Covid-19 briefly immobilized the world, but as order steadily resumes, so do opportunities for those looking to advance their tech careers. For a specific section of that talent, immigrants have always been a key to the industry, and a source of inspiration for many. Yet career paths sometimes depend on networks and connections, and uprooting to a new country is an added challenge that involves many financial, emotional, and social sacrifices and setbacks.

Each story is unique in its transformational way of laying the groundwork to pursue successful career paths. But common throughout is a bedrock of empathy and effort in order to excel for themselves and the greater good.

Atefeh Riazi is CIO of the Hearst Media Group and former CIO of the United Nations, and has held other high-ranking positions throughout her career in tech. It’s a long way from where she was born in Iran, where women still fight for basic human rights and freedoms. “As a woman growing up in the Middle East, you were always told you have limited choices when it comes to careers,” she says. “You become a teacher or a nurse, but you don’t become an engineer.”

Riazi’s parents sent their then 16-year-old daughter to the US to study, joining her older sister already living in New York. Shortly after arriving, the Islamic revolution in Iran broke out, and the financial implications meant that Riazi had to take on multiple jobs at a young age to get by, which she describes as both tough and enriching.

“I was waitressing, washing dishes, and selling and repairing vacuum cleaners door-to-door,” she says. “I also made money fixing TVs and radios where I could. I even had my own radio program for over six years. I met amazing people who helped me greatly during this time, whom I will never forget. They understood it was a difficult situation for all of us. Of course, such struggles, uncertainty and upheavals make you resourceful and resilient. But they also make you grateful and humble, and encourage you to want to give back to your community and society.”

Atefeh Riazi, CIO, Hearst Media Group

Atefeh Riazi

Felix Quintana, CIO at MX Technologies, was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, and lost his biological father in a motorcycle accident when he was two. At 10, he and his family immigrated to the US. “My family sought a better life and opportunities,” he said, adding that the transition was grueling. “I had to adjust to a new culture and learn a new language. The most challenging experiences were probably fitting in. Our economic situation was below standards, employment opportunities were limited for my parents, completing schoolwork in a foreign language was difficult, and we experienced some discrimination.”

Elaine Montilla is the CTO for US School Assessment at Pearson, and was formerly CIO at The CUNY Graduate Center. Yet moving from the Dominican Republic to the US at 16 was fraught with challenges. “My English was very basic,” she says. “I realized I looked and sounded different to everyone else. I used to feel so ashamed of my accent. I became very self-conscious of it and didn’t want to speak.”

Today as successful tech leaders, all three, despite their different backgrounds, agree that CIOs who have experienced immigration have unique qualities to offer as industry leaders.

“I’m a firm believer that our past experiences shape who we are,” said Quintana. “Given the challenges of integrating into a new culture, I feel these leaders are more likely to have more empathy toward others, have a broader perspective, and be more accepting of diversity.”

Riazi agrees: “I cherish diversity. People with diverse backgrounds hold various views and have wide-ranging perspectives arising from their unique culture and history. These are invaluable in all aspects of work, but especially in leadership. A modern global workplace needs diversity of thought. After all, customers have diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, and employees bring their own diverse history and culture to the work environment. It’s only through embracing their uniqueness can we become a more holistic organization and better align with customer needs.”

Changes in the workplace

One of the aspects of the modern tech workplace that should be addressed, says Montilla, is recruitment. “We’re following very outdated hiring practices that keep minorities such as immigrants and women out of tech.” She cites examples such as job ads that are sometimes phrased to be more appealing to men rather than women. “Even at the interview stage, there’s a lot of unconscious bias,” she adds. “People hire those who look and sound like them. We need to change this practice.” Another is conscious or subconscious discrimination on the basis of a foreign-sounding name, she adds.

Elaine Montilla, CTO, US School Assessment at Pearson

Oscar Nolasco

Riazi observes that a key obstacle to having more women remain in the workforce—especially in leadership roles and in tech—and attract candidates with disabilities has been the 9-to-5, five-days-a-week office work requirement. Yet one unexpected outcome of the pandemic was the recognition that most work can be performed remotely, so the hybrid workforce model has helped level the playing field for many jobs.

