My PhD gave me credibility on the board, says Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar


Denisha was once named the youngest person to complete a PhD in IT.

Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, chief director ICT at Stellenbosch University, relocated to Stellenbosch from Johannesburg. She says this has been a significant career move, but a crucial one.

“I would describe the move as both challenging and exciting: I felt that it was necessary to relocate for my career and growth,” she says. “I do miss Johannesburg, having spent 20 years in the city. I think it is one of the most progressive cities in the world, and that’s the one element I miss the most.”

Denisha also sits on the boards of other organisations to address the ICT element, which means she still travels to Johannesburg when necessary.

“What you are starting to see is that the audit and risk committees (ARCs) are now ensuring that there is an IT expert as part of their committee. Additionally, the boards of organisations are also making sure that there is an IT expert who forms part of the board,” she explains. “The expertise on a board and at an ARC level needs to comprise strategic and lateral IT skills, as well as having the ability to challenge the CIOs and CTOs technically. I certainly welcome this type of engagement at those levels, since that is indicative of how progressive the organisation is with regards to digital acceleration.”

Denish believes that this trend is the result of committees and boards starting to realise the critical role that IT plays in these organisations. “Moreso, there is a need for credible skills in IT,”she says. “Having a PhD in IT provides credibility to these boards and in my daily work.

“I sit on these boards because I am passionate about educating board members and the organisation at large about the criticality of IT. They find IT intimidating and too technical, but when you explain IT applications, for instance, in simpler and practical terms, then they begin to understand.”

Denisha holds a PhD in IT from the University of South Africa and at the time, aged 33, she was named the youngest person to obtain this qualification. She is a pioneer on many fronts, having achieved national and international global achievement awards for her impact in the ICT industry.

It was an interesting time when she obtained her PhD, as she was still in corporate, and her peers questioned why she was still in industry with a doctorate. “The notion is that when you have a doctorate, you should be in an academic field or heading in that direction,” she says. “These boundaries only exist in your mind. There are no boundaries.”

She adds that having a PhD is quite beneficial while being in industry, because she has access to credible sources, including academic journals or well-researched papers, that she can apply to her practical work in the IT Industry the very next day.

According to Denisha, there is an educational gap that needs to be closed in IT. “We need more ‘adjunct/extraordinary’ professors in the industry,” she says. “These are people who have PhDs and work in their industry daily, but also are very connected to credible research in their fields. This can help them navigate their daily work and also direct research to where it is required to impact daily life.

She points to developed countries such as Korea, which have the highest number of adjunct professors in the world, and follow this model, which has helped them to become some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

“If we say that Africa lacks successful implementation of ERP systems because of certain issues we experience on the ground on a daily basis, for instance, then research can be conducted in those specific areas in order to understand where the continent is going wrong, and help us to improve it from a well-researched and practical sense.”

Denisha started her career as an auditor and accountant and her first job was as a junior intelligence analyst at SARS, through their internship programme. Her main role was to determine which sectors – and which people who worked in those sectors – fell in or out of the norm. Through her work as an intelligence analyst she developed an appreciation for intelligence in organisations.

“Intelligence is a combination of historical, transactional data and forward-looking unstructured data that helps you determine what can be the norms,” she explains. Denisha was so successful in her role that she secured a permanent position in audit – recovering the most amount of money for SARS as an auditor that year, and then bagging herself an Amakhwezi national award in the process.

It was when she was invited to join the e-filing team at SARS and other systems that Denisha fell in love with technology. “I could see that this was where the world was heading and continued my studies in technology, specifically,” she says.

She left SARS to pursue other technology-related roles and joined Absa as national manager: segment support and client control. This was an exciting time at the bank, she says. “Absa was in the process of automating all their processes with all their product houses, including vehicle finance, personal and home loans and credit card applications, and had to process all the FICA documentation from a central processing office.”

Denisha now sits on the FICA Board that regulates the banking industry in South Africa. She has also worked at Development Bank to help transform their ICT and at City of Johannesburg’s helm of ICT to ensure delivery of mega-ICT projects with national implications.

“I’ve had a long and successful run in corporate and I have now moved onto education. I want to pursue IT from a different angle and that’s in higher education,” she says. “The IT principles are exactly the same, but I bring a different perspective into higher education, which is actually an advantage.”

In her spare time, Denisha enjoys empowering the youth in the IT sector, which she does via many ‘wired for women’ initiatives. “IT is not merely about being a techie,” she says. “IT is about being multi-purposeful, understanding the importance of continuous learning even as we move and stumble along the way; being cutting-edge and unpredictable.”

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