Thato Sopeng went from Visual Basic to CIO for Energy at Sasol

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Sasol Energy’s CIO, Thato Sopeng, has gone from using her skills in basic software development programming to heading up a large team in a traditionally male-dominated environment.

Thato Sopeng, CIO for Energy at Sasol, says her interest in IT dates to when she was in high school in Lesotho. At the international school she attended, she had an expatriate teacher who greatly influenced her, sparking her love of IT.

“I still remember coding my first ‘Hello World’ string using Visual Basic,” she says. “I thoroughly enjoyed doing computer studies in high school, and that would be the path that led me into the field of information technology.”

As a woman in a field dominated by male geeks, she reflects that there continues to be a shortage of women in STEM. “Early on in my career, I found my male colleagues having more of a say and their opinions seemed to matter more than mine. It wasn’t until much later when I had a career counsellor and mentor that I started showing up differently in meetings and became a lot more vocal with my points of view. Having a mentor is a must for everyone at different stages of their career, as it helps ensure that you are noticed.”

Thato, who moved to South Africa for her tertiary education and has both a BSc in computer science and a masters in IT, leads a team of almost 100 technologists across the Sasol Energy value chain. “My role is to ensure that we enable the energy business’s strategy through emerging and modern technologies.”

The energy value chain consists of the mining business where coal is pulled out of the ground and sent along to the Secunda, Sasolburg and Mozambican operations, where Sasol manufactures fuel, gas and chemicals products. Another part of Thato’s ambit includes enabling the go-to market sales and marketing teams, as well as the retail network of branded filling stations with digital and technology capabilities.

“The Sasol Rewards is one exciting technology enabled initiative my team and I delivered with our partners and was led by one of my senior managers, Luchen Moodley,” she says.

Leveraging on AI

Thato takes great pride in ensuring that technology helps enable the business. Her role is to ultimately help Sasol Energy realise value in the form of speed to market of products and enhancing customer experiences or efficiencies in its operations with a high level of security.

“I really enjoy sitting around the table with my business counterparts, listening to what matters to them and what challenges they are trying to solve. I work with them to help solve their problems with technology,” she explains.

Currently, her biggest opportunity is to empower all Energy employees with fit-for-purpose data to make decisions at the right moment, a project that she is working on with the head of data engineering Tshepo Mokgoto. “We have a big focus on agile product teams and leveraging data and AI in how the business runs and makes decisions daily,” she explains.

As CIO, Thato also must ensure that cybersecurity measures are properly implemented and kept updated across the entire energy business for protection of ever-changing security challenges. “There is never a dull moment in this profession: the technological changes are happening at an incredibly fast pace, and I always have to be on my toes to keep abreast and upskill myself.”

With people being able to work from anywhere and support companies across the globe, the skills shortage that has plagued the sector has deepened. Thato notes that companies need to be experimenting with the latest and greatest that tech has to offer.

“We are creating spaces of innovation for Gen Z colleagues to participate in hackathons and get involved in playpens to play with new technology through partnerships with our strategic partners like Microsoft. We are giving people an opportunity outside of traditional SAP ERP to get trained and certified in cloud technologies, data science and cybersecurity,” she says.

Getting to the finish line, whatever it takes!

Sasol’s working environment is also a plus, as the energy company took advantage of Covid-19 to develop a new operating model. Thato explains that, after the pandemic, Sasol set itself a federated operating model that allows a lean corporate function to work in tandem with the energy and chemicals business units.

“The vision behind this construct is to allow the business units autonomy to operate but guided by the guard rails of governance, enterprise architecture and the cybersecurity standards set by the centre,” she notes.

This, she says, means that she works closely with Sasol Group CIO Lungile Mginqi to ensure that all the business processes align to achieve the right outcome for the energy unit. “There is a growing need for us to keep challenging each other on our technology choices and whether these are fit for purpose for the business, particularly when we look at some of what is currently trending around generative AI, cloud and cybersecurity,” she notes.

Thato’s career spans consulting and financial services, and could have included academia, as she loves imparting her knowledge.

She also ensures she takes time out: “I believe in movement in whatever format it takes; it is really my happy place to get away from it all and re-energise.”

She has recently taken up cycling and has participated in all the local cycling races including the major races such as 947, Cape Town Cycle Tour and Amashova Next up for now is competing in a marathon, and Thato aims to run 42km in four hours and 20 minutes. “I hope to do my first marathon later in the year in October at the Sanlam Marathon in Cape Town. Soon after that, I will be setting my eyes on the ultimate human race The Comrades. Watch this space!”

Thato also has a love for learning. “We have incredibly talented technologists working in IT and digital at Sasol, and knowing that I get to tap into this thought leadership daily reminds me just how fortunate I am in my job.”

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