“We’ve seen that more women with children and eldercare responsibility are staying longer in the workforce,” she says. “This is most critical in the tech space, as we already struggle attracting women and have an even harder time keeping them. We’re also increasing opportunities for people with disabilities, making it easier for them to work remotely.” 

Today, Riazi adds that this momentum needs to be broadened, considering how lopsided the tech sector is. Minority voices from a wide range of backgrounds are vital, otherwise industry leaders don’t get the broad perspective needed to develop, innovate and succeed.

“Most women are tech consumers, yet we struggle to attract girls and women to study engineering or computer science and contribute to the advancement of tech,” she says. “Our industry is truly lopsided. Diversity is vital to innovation, human growth and evolution, and essential for economic growth, good social policy and healthy democratic societies.”

The virtues of giving back

As a nod to their upbringings in different countries, Riazi, Quintana, and Montilla today mentor younger minorities who strive to get into the tech industry.

Felix Quintana, CIO, MX Technologies

MX Technologies

“There are many opportunities to help others,” says Quintana. “I’ve had the opportunity to lecture at a local university and talk to students about my career path, and several of these students happen to be minorities. I’ve met with Hispanic youth and their parents to discuss the importance of education and scholarships. Through service opportunities, I’ve been able to meet with refugees and other immigrants as well.”

Having role models or mentors has been vital in her career, says Montilla. “I used to watch my brother and it helped me,” she says. “He’s the one who inspired me to get into tech in the first place. Going into computer classrooms was intimidating because usually I was the only woman or one of very few, and I was still learning the language and translating everything in my head.”

Today, she tells her mentees that this vulnerability can also be a huge asset.

“I worked hard, so I moved up the ladder very fast,” she adds. “Of course, I felt insecure and suffered from imposter syndrome, but with time, I came to see that being vulnerable can be a superpower. Admitting that I’m not perfect relieved me from pressure and enabled me to get on with things. I teach this to all my mentees. Let the feelings be there; don’t fight them. The key for me was to learn to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. That’s not easy, but the more I practiced it, the more I saw the bigger picture. I always give more than what I’m asked. As an immigrant and a woman of color, I work twice or three times harder as others.”

As advice to others experiencing challenges, Quintana says to never just settle. “Take every opportunity made available to you to constantly learn,” he says. “Always challenge yourself. Treat others with respect and be kind to everyone. Your reputation follows you. Seek mentors and organizations that align with your values and will invest in you. Above all, don’t be ashamed of who you are and where you came from. This is part of your character and what makes you unique.”

CIO, Diversity and Inclusion, IT Jobs, IT Skills

It was only a few years ago when ‘digital transformation’ was on every CIO’s agenda, and businesses started to understand how cloud could deliver real value. They stopped asking whether they should move to the cloud and started asking what they needed to do to get there.

This was the case for Murray & Roberts’ CIO Hilton Currie in 2016, when the cloud services market in South Africa was booming. Already worth $140 million and growing rapidly, it was around this time when the engineering and mining contractor undertook its migration to the cloud. But things didn’t go according to plan — a story not unique to South Africa or this industry. So Currie made the difficult decision to repatriate Murray & Roberts’ IT stack, one that required selling the business on reversing an IT strategy Currie had previously sold as M&R’s future.

Currie recently spoke to about the mining company’s bumpy cloud journey, what motivated them to move and, ultimately, what drove them to change back. What motivated Murray & Roberts to embark on its original cloud journey?

Hilton Currie: Up until 2015, we were 100% on-premises and we had no major issues. I think the first red flag was the age of the equipment in our primary and secondary data centers. We pretty much ran on a major production environment, and then we had a hot standby disaster recovery environment, which was far out of support and had come to end of life. This brings its own risks to the table. Our production environment still had a bit of life in it, but not much and decisions had to be made.

Around this time, we were in discussions with our outsource partner to outsource our IT support and they proposed that they could make cloud affordable for us. Honestly, in 2016, cloud wasn’t really affordable. If we were willing to look at outsourcing the whole lot to them — all the way from server application right down to the technician support level — and adopt their managed public cloud, they were confident they could make it work for us. If we looked at the cost of new infrastructure we needed to renew, it actually looked very attractive financially. So we opted to go ahead.

Once you signed on, how then did the migration progress?

