Jan van der Zandt: “The network is the computer”

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Jan van der Zandt, CTO at Liberty Life, shares how history and technology are interlinked.

Jan van der Zandt has been in IT for more than 40 years, but he started his career in financial services while working at Allied Building Society. This was a time when building societies were still owned by their members and functioned as co-operative banks. In 1991, Volkskas merged with Allied Building Society and United Building Society to form Absa (Amalgamated Banks of South Africa).

“In 1978 there wasn't much technology around; it was only the building societies and banks that had online systems,” says Jan. "Technology was new and it seemed like an interesting field to me. After a couple of interviews, I joined the Allied Building Society and the rest is history, as they say.”

Jan started at the bottom in the computer room, loading tapes and running batch jobs. At that time, computers literally took up a whole room. “We ran a computer that was the size of a house; now it's a chip in your phone. From 1978 to where we are today, the tech landscape is almost unrecognisable,” he adds.

Y2K, becoming a CIO, and sleepless nights
Jan moved into programming and worked his way up to project management and eventually executive IT management roles. He loved what technology could do, especially when it came to the implementation of innovative and ground-breaking solutions.

“At Allied, we were one of the first movers to roll out cash-on-demand ATMs, which today are part of our everyday lives,” notes Jan.
In the early 1990s, Jan joined the South African branch of a multinational technology services company as an account executive and implementation manager. The company would later become Electronic Data Systems (EDS), and it provided global IT and business process outsourcing services.

In the heady Y2K year of 1999, Jan identified a niche in the market: businesses were desperately looking at outsourcing services, but they had little skill in putting together these large deals. By the year 2000, Jan and his partners had started a consulting company providing IT advisory services to companies looking at IT outsourcing.

“We ended up outsourcing a lot more than IT, as managed services were very much in demand. South Africa was changing and so was the managed services environment,” says Jan. “I've spent most of my career in technology, but I also consider myself a specialist in outsourcing; it was formative in my personal development.”

That partnership ended, and Jan soon found himself back at Absa’s IT department, this time in the insurance services division in a CIO role.

Here he ran the Absa insurance IT portfolio for several years before joining Liberty Life as CTO – where he has been for the last eight years. Two years ago, Jan transitioned across to Liberty's asset management firm, STANLIB, where he has been heading up the asset cluster and reporting to the group CIO at Liberty.

Jan admits that being a CIO is a stressful job, and more than anything else, cybercrime keeps him up at night.

“Securing our perimeters is probably one of the biggest challenges that we face today as CIOs,” says Jan. “Every day you read about new cyber victims and South Africa has been a particular target of late.”

A cycle that repeats, and prophecies from the past
Jan is an avid collector of rare books about South African history, and for him the hunt is more important than finding the actual book. He laments that the internet has made the hunt more challenging, and it has become increasingly difficult to stumble across gems. With a few clicks anyone can now ascertain the value of these rarities and get their hands on them.

“We have so many cycles of history in South Africa; many wars have been fought,” observes Jan. “I enjoy trying to understand the past, and how history has evolved. If you look at the current global climate, it’s a little bit scary. History gives us some pointers, and it seems like it won’t take much to start global conflagration. I would rather just collect the books and quietly sit and read in my study!”

In the early days of his IT career, Jan had a colleague who looked after the building society’s rudimentary networks – they were more like telephone lines than the networks we know today. While the two were working late one night, Jan’s colleague observed that “the network is going to become the computer”. For Jan, his colleague’s observation, 40 years ago, has become almost prophetic.

“When governments shut down their social services, citizens can't talk to each other; shutting down a network can disempower millions of people in an instant,” says Jan. “I do, however, think that Elon Musk’s satellite network is completely democratising technology. It’s difficult to cut off connectivity to an ISP that’s connected to a satellite network running above your head.”

Jan emphasises that, today, we are globally dispersed yet so dependent on our computer networks. And, without computer networks, there’s no internet, no social media, and no communications.

“Petabytes of information lie at the end of a connection. If connectivity to the network is lost, you can't work, you can’t communicate, you’re cut off… the network is now the computer.”

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