Career Profile - Fahri Zini, director of ICT at Aston University

Having a thick skin is a decided benefit if you want to succeed in IT, believes Fahri Zihni, director of ICT at Aston University

In a country where techno-phobia is de rigueur and many have a philosophy of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, IT bosses need to be able to spot the potential benefits to the business presented by new technology and sell them to a sometimes reluctant user community.


“The UK is very different to Europe because people often feel threatened and worried by IT. Most people feel more comfortable with the ‘if it ain’t broke’ perspective, but in an IT world where innovation and change happens all the time, those relying on that will fall way behind,” says Fahri Zihni, director of ICT at Aston University .


The view that users decide what they want and ICT people implement it is a misguided one, he feels, because in this day and age, the relationship should be much more “dynamic”.


“In an area of constant change and innovation, there are many ICT products and services that users can’t relate to let alone specify. For example, when document imaging and management systems were invented, end-users didn’t know they needed them and were quite happy with paper-based systems,” Zihni explains.


This means that the duty of ICT is to “alert their organisations to the possibilities offered by innovation”. Equally, because implementing user requirements can only take place “within a framework of what is possible and what is available in the ICT market”, new ways of working together are called for.


“It’s much less of a client-contractor relationship now and more of a partnership,” Zihni believes. And it was for this reason that, on agreeing to head up Aston University ’s IT department in September 2004 with the aim of revamping its technology infrastructure, he was pleased to report into the vice chancellor.


“You need to be able to look at the total information and communications needs of the organisation and not just be in the background waiting for someone to come up with a suggestion to be implemented. You need to be right there from the start thinking about change and being an agent for change and influence things in the way you think necessary,” Zihni explains.


To be able to do this successfully, however, he believes that ICT leaders need to have a solid grounding in technology. “It’s fashionable these days to say that an ICT director doesn’t need to know anything about ICT. That being a good business manager is all you need. I totally disagree,” he says.


In the same way that a financial director “needs to have finance in their bones’, he believes that ICT directors need “ICT in their bones”, although he acknowledges that in depth knowledge of every new widget is unnecessary.


“I bet many experienced directors of finance would struggle to pass their chartered exams if they sat them today, but their knowledge and experience of what works, what’s prudent and what’s excessive is spot on. It’s the same for ICT directors. They many not understand the latest communications protocols, but they can see at a glance what is a new, innovative ICT idea that will give their organisation competitive advantage and what’s crazy,” Zihni explains.


But he is also a passionate advocate of education in its many forms. This interest began when he started his career in 1978 as a junior programmer in the research and statistics department of the Inner London Education Authority, after having undertaken a degree in computing and stats at North London Polytechnic.


“I was looking at the education and training of kids in London and that was my grounding, I suppose. But I’ve also worked for a range of public organisations and was quite active in SOCITM, a professional organisation for IT managers in local government and the police, where I was education officer for a number of years, before becoming president between April 2003 and 2004,” Zihni says.


Here he was instrumental in introducing scholarships for members to undertake MBAs and other forms of continual professional development. “It’s a uniquely British thing, but there seems to be the view that if someone is technically competent, they couldn’t possibly be managers, so I think we need to go the extra mile and give people the opportunity to develop management experience because training can take people that bit further,” Zihni believes.


This is particularly important, he feels, because the hard work of IT can sometimes be a bit under-appreciated. “There was a seminal book by Tom DeMarco in the 1960s, I think, in which the author said that, with ICT projects, one should never expect praise for achievement. That following the most successful ICT project, people will look at it and say, ‘well, yes, but it can’t do x, can it?’ he says.


This attitude he likens to ‘the Christmas dinner syndrome’. “One poor person will go to great lengths to organise it, everyone will have a great time, but after dinner, somebody always says something along the lines of ‘yes, but the sprouts were a bit hard’. So apart from anything else, one has to be thick-skinned. I’m not sure that I’m as thick-skinned as I should be, but one gets better with age, I think,” Zihni concludes.





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