We started with a serious migration from the first quarter of 2017 because a lot of our equipment was end of life, so it was an all-or-nothing approach. We used a locally hosted cloud vendor that was connected to our outsource partner, but also with affiliation to a big global company. It took a bit longer than anticipated but by November 2017, we were almost fully across and functioning. We had everything from our big ERP systems to smaller, bespoke systems running in the cloud.

We had third-party independent consultants come in to analyze certain systems and licensing. But in early 2018, the first major hiccup hit us as the independent party who did the audit missed the terms of use on some of our licensing. For example, Microsoft has quite heavy restrictions on using perpetual license software in the cloud, specifically SQL Server. Some licenses aren’t valid if you don’t own the rights to the lower-level equipment. Unfortunately, our licensing expert missed that. To adjust this, we’d have to move from perpetual licenses to subscription licenses, which would have been a grudge purchase because some systems lag in terms of the versions they’re certified to run on. We would have had to purchase a current version of SQL Server and then downgrade it like four or five versions because that’s the version our ERP and other systems run on. This would have been hellishly expensive, so we brought all services that were impacted by licensing restrictions back on-prem and pulled all our SQL servers back, which was a costly exercise because we had to purchase new equipment, and the rest of the applications ran in the cloud. We ended up with a split or hybrid setup, which brought some challenges and became quite a nightmare to manage. We did eventually get it working and ran this way for about six to eight months. During that time, there was a buzz around cloud and I think the outsourced vendor was getting a few new clients on their managed cloud platform, which started taking a toll on us because it wasn’t long after that they started imposing rate limitations.

Hilton Currie

What prompted you to realize the shift to the cloud wasn’t working, and how hard was it to decide to move back?

Historically, we could get full performance out of the cloud platform. There were no restrictions and then suddenly they started imposing limitations, with an additional charge if we wanted more. Suddenly, the commercial model fell to pieces. We tried to make do with the limitations but it got to a point where it just wasn’t working. We were only fully cloud for about a year and a half and about a year in the business was brought to its knees. Applications started failing, email and phones didn’t work and our ERP became unusable. In some of the worst-case scenarios, it took our finance teams up to 15 minutes to open Excel files. We complained and they lifted some of the rate limitations while we made alternative arrangements.

Around March 2019, we decided to move back on-premises and by mid-2020 we were fully on-premises again. For me, the decision was crystal clear. At a point, it felt like I was walking around the building with a target on my back because this affected everyone and there was an air that our IT was falling to pieces.

In Murray & Roberts, IT reports to the financial director of the group, so I sat down with him to explain that it’s not all bad. I built a detailed roadmap highlighting that we were in a bad space, but outlined that getting out of this situation was possible. It came down to the numbers in terms of spend on new kit. I showed that it would cost less over three years moving to new kit than it would staying where we were. It was a no-brainer for him to accept but it was a difficult conversation. We sold them the cloud journey back in 2016 and they backed us and jumped on board. Then, a year and half later, we wanted to jump ship. But I think the results of moving back to a private cloud spoke for themselves.

So what systems are in place now in M&R’s on-premises data center? Have the issues you identified been resolved?

Instead of keeping things as is when we moved back on-prem, we did a refresh by making a list of all our systems to get a better view on how important they were to the business and where they sat. As part of this rationalization process, a couple of the systems were upgraded since we had a chance to rebuild from scratch, so we took advantage of that and got things running the way we wanted. We did a lot of consolidation as well. When we went to cloud, at one point we had over 300 servers and the end goal when we moved back on-prem was to get this down to about 180.

Given how the cloud market has changed, would you consider another cloud migration?

We’re not against cloud. We understand it can add value and it has a place. In fact, we’re starting a complete Office365 migration. But we’ll only lift certain systems and we’re taking a more selective approach. Cloud is a big buzzword, but you need to ask what it promises and what it’s going to give your business in terms of value. If you’re going to cloud for commercial reasons, it’s a big mistake because it’s not cheaper. And if you’re going for performance reasons, it’s an even bigger mistake and there are many reasons for this.

In South Africa specifically, there are a lot of issues of bandwidth and throughput to international vendors because stuff still sits in Europe or in the Americas. With the kind of flexibility that virtual environments can offer on a private cloud, do you really need a public cloud if you don’t need to be agile or scale drastically? We found that a well managed, fully redundant virtual environment, hosted in the private cloud on our own kit, in a tier-four data center was the ideal scenario for us. We’ve been running this way since mid-2020 and have not looked back

Any learnings from this experience that you’d like to share with other CIOs?

