Markus Bender: The future is exponential

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Siemens CIO Markus Bender says humans struggle with change, and those who don’t adapt will be left behind.

Markus Bender’s family emigrated from Germany to South Africa when he was two years old, and when he finished matric, he had no idea what he wanted to study. He decided to complete a post-matric in Cape Town, but he still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.

He joined the South African army for a year, and after his military stint, he felt that studying mechanical engineering would be a good idea. During this time, he was exposed to computers, and he finally realised what he should be doing: computer science.

“I’ve been everywhere in IT”

Markus has been at Siemens South Africa for 23 years, which is the bulk of his IT career. His career progression at Siemens has been rewarding, as it has allowed him to experience the gamut of IT. He started at the company by manning a help desk, then he moved into data centre service and the back-end, followed by project management and SAP implementations. He also had an opportunity to work at the Siemens head office in Germany for four years.

“I've been almost everywhere in IT,” says Markus. “In a three-to-five-year horizon, there was always growth and movement in my career, so it kept things interesting. Now that I’m CIO at Siemens South Africa, who knows what the next step is?”

Humans struggle with exponential change; the incline is now getting steep
According to Markus, the future is exponential. While this idea isn’t new, it relates to change – and humans struggle with change that’s unexpected, rapid, and on a large scale.

“The IDC states the amount of data created over the next five years will be greater than twice the data created since the advent of digital storage,” says Markus. “According to a book I’m reading by Herman Singh, called Di-Volution, human beings are linear in their thinking. We're not creatures that can deal with exponential change that doesn’t move from A to B, and then B to C. But with Industry 4.0, we are now at the point of the curve where the incline is steep, and it's going to get steeper, faster.”

Markus believes that, because everything is now on the cloud and data is exploding in growth, people and businesses will either be part of this change, or they won’t. If they aren’t, they’ll be left behind.

“Companies that are left behind will die,” he warns. “This applies to large corporations, too, and the adaptability and agility of start-up culture is becoming a real threat to multinationals.”

Markus advises CIOs to look down, not up. While the CIO must be the trusted advisor, business consultant, and partner to the executive management, they must also focus on IT/OT convergence.

“It’s fine to have a great relationship with the CFO and CEO, but we need to go one or even two steps down. We need to engage with business unit employees who are on the ground – the engineers and project managers, for example – and find out what they need, specifically in the digitalisation space. And how we, as CIOs, can help with their daily challenges beyond supplying PCs and pure IT operational requirements.”

Markus emphasises that operational excellence is still critical, as it forms the foundation of everything CIOs do. “Even if IT operations are outsourced, we must still concentrate on leveraging new technologies to create new value; the rapidly changing technology of Industry 4.0 and IT operations need to work flawlessly together, and ensuring that happens remains one of the key responsibilities of a CIO,” says Markus.

Cybersecurity is paramount
Markus points out that IT/OT convergence has allowed previously disconnected ‘network islands’, especially in factories and production plants, to now be connected through IoT technology. This comes with advantages for businesses, but it also presents the ‘bad actors’ with previously unseen opportunities to exploit weaknesses. They can now hold companies, and even countries, at ransom.

“We’ve recently seen examples of this in South Africa, and the stage is set for more to come,” cautions Markus. “For CIOs and CISOs, this is another area that requires bolstering to ensure business operations run safely and without interruption.”

Fix the gaps, and get rid of hierarchies
Along with computer science, Markus is passionate about leadership. He feels that leaders should want to see people grow, even if it means the best people leave. “You support it and fix that gap if it appears. Don't take yourself too seriously either,” says Markus.

“Good leadership is when it’s not obvious who is in charge,” adds Markus. “That's the future. Of course, there are times when you must step up because you have the responsibility to make decisions, but for the younger generations, hierarchy doesn't work. It’s about being a leader, not a manager, and becoming better at that. Get rid of hierarchical thinking!”

In these non-linear times of technological change, Markus emphasises that it’s important to disconnect from the digital world from time to time. He and his wife enjoy going to the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana: they stay in a tent for two weeks and take in the vast, grassy plains. They have no phone reception or Wi-Fi signal – it’s just the two of them and the sprawling delta.

“It’s completely disconnected,” says Markus. “It helps me stay sane.”

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