Mario Foster is an experienced CIO who has been in the industry and the region for over 15 years. Before joining Al Ghurair Group, he worked for Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group based in Dubai for almost eight years leading the digital charter of the organization by exploring the business potential of new technologies such as RPA, AI, IoT, 3D printing and others.
What was your first job in the IT industry?
I was a technical support engineer in Canada. I always liked electronics in general, and I still remember my teenage days when I used to watch my older brother (who is an electrical engineer by profession) repairing our stereo cassette tape recorder and other old home electronics, and trying to learn from him. I even managed to repair some, but I never knew that I would be in IT specifically. I was more interested in electronics engineering.
What was your education?
It was initially in electronics engineering and then moved into computer science. I’ve also completed my MBA in technology management. As for the many technology certifications I hold, my first was MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer] more than 20 years ago. I also have multiple Cisco and RSA Security certificates, and two ISACAc Certificates [CISM and CRISC] in addition to my PMP from the old days. Those are only some that I can remember.
Explain your career path. Have you always been in the industry?
I started as an IT hardware support engineer in a small company assembling PCs. I then moved into networking and decided to focus on Microsoft technologies. MCSE was a hot certificate at that time, which even on its own could immediately secure a job for people at that time, so I decided to complete it while working. It was challenging because then I couldn’t afford to study the six required courses at a training centre to complete my six exams. I ended up learning on my own and building my first small network and my exchange mail server at home, and that was when my real IT career started. I then worked for a few years with Microsoft in Canada before accepting a job in the US with RSA Security, which was an excellent learning experience for me. After a couple of other senior IT jobs in Canada, I moved to Saudi Arabia and landed a job with Riyad Bank to manage their SOC. Right after that role, my focus switched to the business applications domain, as I wanted to have an experience span over all main technology domains—infrastructure, security and business applications. And here I am now securing my fourth CIO role, but this time it’s with Al Ghurair Group, where all my previous CIO roles have been with family-owned large conglomerates, two in Saudi Arabia and two in the UAE.
How do you think your expertise and job at Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group will support your new role at Al Ghurair Group?
Working as a group CIO for a large, family-owned conglomerate is a totally different experience than any other CIO role with a single company having one business vertical, even if it’s an MNC, and it requires a very special skill set and work culture experience that’s very niche to this type of family-owned group companies.
For example, in such large groups, the group CIO has to deal with multiple business unit heads and GMs, and each one of them is running a different business vertical. So their technology requirements from the CIO might be totally different, and their expectations from technology are different. Some are believers in technology, while others aren’t. On top of that, you have the corporate head office or holding group to support and empower too. This part of my experience at Al Naboodah and at previous family-owned conglomerates is empowering and will help me at Al Ghurair Group. I’ve also previously worked for a Saudi conglomerate, which included multiple industrial manufacturing companies within the group, which I expect will also help me since industrial manufacturing is one of the key businesses within Al Ghurair Group. I should also highlight the importance for the CIO to have solid business knowledge, since depending on technical knowledge might be good enough for an IT manager, but not for a CIO.
What are your priorities in this new role? What would you like to achieve?
First is to complete my full assessment of the current IT operating model across the group and to present my findings and my recommendations to the group CEO and the board in order to receive their approval on a new recommended IT operating model that’s adding value to the business, while also being in full alignment with business strategy. Next comes IT governance and security, which is also a priority before I even start looking at business digital transformation initiatives. Things can then follow naturally when the right structure is in place, and this includes having additional technology skillsets that might be missing and needed for any digital transformation initiative down the road.
How do you define long-term IT department success, and what methods do you use to measure overall performance?
I define it by the amount of value added to business over the years when IT becomes a business enabler and a partner to business rather than just a support function.I measure the overall performance at minimum in two areas: one by conducting regular business feedback surveys and comparing our performance with previous years, and the second is comparing the IT department performance and my CIO’s performance against industry standard benchmarks from worldwide technology research firm leaders such as Gartner and others. There are also other ways to measure overall IT performance.
What are the top questions CIOs should ask before accepting a new job?
Ask about the high-level business strategy to find out if business leaders value technology and look at the IT department as a business partner or as a support or cost centre. Also, a CIO understands the IT structure in place before accepting an offer and evaluates if this is a structure he or she is comfortable working within. CIOs shouldn’t be shy asking what’s expected from them and what will be considered their key success factors. Then these expectations can be evaluated against their own expertise and whether they can achieve and deliver those goals or not.
What would you advise to a CIO who wants to take a new job?
Do not be afraid to take on a new challenge, and always raise your own bar and challenge yourself.
Careers, CIO, IT Leadership