Yasvanth Singh: “Just be human”

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Group CIO for Net1 UEPS Technologies, Yasvanth Singh, was never a ‘people person’, but says honest feedback is everything.

Yasvanth Singh grew up in Pietermaritzburg, and when he finished school, he embarked on a chemical engineering degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. But, after the briefest of stints doing vacation work on mines in Westonaria, he realised that engineering was not a long-term career fit.

“I had to wear a hard hat, and it just wasn't for me,” he laughs.

Yasvanth did computer science at school, and he’d always considered computers as a hobby. In the mid- ‘90s, there was no real internet, and he never thought about making a career out of computers. However, when he started university, Yasvanth was exposed to the possibilities that the internet – and technology – offered. He did an elective course that focused on computers, and there was no going back.

He ditched the hard hat for good, and he switched to computer science.

After completing his computer science degree, Yasvanth landed a job as a junior programmer at a company in his hometown. A year later, in 2004, he moved to Johannesburg to where he is today: Net1 UEPS Technologies, a financial services tech company.

Staying put but never stagnant
Over the years at Net1 UEPS, Yasvanth moved up the technical ranks to more senior programming and software development roles. When he started at Net1 UEPS it was still a small company, but the organisation grew alongside him. Because the company’s tech platform focused on financial services, Yasvanth could gain experience in different technical aspects like C++, Java, SQL, solution architecture, and Big Data, while at the same time he was exposed to transaction processing and payments technology, switching, lending, and insurance.

“I kept myself busy with the different functional areas of the business, and that's one of the reasons why I’ve stayed at the organisation for most of my career. It gave me the luxury of working with different technologies, kept me interested, and helped me grow.”

According to Yasvanth, Net1 UEPS has a niche offering that has always been relevant to South Africa, and Africa as a whole, especially when it comes to unbanked populations.

“Twenty years ago, we offered secure, Smart Card-based financial services; no one else was doing biometrics – but we were,” says Yasvanth. “We pivoted to a payments system, and I was lucky to work with the likes of Mastercard and Visa to build our platforms for transaction processing and encryption. I went through the journey with the company as it progressed; the company got much bigger, and I was able to increase my skill set.”

Beyond a comfort zone
Two years ago, and just as the pandemic hit, Yasvanth was appointed Group CIO. It was a significant change for him, and he was outside of his comfort zone.

“Like many of us who come from a technical background, I’m not good with people,” he admits. “I realised that my role had changed: I was not coding anymore, even though I wanted to. My role shifted to strategy and people management.”

Getting 3,000 people to work together remotely was a challenge. There was weekend work and late nights, but Yasvanth was proud of how the team pulled together.

Yasvanth says that, while it did take some adjustment, he enjoys his role as CIO.

“It meant I had to adapt and develop my people skills. That was a big gap for me, and I had to work hard. It's something I do daily: I remind myself that my primary role is to lead and manage my team so they can work together to innovate.”

Revaluating performance; going down rabbit holes
Yasvanth says he has always been performance-driven, and he still is. But the way he views performance has changed.

“In the past, I felt that when you come to work, you leave your problems at home. But I’ve realised that, as a leader, you have to consider what people are dealing with. I’ve found that if you empower your people, and you make sure they want to be part of your team, the performance will naturally follow.”

Not being a people’s person, Yasvanth says that formal leadership training helped him immeasurably. He is currently studying for his MBA at GIBS, and it has resulted in a mindset shift.

“A lot of the MBA is focused on leadership and people management, as opposed to pure financial management; it’s also shown me how to ask, and get, honest feedback from my team.”

Yasvanth will complete his dissertation in November, which deals with how tech processes and concepts, like cloud computing and AI, can make organisational structures more elastic and adaptable.

“It's too late to change now, I can't turn back,” he laughs. “I've gone down the rabbit hole!”

Just be human
For Yasvanth, being an effective CIO means there's “no man of the match”; everyone must put egos aside to work together, including the person in charge. When he first became CIO, Yasvanth implemented a big restructure to consolidate the group’s resources. Part of this involved moving people out of management positions, which caused some friction.

“Some of the people were older and more experienced than I am; at the back of my mind, I had no idea how I'd get them to follow me, but it's worked very well,” he says. “The people I've moved out of management positions are thriving in their new roles: they weren't meant to be managers in the first place, but they're very good at doing other things. Initially, it was hard for them because it felt like a demotion, but we're working well as a team.”

“I was always empathetic, but I never wanted to outwardly show it at work,” he adds. “That’s changed, and I’ve learnt to trust my team a whole lot. The honest feedback is getting better, too.”

The most important lessons for Yasvanth on his journey becoming a CIO?

“Just be human at the end of the day. And if you don’t like wearing a hard hat, you don’t have to.”

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