard work.”

She notes that it was a humbling experience, which gave her a deep sense of gratitude. She highlighted working in the public sector is also a privilege that every person should experience at least once in their lives.

“I believe that if every South African gave at least two years of their life to our country, our country would be the better for it and so would the individual,” she says encouragingly. “No matter what position in whichever state-owned enterprise: earn the right to speak and make an impact in your country. The win itself has meant even more to my team than it has to me – it gave them recognition and made them feel welcomed, and a bonus was that I got to share the best evening in my career with the best people – my team.”

Dancefloors and asphalt

Faith is a dancing enthusiast, who enjoys Latin American dance and has competed in regional competitions. She recently competed in the National Professional Amateur Dance competition, but 2023 wasn’t the greatest year for her training wise, she simply didn’t have enough time. That’s just what she does when she’s at home. Faith is also quite adventurous and enjoys travelling, whether in the air or on the road. She has travelled to at least 17 countries and counting, with even more cities, Zanzibar being one of her favourites.

“I’ve climbed the Great Wall of China twice! And I walked up the wall and didn’t take a cable car,” she says. “I also enjoy driving, long drives to be more specific. I’ve actually done many drives between Cape Town and Johannesburg and some long distance driving in America from the east coast to south.”

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