From splicing cables to spearheading IT, AHRI CIO Eugene van der Lingen shares his tech journey

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Eugene believes that a CIO must help an organisation marry the technology with the business strategy – and when you’re doing your job properly, IT almost needs to fade into the background.

After matriculating, the Africa Health Research Institute's CIO Eugene van der Lingen completed his diploma in electronic engineering at Technikon Natal (now part of the Durban University of Technology). However, he was soon drawn to IT; almost 30 years ago, the field was burgeoning and, for Eugene, a lot more exciting than his current discipline. He did a few Microsoft certifications and various IT training courses, and before he knew it, he was in London doing contract work.

Eye-opening experiences

“I worked in several industries and, as a young guy from Durban, it was a really eye-opening experience,” says Eugene. 

He spent seven years in the Big Smoke, where he worked for an investment bank based in the middle of London’s financial district, a computer services company and even spliced fibre-optic submarine cables.

“That was quite a challenging job; it demanded intense concentration for long hours at a stretch,” adds Eugene. “I had to splice the fibres together at the repeater stations during 12-hour shifts. These fibre cables are those same ones deployed on the seabed spanning continents. We did a good job, but sometimes, at three or four in the morning, we weren’t at our best; my humorous disclaimer is always that if the internet isn’t working or your calls drop, it might be my fault!”

For Eugene, even though the splicing was physically and mentally taxing, this was another eye-opening experience. “Again, for a young guy from Durban, it was amazing to be at the grassroots level making those cables; now, many years later, fibre-optic technology is part of our everyday lives.”

Adapting to any situation 

After his London stint, Eugene returned to South Africa, where he worked in logistics, at a consumer skincare company, and the State Information Technology Agency. Here, he was seconded to the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education, where he was responsible for all of their Active Directory, user accounts, Microsoft Exchange and other core IT services.

“That was another tough job,” says Eugene. “Everything in government works very slowly, and you’re always trying to move forward, but there are so many roadblocks in the way.” It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however; he emphasises this experience taught him how to make a plan in a hurry, even without the necessary resources at hand. “I learnt how to adapt and work with what I had.”

Eugene moved to CAPRISA (The Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa) as head of IT. He spent eight years here, and it served as a stepping stone to his current role at AHRI (he literally stepped into another office, as both CAPRISA and AHRI are in the same building). 

The CIO role is about helping others do their jobs better

AHRI is a transdisciplinary scientific research institute based across two campuses in KwaZulu-Natal, and Eugene talks enthusiastically about the work his organisation does, which centres around four broad scientific domains – population science, basic and translational science, implementation science and clinical trials.

AHRI was also heavily involved in identifying the emergence of, and research around Covid-19, especially in South Africa and with regards the Omicron variant. South African scientists were proudly often leading the fight against Covid-19. 

He also emphasises how the IT department at AHRI punches above its weight compared to organisations of a similar size.

“AHRI only has about 700 staff, but to compete and collaborate with much bigger organisations and universities locally and worldwide, like Harvard, University College London (UCL) and the WHO, we need world-class research output. From a technology perspective, we have IT infrastructure that boasts significant computational and data processing power that you wouldn’t ordinarily find in an organisation with just 700 people.”

Eugene says that, for now, everything is on-premise by design, but the cloud is a part of the digital transformation strategy. AHRI is also split into two campuses, and, along with the IT infrastructure, it has a department just for data management (called the Data Science Unit) that works across both sites. 

“We have a lot of data at each site, but we’ve turned that into an advantage because, from a disaster recovery perspective, we have an active/active arrangement where we back up or replicate all our data from site A to site B, and vice versa. So, if site A had to collapse, we could bring everything up at site B.”

Eugene believes a CIO role comes down to how you can help an organisation marry the technology with the business strategy. 

“In the case of AHRI, the business’s output is scientific knowledge published in high-impact journals, and my role as CIO is to enable other people to do their jobs better. I’ve also learnt that when you’re doing your job properly, IT almost needs to fade into the background. Sometimes people forget about us completely, and we have to remind them why we need a budget!” he laughs. 

Advice from the field (literally)

Eugene’s advice for those just entering the IT industry? “Start the studies,” he urges. “In IT, there’s a difference between degrees and diplomas versus certifications, but the latter teaches you how to work with the technology, and it’s great on your CV. Also, try to get yourself a degree, because that will help you later in your career journey.” 

Eugene walks the talk – he started out with Microsoft certifications and splicing cables, but he’s now finishing up a part-time BCom in IT management and pursuing an MBA next!

Other than being “super talented at eating too much”, as he jokingly puts it, Eugene is into rugby – big time. After finishing school, he played as a wing for the Crusaders in KwaZulu-Natal. “It was more social, so we did a lot of drinking and played a bit of rugby,” he says, but he maintains that whenever the Springboks play, he has his boots nearby.

“I’m always ready to run on the field. I just need that phone call from Rassie; I’m there!”

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