PnP’s Chris Shortt: a CIO’s job is to demystify technology


Chris Shortt, PnP’s CITO, says creative problem-solving can be applied anywhere.

Chris Shortt and his team have achieved a lot during the last five-and-a-half years. Along with being responsible for PnP’s Africa operations, Chris has helped implement Tap and Go on every till – a first for a South African retailer (PnP’s Zambian and Nigerian stores were also part of this initiative). He’s helped scale the retailer’s IT platforms to uniformly accommodate every type of store, from a large Hyper to a petrol forecourt Express.

“We open an average of 150 new shops a year, and to scale a platform in a cost-effective way is quite an achievement,” says Chris. “We also run each of our 18 distribution centres on the same platform.”

Most recently, Chris spearheaded the strategy to digitalise PnP’s HR employee practices with Workday. He also points out that, on the central infrastructure platforms, PnP now has an average of four minutes of unscheduled downtime a month, which is 99.99 percent uptime.

“Most big retailers are working at 95 percent; I challenge anyone to do better than that.”

The art of the impossible
According to Chris, some CIOs like to keep things “quite mystical”, when all they need to do is explain technical processes and technology concepts to their colleagues, in layman’s terms.

“When you build an understanding of what you do, executives will be much more forgiving in terms of what they expect. And if you give them a semblance of the complexity that you're trying to manage, they start to get a better feel too – but you must put it in a way that they can digest and understand,” says Chris.

Instead of bamboozling people with acronyms, he says, a CIO’s job is to explain how things connect and work together in a simple and compelling way. Ultimately, he emphasises, an organisation’s executives are the ones who must drive adoption and usage from whatever is being implemented, and they must gain benefits from the investments they make in technology.

“We must get the teams onto that journey, and it’s the art of the impossible,” admits Chris. “How do you achieve the art of the impossible? You own it. The CIO is right there with you because we'll ensure you make the right technology decisions and help you to use the technology well.”

The same applies to cybersecurity, says Chris, as the biggest risk to any organisation is the end user’s lack of awareness. And once an attacker is in, they're able to wreak havoc.

“If you don’t have people looking out for phishing and social engineering tactics, you're opening yourself up,” he explains.

“That weakness is only going to be overcome if you're driving awareness – in a language that people easily understand – so they can understand the importance of cybersecurity. It comes down to education and change management, which can’t happen if you keep it mystical.”

A solution architect for the boardroom, and a safe house
Chris has experience as a solution architect, and he believes this has helped him tremendously in his role as a CIO.

“I like to know how things work and am focused on creative problem-solving, which both form the backbone of a solutions architect role. As a CIO, this background has allowed me to help people step back to see how things work together in a structured, simplified way.”

Chris reckons that being a solution architect has also helped with his own credibility in trying to lead technical teams, as “technical people are happier to follow technical people”.

“You have to demonstrate that you can understand what teams are grappling with,” he adds. “I’ve seen examples of superficial IT leadership in businesses, because these individuals haven't been at the coalface, engaging with the technology and dealing with what it takes to land a solution, which can become a problem.”

Being a solution architect has also influenced what Chris does in his spare time. He coaches and mentors young people from orphanages and safe homes in Cape Town, and he volunteers for Learn to Earn, a skills development and job creation organisation in Khayelitsha. He helps young people find themselves and challenges their thinking, but most importantly, Chris teaches them how to tackle problems.

“Having done project management and solution architect work, implementing a structured approach to problem-solving that can be applied anywhere is a real benefit in most situations. There are a lot of passionate people with great ideas, but they end up directionless because they don't have a clear structure in place, and they don’t know how to approach problems.”

On being direct and not having all the answers
Along with a solution architect background, Chris has extensive international IT experience – notably working with SAP implementations early in his career throughout Europe.

“I had to grow up quite fast,” admits Chris. “At that time, the style of working in South Africa was quite patriarchal and people were molly-coddled as they were coming into the workplace, but overseas you were seen as just another grown-up, so you had to get on with it.”

For Chris, Holland was one of the best places he worked in (“In my experience the Dutch are quite open and direct”); Austria was great (“They’re like relaxed Germans”); while the UK was a personal challenge (“The people I encountered were indirect and they did not like conflict. I found it difficult to get things done!”).

Having been on the service-provider side, there's nothing worse than resources being sucked into something that ends up being a waste of time, says Chris. His UK work experience taught him a valuable lesson: always be direct.

“A philosophy we have as an IT team at PnP is that we tell people directly if we're pursuing a solution or not. Then people know where they stand.”

In 2000, Chris decided to return to South Africa and he’s happy that he did. He has two teenagers, he rides his bike as often as he can, he’s a huge cricket follower, and he’s a big fan of Cape Town’s craft beer movement (“I participate where I can!”).

“I love living in South Africa,” adds Chris.

“It's dynamic, and technology is going to help solve lots of problems and challenges,” he says.

“There's room and scope for development because we don't have all the answers yet.”

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