Mentorship and inspirational men and women, says the CIO, shaped her career.
Zakiyya Cassimjee, CIO at Astute FSE, was born and raised in Benoni, east of Johannesburg, and her career in IT started out at Nedbank on an internship as a COBOL developer. She later followed the IT project management route and after spending 13 years with Nedbank in different roles, took up a contracting role with a company that went insolvent after three months of her joining them.
She says it was one of her deepest regrets, but a valuable lesson nonetheless. “The experience taught me to become agile and to think on my feet and pivot, and that’s exactly what I did,” she says.
A seat at the table
For most women, navigating the traditionally male-dominated field of IT can be rather scary, and a little guidance from the right individuals may make all the difference. Such was Zakiyya’s experience in trying to find her place in the industry.
“Multiple mentors along the road, from strong individuals in C-level leadership positions to board members and past managers, have significantly moulded my career,” she says.
“These regular coaching sessions have helped me overcome internal battles such as imposter syndrome and navigating the boardroom dances. These wonderful engagements have led to many solid relationships and advice from people who have walked this path already, and I would highly encourage this to anyone on a leadership journey,” Zakiyya adds. A favourite quote from Man in the Arena by Theodre Roosevelt sums it up, “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly.”
It’s no wonder Zakiyya wants to pay it forward, because she’s also enthusiastic about empowering women in IT and sending the ladder back down, having started her career at a time when the industry was dominated by men. Since then, she believes a lot has changed. “Now, when you enter the room, I am that difference and own it” she says and hopes this inspires women and girls to come after her
Today, Zakiyya has run two iterations of a programme at Astute called the Women’s Chapter Network, an eight-step leadership programme aimed at teaching women how to use their voices effectively and stepping into their own.
As far as leadership style is concerned, Zakiyya describes herself as a very approachable CIO and has an open door policy at Astute as does the entire Exco team. “I think leadership is very much centred around having a collaborative approach. I hold regular meetings with my team where they can share their ideas and thoughts and take the inclusive approach. It’s important to take your people along with you on your journey rather than leaving them behind,” she says. The role does call for those quick thinking spur of the moment decisions where this is not always possible. Adapt and Evolve.
The great resignation
According to Zakiyya, cybersecurity, data protection and governance and talent retention – the great resignation – are among some of the biggest challenges keeping CIOs awake at night.
She says that although our new hybrid way of working makes sense from a collaborative perspective, it has now created a huge talent shortage and made it difficult for many tech firms to retain talent.
“We have several vacancies that we haven’t been able to fill for some time now, and have conducted multiple interviews and candidates. Companies offering a remote global working position of around R400-500K more are more attractive and those are conditions we simply can’t match as we fight globally to retain the best people,” she explains.
Cybersecurity and data transformation
Among the various projects Zakiyya has been involved in throughout her career, working as a consultant project manager on the first two iterations of the ABSA Cybersecurity Academy, has to be one of the most memorable career highlights.
“It was a feel-good project that had an academic programme element as well as a soft skills coaching element to it, but most importantly, it changed people’s lives,” she says.
In terms of exciting projects in the pipeline, Zakiyya says, the data exchange transformation currently underway at Astute has her on the edge of her seat. “We are a Microsoft gold partner and are working very closely with Microsoft and a vendor on this project – geared towards moving Astute into its next phase of longevity,” she says.
Zakiyya is currently on a health journey and when she’s not spending time in the gym, she enjoys reading a good book for downtime. She’s currently reading Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't by Jeffrey Pfeffer. And her love for literature and academia doesn’t stop there as Zakiyya is also pursuing an MBA, and is participating in the CIO programme – a mentorship and networking initiative by MOYO as well as the Evolving CISO programme to strengthen her cybersecurity skills.