Hulamin's Shueyb Vally leverages future thinking to digitally transform Africa's leading aluminium operation

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Shueyb Vally, head of IT at Hulamin, has had anything but a traditional path to his current role. He started out at the very bottom, from the factory floor, right where the aluminium is rolled.

At first glance, Shueyb Vally, head of IT at Hulamin, is a typical CIO. That’s from looking at his LinkedIn profile, which shows his experience in specialised areas across IT, business performance and enterprise risk management to ensure value creation for the business’s long-term success.

That, however, would believe the fact that Shueyb, a Pietermaritzburg or ‘Maritzburg’ man through and through, gets bored easily, leading him to study various qualifications, including an MBA – and an MPhil set to be completed by December this year. He also, interestingly, has certificates in Competition Law, and the Protection of Personal Information Act, among others..

What Shueyb really is, however, is a futurist. His MPhil in future studies will be from Stellenbosch University, the only institution in South Africa that offers this qualification. Future studies aims to enable budding leaders to gain an understanding of possible changes in the long-term future of an organisation or clients and begin to respond to shifting situations.

“The degree allows me to really think about the future of digitalisation, and it teaches me to use methodologies to do scenario planning when it comes to aspects such as South Africa’s socio-economic reality,” he explained. “We look at scenarios five and 10 years out, for example.”

A practical example is the outcome of a research colloquium, which asked about the future of CAs in South Africa. “When we did the research, we found that 76 percent of their jobs can be automated. What do they need to do? They need to update their skills. They need to become analysts.”

This, says Shueyb, resulted in the institute thinking about changing its curriculum based on the outcomes of the research.

In his current role, he is responsible for developing and managing the entire IT portfolio, which includes cybersecurity, infrastructure, custom development, package solutions and data analytics.

Owning the IT space

Currently, his focus is on making the company leaner, such as in the manufacturing IT process. He’s also focusing on cybersecurity and is forecasting where the business should be from these perspectives five and 10 years from now.

“The CEO told me, ‘I didn’t employ you to look at the 100-page strategy that we had. I want you to start from scratch and work out how you are going to own your space to articulate business value from IT strategy’.”

Shueyb explains that IT plays a key role in all four of Hulamin’s priorities of improving capacity and capability towards higher margin products, refining cold rolling capacity and capability, simplifying and reprioritising available cold rolling capacity, and ensuring business sustainability.

Through a strategic plan, the company can take different approaches to get to these targets. Shueyb uses what he calls strategic foresight and future’s triangle, which determines the maturity level of each technological approach. While there is a futuristic pull from the future, he also has to consider day-to-day issues in the now.

As a result, Shueyb has developed a rationale of digitally enabling Hulamin, building professional pride and strategic decision-making, which mitigates cyber-risk as well as ensuring a safe operating environment. This, he explains, gives him a current roadmap against which to take action to ensure Hulamin’s business goals are met.

To move forward, Shueyb will be making certain that Hulamin has accurate data for business insights, which he will deliver in the next six months to a year in terms of AI.

“That’s what Hulamin requires. I’m going to standardise, consolidate and rebuild the foundation,” he said.

This means ensuring that everyone is on board and understands that, for example, cybersecurity is not just an IT risk, it’s a business challenge. “We’ve taken some of the key risks and identified them as business risks. But it means we can’t work in silos,” he explains.

A different route

However, Shueyb’s career wasn’t always a typical IT-focused one, nor a straightforward path to where he is now. The position he has occupied since August 2021 was perhaps a fluke.

“I have a risk and continuous improvement background. Funnily enough, all this fits into IT very well,” he said.

Shueyb started with a BSc in Electronic Engineering, followed by an honours in computer science. Both those and his MBA in strategic finance and operations were at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He then moved to Stellenbosch where he did a postgraduate diploma in what has become his niche: Future Studies.

When Shueyb joined the aluminium company perhaps best known for foil, he was an electronic engineer, after being seconded there from Siemens. At that time, he was working on the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) aspects of the operations. Through SCADA, he used software applications for controlling industrial processes such as motor pumps, as well as commissioning new mills.

Foresight and execution

Shueyb moved to Hulamin in 2003. He developed a pilot manufacturing execution system, in conjunction with IT, rolling it out back in 2009.

By 2010, he was bored, and had already completed his MBA so Hulamin said there was a position for him in continuous improvement as a business process architect.

“Four years later, I ended up running the whole unit,” he said.

After that role, Shueyb focused on risk, looking at areas such as strategy, business performance and risk, and presenting to the board on issues that would affect the business when it came to its strategy.

Then he started dabbling in future studies – back in 2016 – before it was such a topical issue. This is an area in which he would like to lecture along with his other experience.

“For me, at a postgraduate level, that would be bringing it all together and calling it strategic foresight around execution,” he said.

In his downtime, in-between being a father of two children, a husband, a student and his work role, Shueyb runs, although not on a competitive basis.

“This gives me time to refocus. When you’re outdoors, you’re switching off. You’re alone. It’s about smelling that fresh air in the morning and enjoying getting ready for your day. And it’s exciting. I love it,” he said.

Even when travelling, his mind is on tomorrow. Dubai, for example, is not only secure, but also a prime example of futuristic thinking. Dubai has one of the first future foundations. “If you go through Dubai airport, you don’t need any human interaction. You can put your passports in an AI system and pick up fast Wi-Fi anywhere. I’ve been there twice. I love it. It’s just amazing,” he explained.

Countries like Dubai, says Shueyb, allow him to see the future in real time.

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