Netstar’s Clifford de Wit breaks down the CTO and CIO’s symbiotic relationship

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CIOs oversee infrastructure, whereas CTOs create solutions that support it, he says.

Clifford de Wit, CTO at Netstar, a subsidiary of Altron, believes that there is a slight difference between a product and a services business. “When you build a product, you are essentially building something based on intellectual property (IP). The idea is to sell that product to as many people as possible. You build it once and sell it many times,” he explains.

“In contrast, especially in the chief information officer (CIO) realm, you tend to find more CIOs in services businesses or traditional non-IT product businesses. For example, a CIO in a law firm operates under a totally different set of conditions. In that scenario, the product is the lawyers and their hours. There the ‘true business’ is productivity, the business of law,” Clifford adds.

“At Netstar, we build and engineer our own internet-of-things (IoT) devices. We have a hardware division that looks after the building and construction of hardware devices. There is also a software division that looks after the ingestion and understanding of the IoT. This provides software solutions to customers based on the IoT information,” he says.

Some of Netstar’s solutions include business solutions for fleets, personal solutions for vehicle tracking, stolen vehicle recoveries, and emergency response. “We have a suite of products that are sometimes driven by our hardware division, but not always driven by our hardware – software plays a critical role.”

The CTO and CIO relationship

According to Clifford, there is a symbiotic relationship between the CTO and CIO. Where the CIO is the custodian of the organisation’s infrastructure and platforms, there is tight collaboration with the product teams led by the CTO. They end up building the solutions on top of the infrastructure.

“I work very closely with our CIO, who oversees the business operations, governance, security posture, and manages our infrastructure. These are some of the key differences between the CTO role at a product company versus the CIO role at a services organisation,” he explains.

“The CTO is responsible for the product, strategy and vision as well as the implementation of the product. I am in the fortunate position to have a very big seat at the table because the company’s strategy is governed by the products and technologies that we build and sell.”

Data needs to add value

Clifford believes that data should be used to give people the tools they need to make better business decisions. “The biggest challenge with data monetisation is that people don’t understand the value of data. Unless you have the means to extract value out of the data, the value is very limited,” he says.

“Data mining is made up of three stages: data collection, refinement and monetisation. We have perfected the mining aspect of data at Netstar,” he says. “By creating the data, building the IoT devices and fitting them to vehicles, we are able to capture that data on a large scale. Then we refine that data to gain insight. But the real value comes in when we provide customers with insights that deliver a tangible impact to their business.”

The trick here is not changing your strategy, but learning how to monetise data through real business use, and not merely selling it on in its purest and most unrefined form.

Clifford was part of a team that was instrumental in developing and introducing Internet banking at Nedbank which was one of his biggest career highlights. Before taking on the CTO role at Netstar, he joined Nedbank when half the team that initially worked on the project had either left or were about to leave. This meant he had to see the project through on his own and take what was essentially an experiment into production.

He points out that the biggest lesson was people’s rapid adoption of technology. “Internet banking went from being an experimental project to the biggest branch in the bank, in just a few months. This goes to show that when you give people what they really want, they quickly adopt it,” he says.

Clifford also spent 17 years at Microsoft, where he ran what became a very successful start-up programme.

“We launched a start-up programme in partnership with the government’s Jobs Fund, where we worked with local incubators, and assisted them with funding and free software, to help young entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into reality.

“The important part here is not whether the start-up failed or succeeded, it’s about the skills that the community gained. Someone can fail at the first or second start-up attempt, but what they learn along the way will help them to do things differently next time,” he says.

Clifford is a keen cyclist. He’s been riding bicycles most of his life. He has even competed in a couple of well-known tandem bike races. He also has a huge fascination with astronomy and enjoys astrophotography.

“Astrophotography is an amazing intersection of technology and physics. It involves taking astronomy images using specialised cameras, but it does take a fair amount of work. You need to align the telescope with the earth’s rotation, which can sometimes take hours to capture that raw data,” he explains. “Once that data is captured, it goes into a software ecosystem, where it is processed and turned into a final image.”

In the same way that Clifford captures astrophotography data, Netstar works to collect telematics data that can be turned into insights that improves people’s lives and encourages responsible driving behaviours.

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