CIO Spotlight

Thirst for knowledge

CPI_7341‘A teacher opens the door, but it is the student who walks through it.’ Perhaps Neil Menezes wasn’t the most enthusiastic of pupils in class, but once engrossed in private study, he really came into his own.

Born in India in 1977, only a year later Menezes’ family would move to Dubai, where they have stayed ever since. He was sent to boarding schools in Mumbai, before attending Emirates English Speaking School in Dubai, where he graduated in 1994. Throughout his childhood, a budding interest in technology developed, stemming from a love of computers and computer games.

“Like a lot of kids who are lucky enough to own them, I used to love playing computer games,” he says. “Initially, I used to have an Atari joystick, and I loved playing Pacman and games like that. I was a bit of a geek, to be honest. My interest started there, then it branched out into wider computing.”

Menezes’ zeal was not confined to child’s play, though. Soon enough, he was fascinated by the intricacy of connections, and an attraction towards more complicated technology blossomed. “As time went on, I played around a lot on tools like Microsoft Word and things like that, but my real interest was in networking, and the way things were connected. This led me to further my studies and enhance my understanding of systems, which really ignited my interest,” he explains.

He studied Business Information Systems at Skyline University, where he says, aside from individual research, his academic studies had no real bearing on his own intellectual mindset. At first glance, it seems that his move into the word of IT came about by subordination. Menezes initially wanted to work in travel and tourism, but was encouraged to work in the IT trade by his parents, who recognised the industry’s increasing value. Following their initial shove, Menezes set out on a mission to develop his own technical acumen and satisfy an insatiable curiosity for minute detail. “I was fascinated by the levels of intricacy at a micro level of technology. A lot of my initial discoveries resided in relentless spells of researching technical topics on Yahoo’s search engines. Through self-research I believe that I really galvanised my understanding and branched out my perspectives of technology.”

Call him an introvert, but to this day Menezes believes an individual thirst for knowledge is paramount. “Ever since I graduated from university, I have never spent much time on technical courses or things like that,” he recalls with a brazen tone. “I’ve attended more conferences over the years, but I’ve always believed it’s more important to have an unrelenting passion to learn, as opposed to taking in what somebody else is imparting into you. That way, your knowledge can explore different avenues, unlike the finite ends you will reach if you are just told certain information.”

It becomes clear how his organically grown interest was the perfect springboard to the top IT job at Jumeirah Group.
After leaving university in 1998, Menezes took a job on the helpdesk at Emirates Petroleum, one that he describes as being at the “very bottom of the IT industry”. However, he was quick to adapt to the needs of the role, and establish himself within the team which combated Y2K at the turn of the millennium. “During my two years at EP, I had guidance from great managers, and my parents, who gave me fantastic support, which enabled me to quickly progress there,” he says.

In December, 2000, he joined Jumeirah Hotel Group, working as helpdesk manager for the Burj Al Arab hotel. This was a dream move for Menezes, who had the opportunity to work in a role that combined his main career interests: IT and tourism. “Working at the Burj Al Arab was really the icing on the cake when I joined Jumeirah,” Menezes says. “You’re working not just for one of the iconic hotels in Dubai, but one of its greatest landmarks as well. It was also my main breakthrough into mainstream IT.”

His initial projects included implementing wireless internet across the hotel, which he saw as a major challenge. “At the time, finding expertise on the subject was particularly challenging. It was a daunting task, as wireless internet was not very common back then. It was cutting-edge technology at the time. One thing that stands out was the challenge of managing AV receiver costs.” But Menezes is quick to note that, out of a multitude of difficulties, opportunities arose: “I was very proud of the work myself and my team achieved at the Burj. We were the first hotel to have end-to-end wireless internet in Dubai, and I see that as a great achievement.”

Menezes has since spent 13 years at Jumeirah Group, and has a personal affinity with the franchise, not least because he met his wife there. “I was one of five people who started Jumeirah IT. We’ve always wanted to deliver the latest, cutting-edge technology which is suitable for everyone. When I started here, the group had two hotels. We are now approaching 25. It certainly sounds cheesy but I feel that, as the brand has grown, I have grown with it. We plan two years ahead, so there is a solid long-term strategy in place.”

Menezes may have a friendly nature but maintains a hawk-like gaze over his team’s operations, and challenges any of his employees to outdo his example. “I pride myself on the fact that there is nothing that my team can do that I cannot. That means that if anyone tries to pull the wool over my eyes then my X-ray vision comes out!”

The importance of his troops is not lost on him, though: “I am extremely dedicated to the team I work with now, and everyone I’ve worked with throughout my career. So many of my colleagues have supported and inspired me, and I will always be grateful for that.”
Menezes’ current operations working for Jumeirah Group are more varied and complex compared to his initial wireless projects in his Burj Al Arab days. Like most other technology chiefs, he is currently overseeing data centre modernisation, virtualisation, BYOD and private cloud work at the company. But he is in no doubt about the top priority of his IT department: “Survey results show that the most important thing for customers staying at hotels now―even more important than the bed or food―is having fast, complimentary, reliable internet. That means we have to protect their data as best as we can.”

So, who is Menezes’ role model? It’s certainly someone whose individual work ethic he seems to have mirrored: “If I had to highlight one person who was a real inspiration to me, it would be my uncle, Habib, who has now passed away. This was a man who came from nothing, who a few years ago would study under streetlights because he had nowhere else to go. He was incredibly curious and hardworking, and by the time he died, he was a very senior figure at British Petroleum. The way he grew himself showed what you can become if you combine raw desire, hard work and curiosity.”

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