Looking back, I don’t think we made a bad decision. The biggest learning is about focusing on the big picture. Make sure you understand your long-term roadmap very clearly so there are no surprises. Often people will be blinded by the commercials, but be very careful about licensing and terms of use because many vendors have restrictions in place. Do your due diligence. All vendors write clauses into their contracts that it’s subject to change over time. But make sure you’ve got a backup or a rollback plan because it’s very difficult to bridge the gap when the company is on its knees and you need to buy equipment and do a full migration. I would also never recommend any full lift-and-shift approach. There are just too many variables.

What advice would you give aspirant CIOs, having gone through this? One of the aspects that’s lacking in many CIOs is the interaction with the business. The CIO role is not just an IT role. Gaining an understanding of your business and building relationships with important stakeholders is key to a successful CIO career. Although you’re looking at governance, you’re looking at compliance, processes and things like that. If you’re not aligned with what the business requires, you’re sitting in no man’s land because there’s a mismatch between what IT offers and what the business needs. When you’re looking at technology for all bells and whistles, you’re missing the point. It should be about adopting the right technology to boost productivity and to facilitate how the business operates.


Developed by Zuellig Pharma, eZRx is ASEAN’s largest B2B eCommerce platform for the healthcare industry – offering a smarter and more convenient way to buy and sell healthcare products online, anywhere and anytime, versus reps visiting clients face-to-face.

As COVID-19 began spreading its tentacles through Asia, Zuellig Pharma, one of the continent’s largest healthcare services groups needed to ensure that medicines and healthcare products – from vaccines to personal protection equipment (PPEs) – were delivered in a timely and efficient manner.

Given the urgency, Zuellig Pharma could not rely on a manual system to place and process orders and returns as well as payment requests. Efficiency and effectiveness needed to be optimized further. With much of the world locked down during the pandemic, the number of touchpoints to connect with customers was also vastly reduced.

Zuellig Pharma adopted a transformative innovation to ensure that its 350,000 customers and 1,000 clients – including the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies – could have timely access to essential medicines and lifesaving products during this critical period.

And it happened to launch when the world needed it most.

A 24/7 lifeline

Zuellig Pharma provides distribution, digital, and commercial services in 13 markets across Asia, serving more than 350,000 medical facilities and over 1,000 clients in the region.

As COVID-19 cases escalated, the company’s B2B eCommerce platform – eZRx for healthcare practitioners, clinics, and hospitals – aptly enabled customers and sales reps to buy and sell healthcare products anytime, anywhere, without needing to meet others physically. It also reduced pricing errors and consolidated important information in a single location.

The solution is powered by SAP’s ERP Central Component (ECC), an on-premises enterprise resource planning system, along with SAP HANA data management software. With the SAP software, eZRx could integrate finance, inventor, and product data seamlessly on the web as well as on mobile devices.

Turning the tide against the pandemic

Deployed in March 2020 – the same month that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international pandemic – eZRx was able to ensure the smooth delivery of PPEs and other crucial medical supplies including COVID-19 vaccines, enabling healthcare professionals to do their jobs safely during this challenging time.

Through eZRx, customers could also have “full visibility of Zuellig Pharma’s product offerings and self-service, without having to wait for a pharma representative,” said Daniel Laverick, the group’s SVP, head of digital and data solutions. “Sales reps could also free up their time to focus on more meaningful tasks as well as provide customers with an omnichannel experience, enabled by e-detailing.”

In addition, the company could now safeguard compliance with international regulations with a database mapping specific customers’ product licensing restrictions. If a purchaser attempts to access any of the items via eZRx that are not market-compliant, the products are not shown.

In 2021, Zuellig Pharma was able to automate 11.6 million order lines, reducing the manual ones in half, and generating $1.2 million in annual productivity gains.

The development of a life-saving platform in the COVID-19 era earned Zuellig Pharma a 2022 SAP Innovation Award, an annual honor commemorating organizations that have used SAP products to benefit both business and society.

You can read the details behind Zuellig Pharma’s amazing accomplishment in their Innovation Awards pitch deck.

Data Management