CIO Spotlight: A life in IT

The inaugural CIO Spotlight focuses on Joe Tesfai, Senior VP of IT at Atlantis hotel. Born and raised in Kenya, Tesfai moved to the USA aged 18 where he studied and then rose through the ranks at the Four Seasons hotel chain. At 27, he migrated to the Middle East where he has spent the subsequent 13 years becoming a leading figure in the region’s hospitality and IT industries.

How did you find moving to the USA after growing up in Nairobi?
Growing up in Nairobi was great. I went to a Catholic school. Then in between Nairobi and the U.S. I actually spent a couple of years in Sudan because my father got transferred – he was the GM of a glass factory – and a year in England. But moving to Washington DC was a totally different environment for me. It took me about a year and a half to get used to it, but once I did I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was a great experience and I focused on what I really wanted to do at the time, which was computers – I loved computers.

What aspect of IT did you first want to get into?
Initially I wanted to get into programming, but I quickly got bored with it because it was just code after code after code. At that time we had to compile all the code, take it over to the computer centre on carts, issue it to the computer centre to run it and then you get the output on these big papers. It was too tedious and time-consuming.

What did you do after you graduated?
I graduated in 1988, just before the advent of PCs. I stayed in DC and got some work with a start-up systems integrator doing bench work – integrating, building and selling computers. I found it very interesting because that was where I was able to hone my skills in networking and I loved the hardware aspect of it. I was more interested in networking PCs because those days we were just starting to do that. Soon after that I became certified in NetWare and become one of the early CNEs in the U.S., which meant I was certified to actually create the network and connect all the computers.

How did you first get into hospitality?
After around five years of working at a couple of start-ups, I actually got bored of that stuff and one day saw an ad in the newspaper for a Systems Manager position in a hotel, so I thought I’d try my luck at that. That was the Four Seasons in DC. I applied for the job and pretty much got hired on the spot because I had the networking experience and certifications. But I didn’t know anything about hotels, so they walked me through the front desk, reservations, housekeeping, engineering and everywhere else in the hotel so I could understand their operations. One of the first projects I did there was to install a PC-based network.

You travelled around several locations for the Four Seasons – why was that?
I was with the DC Four Seasons for about a year and a half and then they asked me if I wanted to go to Hawaii to pretty much replicate what I did in DC. It took me all of about two minutes to say yes. I was in the Four Seasons in Maui for a couple of years until we opened up the Four Seasons on the Big Island. I became the Regional IT Manager and did that for a couple of years before they asked me in 1998 to go to Chicago because they had some issues there.

How did you end up working in the Middle East?
In around mid-1999 Intercontinental asked me if I wanted to move to the Middle East in an Area Director of IT role responsible for around 70 hotels and based in Cairo. I was there until January 2003 because towards the end of 2002 a headhunter called me and said there was a group in Dubai that was looking for a Group Director of IT. To cut a long story short, it was with the Jumeirah Group and they flew me over, interviewed me, hired me and I moved to Dubai in March 2003. I was there for four years and in 2007 Atlantis asked if I’d be interested in being their Senior Vice President of IT to open up this big undertaking.

Why did you decide to move from CTO of the Jumeirah Group, which was a bigger group, to Atlantis?
I jumped at the opportunity because I was like a kid in a candy store. We had a huge budget and I was setting up the entire network from the ground up. It was a massive project but I did it because Alan Leibman (CEO of Kerzner International, which owns Atlantis) gave me the assurance that we’d be growing the group. We were also responsible for the One&Only brands. They have IT Manager’s on base, but we support them whenever they need help.

What has been your favourite job?
My favourite would have to be Atlantis because we utilise technology extensively and effectively here. Other groups are more into the guest service element and will spend more on the front of the house than technology. As someone that was here from the start, Atlantis is my baby and my legacy.

What do you like best about being a CIO?
I really like being able to innovate and utilise technology effectively in today’s ever changing landscape. The beauty of this job is I can come here every single day and I have no idea how my day is going to turn out. I can certainly plan – and I do – but you can never plan for the emergencies or urgencies that happen that day. That in itself is beautiful. As soon as you get bored, it’s time to throw in the towel and leave. I don’t think that will happen to me because I really love technology. I eat, live and breathe technology.

What do you find most difficult about your job?
What I don’t like about being a CIO is when technology fails and the all night looking for a needle in a haystack to get the problem resolved situations. It can be very time consuming and it really is very draining and demanding on you because you’ve got to be able to innovate and drive yourself every single day. It’s a 10, 12 hour job, sometimes six or seven days a week. It’s a struggle but you’ve got to have that work-life balance. I handle that balance with great difficulty but it’s all about prioritising. I’ve got three children aged five to nine and Friday is all about the kids. I try not to ever have anything to do on a Friday so I can spend all day with them.

Are there any goals and ambitions that you still strive to achieve?
It’s very unusual in hospitality to come across a project with such a huge IT budget as we have at Atlantis. People build hotels on the same budget we have just on technology here. My goal is to do another one of these. I believe I have the energy and passion to do another one equal to or larger than this. Recently we’ve signed some contracts and we’ve got some partners where we’re trying to expand the Atlantis brand. One is in China and we’re looking for a partner in South America. So I think my next step is to move to one of these locations and aid in a new Atlantis opening.

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