Alex is a firm believer in empowering his team, fostering an environment where individuals are encouraged to proactively engage in problem-solving.
With three decades under his belt in IT, Sasfin group CTO Alex Elsworth has seen many shifts in the industry. From grappling with the backend in insurance claims admin to doing a BCom in Informatics at 29, Alex has always been fascinated by what happens behind the screen. His other passion, however, lies in helping to bring out the best in the people he works with.
Using tech to solve problems creatively
Like many in IT, Alex is not only a person driven by logic and process; he is an artist who happens to work in a world of zeros and ones. A self-proclaimed “creative problem-solver”, he believes that technology allows him to be creative, and newer developments like AI are helping push these abilities further.
“Sometimes, we limit ourselves to what we know and what we want to look at; we don’t see all the angles,” explains Alex. “That’s where things like AI and machine learning are changing that. These capabilities enable automatic discovery; at Sasfin, where we started using Microsoft’s Co-pilot, we’re already getting glimpses of this power that will take human problem-solving to the next level.”
Relationships as currency
Alex believes that in any organisation, people need to be empowered to solve problems on their own terms. “That’s my approach as CTO: I’m very hands-on,” adds Alex. “I can get involved when I need to, but also step aside; I take the cue from the people I work with.”
When it comes to young graduates, Alex says that Sasfin’s culture of fostering a proactive problem-solving environment has enabled people to be “the masters of their own destiny.”
“You decide how much you want to grow and how far you want to go. Some people don’t want to become leaders and that’s okay. We have created the space for those who only want to specialise with mentoring responsibilities.
“People are at the core of any business – that's why you need to have strong relationships with them. The age old saying rings true here: “It is not what you know but who you know”. That’s why we refer to relationships as “our currency” because without them you won’t progress.”
It’s all about trust
Prior to joining Sasfin, Alex worked with [current Sasfin CIO and CIO SA 2023 Digital Innovation Award-winner] Josh Souchon at Investec. According to Alex, both he and Josh had similar culture aspirations at Investec, which made it easier when they both joined up again at Sasfin, because they already knew how the other worked and what they valued.
What makes their relationship work now? It all comes down to trust, says Alex. “Trust comes from sharing information,” he adds. “If I see something in the trenches that Josh needs to be aware of, I’ll tell him, and vice versa. It’s also the ability to give honest and open feedback, to tell the other person to take a step back to think about something differently.”
According to Alex, Josh brings additional context and insight to a situation because of who he is, which helps Alex have a more complete picture on what the business wants to achieve long-term. Crucially, says Alex, Josh uses him as CTO for his creativity in solving problems.
Paint by numbers to see the full picture
“It’s like paint-by-numbers. Before starting, you may have a ’clear’ picture of what something should look like, but you only get the full picture once you’ve painted all the numbers. I’m that person who connects the dots with the information that’s around me to help paint the full picture, and Josh uses me like that quite often.”
Ever the out-of-the-box artist, Alex now stays on a plot in Bapsfontein, where he does weddings and functions as the odd side-gig, in addition to his full-time role as CTO. “When you dress a table, you have to be creative, because you don’t want two functions to look the same, and you want the magic of every event to shine through,” he says.
“CTOs should remember that there’s always another way of doing things and understand where it fits into the bigger picture. As CTO you don’t have to own all the ideas, either. Sometimes your people have the best ideas – it’s your job to help them to grow those ideas and turn them into reality.”