From webmaster to digitalisation delivery manager

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Al Baraka Bank’s Omar Khayyam Karim shares his success story.

Al Baraka Bank is an Islamic Bank, and part of the Bahrain-based Al Baraka Group. The bank was established in South Africa in 1989, and it now has branches in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Cape Town. Durbanite Omar Khayyam Karim, digitalisation delivery manager, has been with Al Baraka for almost 20 years.

Starting as a webmaster for an early iteration of the bank’s website, Omar has worked his way up to where he is today – and he hopes to make his success story happen for other people.

Omar, who was raised by a single mom, originally studied light current engineering at the Durban University of Technology, but he couldn’t complete his studies due to financial constraints. An opportunity presented itself in 2006 to join Al Baraka Bank with an entry-level position. The role was for a webmaster for a simple website the bank had just launched. He grabbed it with both hands and during the next two years, Al Baraka would digitally transition to transactional banking.

From passbooks to progress

“People don’t believe me when I tell them the bank was using passbooks at this time [a paper-based notebook held by account holders used to record banking transactions; some countries, like Japan, have only started phasing these out as late as 2021]. As webmaster, I got my hands dirty with business analysis work and writing functional request documents; I wanted to showcase my skills to management and position myself so that when a role opened on the transactional banking side, I could fit into it.”

And a role did open in 2008. One of the sub-projects Omar worked on caught the attention of the transactional banking endeavour’s project manager. Unbeknown to Omar, he was recommended to fill a role as a permanent business analyst. Again, he grabbed the opportunity without hesitation.

Between 2008 and 2012, the bank ramped up its internet banking capabilities, pushed out features – and onboarded customers to move away from the passbooks. “It wasn’t as seamless as we thought it would be – we had an ageing customer base – they still wanted to physically write out cheques and tangible documents that proved they had money or paid someone,” says Omar.

“We realised that breaking old habits would be difficult, so we shifted our attention to the younger clients, and because technology naturally appealed to them, no selling was needed.”

‘The door opened, and I could step in’

In 2012, Omar took a new supervisory role and his team merged with customer services. His portfolio and responsibilities grew, and he took charge of projects from start to finish. There were also rumours that the bank wanted to move to the cloud through a low-code vendor; there was a possibility of someone heading up that space.

“I kept my ear close to the ground. I did what I could from a training perspective, and I was offered the role of digitalisation delivery manager, the role I’m in now,” says Omar. “I’ve been in this role for six months officially, but I was filling the role unofficially since 2021, upskilling myself and gaining experience and knowledge through daily sprints and agile planning. I figured that if I put in the work for three years, I’d get the benefit out of it; the door opened, and I could step in.”

Omar admits he’s “new to this leadership thing” and he often uses Al Baraka Bank’s GM for digitalisation, Hamzah Asmall, to draw inspiration from. Omar has learnt a lot from Hamzah by seeing how he treats people, and something that took Omar a while to realise was what may be apparent to him may not be as obvious to the next person.

“I’ve been with the organisation for 18 years, and I’ve learnt to sharpen my tools for my corporate skillset, but now I have juniors working under me that don’t have the same exposure. I have learnt to be more accommodating and exercise patience, encourage them, and open doors for them like doors were opened for me. I have a success story, and I hope to make success stories happen for other people.”

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