Nikos Angelopoulos: a career across multiple countries with South Africa as his top choice

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There’s science behind MTN group CIO Nikos Angelopoulos’s transition from physics to IT, and he calls South Africa the best country to live in, second only to his birth country, Greece.

UK, Japan, USA, Iceland, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Greece, Italy, United Arab Emirates, and South Africa. Those are just some of the countries MTN group CIO Nikos Angelopoulos has worked in throughout his career, making him the true definition of a global executive.

Born and bred in Greece, Nikos is a physicist by training, and has an MSc in digital communications and digital signal processing from Imperial College, University of London, which paved the way into his start in consulting with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), where he spent 15 years with the consulting firm.

Pascal led the way

At the time, many physics departments’ laboratory infrastructure in Europe was based on MicroVax computers by Digital Equipment Corporation (later acquired by Compaq) which were running an operating system called VMS – a multi-user, multiprocessing and virtual memory-based operating system with a system programming language based on Pascal.

At the time, physics students were learning two programming languages, Pascal (for core programming skills) and Fortran (for Monte Carlo simulations), both linked to the practices of the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN). CERN is where the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 while he was working there. Today, CERN operates the Large Hadron Collider, which is the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator.

At the time Nikos joined Andersen Consulting, the London Stock Exchange (LSE) had started a project to move from an open outcry market (where stock exchange traders transacted in person on a trading floor) to a digital trading platform. As part of the overall solution, all the FTSE indices used to be calculated in a subsystem on the stock exchange called Eurotrack, which, coincidentally, ran on a MicroVAX.

The core trading platform was built on Tandem Computers’ NonStop Fault Tolerant Himalaya servers, which was the state-of-the-art infrastructure at the time, and very fast compared to Eurotrack. To match the two, an architect designed a low level communication handler which was to be built in Pascal, the system programming language of Eurotrack – this is where Nikos’ expertise came in.

“As I had just returned from the initial training from Andersen Consulting’s training centre in St Charles near Chicago, I happened to be the only one available person at the time in the Andersen Consulting UK team that had Pascal skills and experience – and this became my first digital transformation project and entry into IT,” he adds.

After that initial moment, Nikos worked in various roles in the LSE until 1998 when he switched to the telecoms industry, focusing on digital television and interactive services. For the next 10 years, he worked with many clients across the world and was a founding member of a joint venture between Accenture and Telewest called Imagine Broadband.

Nikos’ career shift from a management consultant to a CIO was with Vodafone Greece in 2008, where he led the business transformation journey. In 2011 he became the CIO for Vodafone Italy and South Europe, where he stayed until 2016 when he took an opportunity to move to Dubai and join Du, a telecommunications service provider, as the executive VP for IT and product engineering.

South Africa feels like home

Nikos joined MTN Group in 2018 and it’s safe to say that despite the many countries he has worked in and called home over the years, he’s quite taken by South Africa. After all, “it’s the only country I’ve lived in that is this far away from Greece and for this long,” he says.

“South Africa has been a phenomenal pleasure on the personal front, and these are not merely words, but a fact!” he notes.

Nikos has an eight-year-old son and twin daughters who just turned six. His daughters were born in Greece, but moved to South Africa when they were only 18 months old, which means they’ve never really lived anywhere else for longer. “My children make it a point to tell their cousins and grandparents back home in Greece that they study Afrikaans as a foreign language! Plus, they’re the only people in the extended Angelopoulos family who actually understand rugby,” he jokes.

“The whole family loves it here. We have met nothing less than very warm, friendly and welcoming people. And I can confidently say that we have made some great new friends for life!”

When coming to South Africa, he had no idea how large the Greek community was in the country. “It was a real joy to meet so many first, second and even third generation Greeks in Johannesburg, including George Bizos, the late Greek-South African human rights lawyer who campaigned against apartheid and represented Nelson Mandela during the Rivonia Trial. Meeting George was a truly unforgettable, humbling moment…meeting a real legend in person!”

On a totally different note, South Africa and the continent have been a real gem to discover and enjoy, he says. And while he knew of the beauties of the country, he was surprised by the gin culture; he’d never really enjoyed gin before being introduced to the fascinating, locally-produced craft gins and their amazing ingredients like fynbos. Couple this with the amazing wine, great food, a good braai and some chakalaka and there you go… you have it all, he says.

Going big with data

On the work front, Nikos was the recipient of the 2023 Smart Data Award at the inaugural CIO Awards held last year, and says he and his team were elated to receive the recognition.

“The recognition speaks to our ambition across all technology teams in MTN Group and all our operating companies. In many areas, we are really doing world-class work. We are super proud of the big data initiative and our achievements. It has been a space where we have delivered enormous value to MTN, which has been recognised widely inside the organisation and in the industry,” he notes. In 2021, MTN won the best “Industry Transformation” award at Cloudera’s global Data Impact Awards competition.

“Our big data platform is internally known as EVA, which has become a ‘household’ name across the entire MTN group,” he says. “Subsequently, we built ADAM (MTN’s patented Advanced Data Analytics Management platform) that runs tightly coupled with EVA.”

Courtside

Nikos is quite the basketball fanatic: he’s played the sport since he was very young, in Athens, Greece. In fact, at some point, he was a potential candidate for the national U21 squads where he “made it to the last 40 picks, but unfortunately never to the last 12 picks for an official game”, he says.

“I have three very truly fond memories of basketball. The first was in 1987 when I had the opportunity to watch live from the courtside the most pivotal basketball game for the sport’s history in Greece,” he reflects. “It was when the national team won the first major FIBA title against the then-USSR at the final of the European championship. The second most memorable basketball game was watching the Chicago Bulls playing at their home against the Indiana Pacers; seeing Michael Jordan playing live was just epic.”

Nikos’ third unforgettable basketball moment, although not live, was watching on television as the Greek national team beat the USA Dream Team consisting of basketball legends such as Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul in the 2006 FIBA World Championship semi-final in Japan. “It was 1 September 2006… on that day, I was returning to London from summer holidays in Greece. I was going to watch the first half and then go to the airport to catch my flight. As the game progressed to a nail-biting experience, seeing the final score of Greece 101 – USA 95 was the best reason to miss a flight ever!”

If one had to try and describe Nikos Angelopoulos and sum up his many facets, he is a well educated, well travelled family man with a great sense of humour, and an exceptional technologist, and what his peers in 2024 would call a well-rounded CIO.

This interview was originally published in the first edition of the 2024 CIO Magazine. Read it here.

 

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