For Kas Naderi, CIO of Atlanticus, the keys to a successful career as an IT leader include passion for both the business and the technology, and a commitment to being an agent of change.

Steve Rovniak: How did you get your start in a career in technology?

Kas NaderiKas Naderi: As an engineering student, I took computer science courses to fulfill the curriculum requirements. From day one, when I saw how I could solve complex problems using repeatable code, I fell in love with programming.

After graduating, was your first job in I.T.?

My first job was working for Burroughs, a mainframe company that competed with IBM in the banking sector. Burroughs purchased a new technology called CTOS, a great operating system with no applications to compete in personal computing. They hired me to help develop applications on CTOS, specifically word processors and SNA Terminal data communication protocols.

Tell me about Atlanticus, where you are currently the CIO.

We are a FinTech that has been in this business for about 25 years. Atlanticus helps banks meet various consumer financial needs, such as Credit Cards, Retail Credit, Healthcare Payment options, and automotive financing.

How long have you been with the company?

Over 18 years now. I first joined the organization in 2004 to help the company start a new business in the area of automotive receivables. We grew our business to about $1 billion in receivables. About eight years ago, I was asked to help run technology operations for all of our subsidiaries, including the U.S., U.K., and Guam-Saipan. At every step of the way, my work at Atlanticus has been fulfilling, exciting, and evolving.

What were some of the roles you held prior to Atlanticus?

I was part of two startup companies during the dot-com era. I had been at IBM for 10 years and wanted to do something new and fresh. I wanted to make a difference in how technology could fast-forward legacy business services. So, twice I partnered with a couple of colleagues, raised some money, and created  SaaS FinTech solutions. In 2003 my wife and I felt it was time for me to join a larger and more progressive technology organization with a longer runway, leading to my joining Atlanticus.

What are you and your team working on right now?

Atlanticus has been one of the 100 fastest-growing companies in the U.S. for the past two years, and it is hard to single out projects that have contributed to that. It has been the aggregation of a lot of different programs. We are focused on building tools and services that make it easier for the bank's consumers to enhance their financial well beings and manage their financial needs conveniently and efficiently. I can talk about our digital strategy, AWS partnership, self-service solutions, or call center innovations. The list goes on and on.

As an organization, we are laser-focused on innovation, creating a frictionless customer service experience, and ensuring our use of Big Data and Analytics is second to none.

It sounds like you have your I.T. organization focused on driving the business strategy, which is at the heart of the CIO's responsibilities today.

Even though I am a technologist deep in my heart, I also need to understand business values. I encourage my flow technologist to focus on understanding business needs, strategic differentiators, and what moves the needle. This would require understanding capital expenditure, growth opportunities, business margins, operational expenses, and market threats. It isn't easy to impact the business without understanding the business drivers. As an example, one needs to understand the impact of an average customer-service call handle time before focusing on improving the customer experience. Understanding the operation and being sensitive to business outcomes is critical to this role. At the end of the day, my job is to create value for customers, shareholders, and the organization.

But you can't do it alone. How do you build a team that is able to partner with the business effectively?

You need people to be close to the business and understand the business functions. It is also critical to focus on the day-to-day IT Initiatives, operations, and project management. And finally, focusing on the strategic roadmap and long-term plans needs to be on top of the mind.

Are these Business Relationship Managers?

It depends. We have people at the project management level who are very close to a specific line of business, and we have SVPs who are close to some of our larger operations. It is very situational.

 

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What career advice would you offer to rising I.T. leaders who may one day become CIOs?

One piece of advice is that you cannot do it alone; we need a team of people. I heard a quote by Michael Jordan: "Great talents win games, but teamwork wins championships." That has always resonated with me.

Another bit of advice would be to start focusing on a business, vertical, or market that you are passionate about and truly understand the business aspect of it. Don't be a technologist for the sake of technology.

What else?

As a leader, it will be essential to be an agent of change and be willing to embrace change. You must be willing to make big changes to differentiate your organization from all the others.

What soft skills do you rely on the most as a CIO?

After communications and collaboration, I would say the ability to prioritize. There will be a number of urgent matters at any one time, but not all of them are important. Being able to distinguish between urgent and important is a great soft skill. Having people feel a part of the organization, mission, and outcome is the next most critical factor.

What is something you love the most about having a CIO job?

I love variety. That variety keeps it fresh, and it keeps it exciting. I work on various challenges and opportunities more than most other positions. I get to be part of the different aspects of our business. That's awesome.

Another aspect of my role is that I get to work with brilliant people. Having the privilege of working with these people is very fulfilling. As I tell my team, I get the opportunity to learn something new from them every day, and I am thankful for that.

What are some of your more effective recruiting strategies for top I.T. talent?

Most of our talent acquisition has been through referrals from our customers, business partners, suppliers, or other employees. Almost everyone in my organization came through somebody saying, "I know a person looking for an organization like yours.

Once you have them, what are some effective retention strategies?

Atlanticus is considered one of the top places to work in Atlanta. I think part of the reason people choose to stay here is that the organization is excellent at providing purpose and ownership. All our team members are accountable and responsible for a function that is always meaningful. Our team members understand their value and their purpose.

I also think being a servant leader helps retain strong talent. Part of my job as a leader is to create opportunities for others to fulfill their dreams and reach their highest potential. I think that goes a long way.

How do you know when your I.T. organization is succeeding?

I can tell things are working when individuals come up with ideas to improve the ecosystem. They're thinking six months, 12 months out and saying, "If we build this, here is how it will improve our environment." That is when I know they're ingrained in the business. When people are willing to work and collaborate across the organization, it tells me we have created a trusting and collaborative environment that allows our organization to function as a unit rather than silos.

Have you recently read a book that you would recommend to other business or technology leaders?

I have always enjoyed Patrick Lencioni's books. I recently picked up his new book, The 6 Types of Working Genius." He talks about how everyone has a talent that we bring to the table, and there's time and place for everyone. I encourage newer managers to take a look at it.

What do you think the CIO role will look like in five years?

I see a lot of CIOs getting focused on operations and automation. Others focus on mobile-first strategies and some shift to digital marketing and omnichannel solutions. Big Data and Data Analytics are creating great opportunities in A.I. The advancements in 4G and 5G communication have enabled many solutions tailored for the gig economy. I think technology enthusiasts have many options to pick from, and they have to follow their passion. It's about where you think you can make a difference.

Where might your passion take your career in the future?

In this role, I'm still like a kid in the candy store. I believe one of the areas that I would like to contribute more to is information security. With digital solutions, wearable devices, self-driving vehicles, smart homes, and so on, information security is an area that demands more focus and attention. I am passionate about keeping the customer's data, the company's information, and our privacy secure. 

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