The long road to Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton Council's IT chief Fahri Zihni was profiled as part of Inspiration in IT, a BT-sponsored project to identify the...

Wolverhampton Council's IT chief Fahri Zihni was profiled as part of Inspiration in IT, a BT-sponsored project to identify the skills needed to be a successful IT manager. But if he had been able to speak English as a child, he may never have risen so far, writes Karl Cushing

The IT industry attracts all sorts. Some just drift into it, some fall into it while doing research, but for Fahri Zihni, chief ICT officer at Wolverhampton Council and adviser to the Office of the E-Envoy, it was the semantic complexity of the English language that led him to a career in IT.

A Turkish Cypriot who came to England in 1971, Zihni could not speak fluent English until he was 15. He says it was his poor English skills that inhibited him from pursuing arts subjects at school, pushing him towards more analytical fields.

Zihni attended a boarding school near Henley, Oxfordshire until the age of 18. He left with a couple of A-levels and six O-levels and went to study computing and statistics at North London Polytechnic. "That is when I discovered that I wasn't very good at, or very interested in, statistics," he says. "It was terrible." But he scraped through to earn his degree.

After a three-month stint travelling around Europe in a van, Zihni returned to London to launch himself onto an unsuspecting job market. He soon found his first IT post as a junior programmer in the research and statistics branch of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), where he would spend the next seven years. "Computers were all the rage and the job market was very good," he explains.

Zihni describes this period as "a fantastic time". The team was young and was based on London's South Bank, which was a lively place to be in the late 1970s. "There was a lot going on - not much of it to do with work," he admits. "We worked hard and played hard."

By the time he left the ILEA, Zihni had been promoted to the level of computer officer.

In 1986 he took a job at Enfield Council in North London as a business analyst, where he switched from an IBM to an ICL environment. It was a big step. "That is where I really started getting into understanding IT, instead of just programming," he says.

Five years later, after being promoted to the position of senior analyst, Zihni left the capital for the Black Country to take a job with Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council.

Sandwell was another ICL environment, and Zihni was now a development manager, running teams of analysts and programmers. He went on to become the corporate IT co-ordinator and was given the job of drawing up an IT strategy for the council. His responsibilities included security and deciding what should be used on the desktops. It was a challenging role.

During the Thatcher years, Zihni says the trend was "to break things up into small pieces", whereas he wanted to centralise. His approach met with some resistance and required "a lot of persuading and arm twisting". "Strategy was a dirty word at that time," he laughs.

It was around this time that Zihni decided to do an MBA. "I felt that I should take my career a bit more seriously, and I wanted to see the wider picture," he explains. The move paid off, as Zihni says the course gave him a more balanced approach to his work.

Just before he finished his MBA, Zihni took a job with Wolverhampton Council as head of IT and chief ICT officer, managing a team of 90 IT staff. He also got involved with public sector IT managers body the Society of IT Management (Socitm) through his former boss at Sandwell. He is now senior vice-president of the society and will become president next year.

Unusually for a talented techie, Zihni has spent all of his 25-year career working in the public sector. So what is the attraction?

Zihni says, at the risk of sounding like a goody two-shoes, he gets satisfaction from knowing that the work he is doing can have a positive impact on people's lives. He believes the public sector has become an exciting place to work for IT professionals over the past few years and that council members, as well as the general public, are now more willing to use IT - a factor he attributes largely to the development of the Internet. Zihni sees his job now as "to push that boat out even further".

Although Zihni claims he does not have a masterplan for his career, he says he will continue to develop it along several fronts. One is his work at the council. Wolverhampton is one of the Government's Pathfinder projects and Zihni's team is working on an e-bereavement project to support local people following the death of a loved one.

Zihni also intends to continue his work at Socitm, where he would like to make more money available to provide training for members.

Another focus is his role at the Office of the E-Envoy. Since January, Zihni has been working as a local government adviser with Andrew Pinder's team, providing the Government with "a reality check".

But if he does ever tire of the IT industry, Zihni could always carve a niche in the ceramics business. Visitors to Zihni's house are met by the glorious sight of an Ottoman hall complete with a water fountain, carpets, musical instruments and plants - all crafted by his own hand. Zihni even claims to have invented a new computerised way of making decorative tiles based on traditional Iznik designs dating back 450 years.

However, Zihni has no plans to hang up his IT spurs just yet. "I like to soldier on and see things through," he says. "I also like to see what's coming up next. The future is very exciting."

Curriculum vitae: Fahri Zihni
Zihni arrived in England, aged 15
1971-1974: Attended boarding school in Henley, Oxfordshire
1974-1978: Studied computing and statistics at North London Polytechnic
1978-1986: First job in IT, working for the Inner London Education Authority as a junior programmer
1986-1991: Worked for Enfield Council as a business analyst, before being promoted to senior analyst
1991-1997: Worked for Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, initially as a development manager, then as corporate IT co-ordinator
1998: Completed an MBA at Birmingham University's business school and became head of IT and chief ICT officer at Wolverhampton Council
2002: Became a local government adviser at the Office of the E-Envoy and senior vice-president of the Society of IT Management.

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