Going rogue and winning the IITPSA Visionary CIO Award – A chat with Absa’s Jacques Barkhuizen

Last week the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa held its annual President’s Awards.

The winner of the Visionary CIO (that’s chief information officer by the way) Award was Jacques Barkhuizen from a firm you might be au fait with – Absa.

The Visionary CIO has a CV that reads like a greatest hits collection. Former employers include Investec (Group CTO), Woolworths (CTO) and Deloitte South Africa (CIO).

We had the chance to sit down with Barkhuizen after winning the IITPSA award to find out more about what makes him tick and how working at Absa has changed since Barclays left the country.

The CIO reveals that he loves pioneering new technologies, understanding business problems but his claim to fame is coming up with innovative ideas.

One of those ideas was released earlier this year in the form of Chat Banking on WhatsApp.

“Chat banking was a world first. The idea came to me when I was talking to my son while driving home one evening. I thought to myself, ‘why can’t I just transfer money using a simple chat platform’,” Barkhuizen tells us.

Following that thought, six weeks later Barkhuizen had a working prototype of chat banking and Absa became the first bank to launch WhatsApp banking globally.

Absa flourishing without Barclays

Earlier this year Barclays Africa became an eidolon in SA as Absa took back its name for the first time since 2005. Rather than struggling, the split with the UK-based Barclays reinvigorated the firm according to Barkhuizen.

“Absa is taking the reigns again. This is us setting ourselves free and differentiating ourselves in the banking sector in South Africa,” says Barkhuizen.

Speaking to Barkhuizen it becomes clear that Absa gives him freedom to explore crazy ideas like chat banking or banking via Twitter and perhaps more companies should give CIOs the opportunity to – as Barkhuizen puts – “go a bit rogue”.

“It’s okay to go rogue if you’re in a business and they understand what you’re about and you understand what they’re about,” the CIO says.

“My message to most CIOs out there is get close to your business, understand the business. You cannot innovate from outside of the business. The whole world talks about ‘exponential’ and ‘inflection point’ and the list of buzzwords goes on. It’s actually very simple: understand your business and understand tech. When you marry those two things you can come up with awesome ground breaking ideas,” Barkhuizen shares with us enthusiastically.

The CIO tells us that since Barclays left Absa to its own devices, his team feels more empowered and free to come up with crazy ideas.

“It’s a great feeling to not have to ask for permission to do something cool and showcasing that something to your leadership team and getting a standing ovation,” the CIO adds.

Barkhuizen gave us a bit of a peak behind the Absa veil during our chat. The CIO says that rather than approaching the leadership team requesting X million in funding to develop an app they would get two developers together to hack it out in 48 hours.

This is reminiscent of the Silicon Valley mentality that Brett StClair (who was coincidentally a director at Barclays Africa) told us about earlier this year – innovation at speed so that if you fail you don’t fall far and can pivot easily.

But the CIO does not work in a vacuum and Barkhuizen says he hopes that his successes inspire the younger generation within Absa.

“I hope that this award inspires people to come up with those crazy ideas, push them and break paradigms,” says Barkhuizen.

As for the future of Absa, the CIO tells us that the bank is working AI, deep learning and giving customers the ability to more themselves through an app rather than having to ring a call centre or visit a branch.


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