Andrew Kossowski: Aligning IT to telecom business at Airtel Africa

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On its website, Airtel Africa says they are driven by the vision of providing affordable and innovative mobile services to all. Airtel has African operations in: Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Madagascar, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Behind the scenes is the daunting Information Technology (IT) task, where it takes a well-thought-out strategy to align telecommunications to business, with a serious innovation and differentiation agenda that exploits diversity in many different forms with the aim of winning customers for life.

Aligning Airtel Africa’s IT to business has fallen into the hands of Andrew Kossowski. As CIO, Kossowski heads Bharti Airtel’ IT teams across Africa. It is a diverse group of people from across 15 African countries.

Like any other organization that depends heavily on IT, the technology team has a responsibility to have an integrated business mindset at all times.

Airtel Africa is an equal partner of the business process. When new projects are brought to the attention of his department, the team engages their cross-functional colleagues by asking about the project’s business value, what value the project is going to add to customers, and what it would add to the Airtel Africa business as a whole.

“Any IT organization has a responsibility to challenge the initiatives being presented…This provides an opportunity for IT to provide real value to ensure initiatives are aligned with our ecosystem or technological roadmap. Proactively identifying any deltas upfront with any initiative provides value for our customers and the company. So, that business mindset is a critical part for Airtel Africa in its growth,” says Kossowski.

He says Airtel Africa keeps going ahead because of its people. “One of the reasons that I came to Airtel Africa after I met the leadership team was that everybody was on the same page. They were all motivated, they all knew exactly what the focus was, they knew that we wanted to win customers for life,” Kossowski recalls.

There have been some changes that have taken place in Airtel Africa’s IT operations in recent months. Given that typically there are two kinds of IT shops, Airtel Africa uses both a centralized and a decentralized model. According to Kossowski, the centralized part focuses on managing major functions – governance, security, architecture and large scale long-term initiatives. The decentralized model, on the other hand, deals with market-sensitive critical initiatives. Since smaller initiatives need to be done quickly, they are decentralized so that they are able to be handled at a local level.

“Airtel Africa is present in 15 different markets. Having that flexibility (decentralization) allows the local markets to react to their needs and so we have applied both the centralized and decentralized and we are calling it a Composite IT Model,” Kossowski explains.

When Airtel Africa was born in 2010 with the acquisition of Zain, the management inherited multiple and different architectures in different countries. The company embarked on a transformation project for all critical systems including CRM, billing, ERP and HRM among others. In fact, this standardization became the big transformation that Airtel Africa has undertaken since its inception in 2010.

With the standardization in place and the IT team working with a business mindset, Airtel Africa IT earlier this year started two initiatives.

The first is called the Transformation & Innovation team whose sole job is to look for innovation in Africa. According to Kossowski, that means partnering with different sources and looking for differentiators and disruptors. From the look of things, Airtel Africa’s CIO is expecting some exciting results from that initiative.

Second is the Agile Development team that was started from having additionally methods in meeting the needs of Airtel Africa customers by having an in-house and quick turnaround development team. “We can create and deploy apps in a matter of days. One of those apps include the E-premier app first launched in Nigeria and designed especially for our premier customers. It contains a catalogue of differential offers and discount packages that can be availed by a customer. It will also allow the premier customer to search the Airtel shop locations and send their queries across to Airtel,” says Kossowski, who believes in innovation to drive business growth.

From an IT perspective, Kossowski is challenging his team to innovate ways to deploy new technologies and making them available to everybody and not just to a specific market.

“What we do in Kenya, we want to be able to offer it in other countries as well – we don’t want it limited to just one country. We also need to remember we have Anglo countries and Francophone countries as well and therefore language is part of our standardization. Africa provides a wonderful opportunity to incubate new ideas,” says Kossowski.

Airtel Arica’s determination on spawning innovation is serious. Kossowski recently participated at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – Spain, where he met and engaged a variety of vendors on the topic of leading edge technology.

“We at Airtel Africa are thrilled to be part of potentially historical changes and the next big thing coming out of Africa. This kind of opportunity is hard to find in any other part of the world at this scale and the level of impact it can have with so many people,” says Kossowski who declines to divulge details of the disruptive innovation Airtel Africa is cooking for the markets.

Asked what the future holds, Kossowski says he believes that “the term telecoms will be something used to describe the past. We are heading towards Intelligent Communications or Intelicoms. There will be Passive Communication Devices and Active Communication Devices – those that learn our behavior. What I see is a cognitive intelligent communication network of the future where everything is going to be connected and enriching our lives,” he says.

Like all telecoms in Africa, they have to contend with the Over-The-Top (OTT) providers including the free VOIP apps like Skype, WhatsApp and Viber among others.

OTT providers come at a time of a data usage explosion in Africa. However, just like other telecoms, Airtel is concerned about the OTT providers. “I see that some of these Over-The-Top providers as leveraging our infrastructure but don’t make the investment we did. As a result, I feel that we are not adequately compensated for that usage,” says Kossowski.

He went on to state, “It is fantastic that we are seeing data continue to explode, but we have to allow equitable competition in order to ensure the investments required to deploy these technologies are viable”, he notes.

Lastly, Andrew reveals all that comes out of Airtel Africa IT is a direct result of a highly energized and motivated team. “If you have got passion for what you do, those around you are going to be passionate as well. The IT Team is extremely excited that they are part of a business function committed to adding value to Africa’s communities,” he says.

‘‘What Andrew Kossowski says about himself’’

“My leadership philosophy: “I am very passionate about what I do. As a result, and I feel about this very strongly, if you display that you love what you do, the people around will also love what they do, that to me is the key to success for any leader – Being passionate about what you do. If don’t like what you do, do something else”.

What apps he can’t do without Airtel Money!

I am a 7×24 person and always on the move across our Airtel Markets. Airtel Money fits my life style when it comes to mobile money. Our IT Team is responsible to make it secure, fast and easy to use. Kossowski was earlier working in Ericsson as the Vice President-Operations for Latin America and the Caribbean. He has also worked at the NII Holdings as the Director of Global Programs where he led the initial market deployment of the 3G systems, post-paid and pre-paid modernization, according to a company statement.

Mr. Andrew Kossowski, holds a Master of Science degree in Computer Information Systems from Boston University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Professional Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Mr. Andrew Kossowski has been Chief Information Officer for Airtel Africa since May 2015. He is responsible for driving Airtel Africa’s IT strategy and execution capabilities, in the 15 African countries that Airtel operates in. Prior to Airtel, he served as the Vice President of Operations in the delivery of Network and IT Projects in Latin American and Caribbean for Ericsson, where he worked for over 4 years. He was also the Director of Global Programs at NII Holdings with markets in Latin America from 2007 to 2010, before he joined Ericsson. At NII, he led the initial market deployment of the 3G systems, postpaid and prepaid modernization. He has also worked as the Senior Manager of Network and IT services for Sprint Nextel from 2003 to 2007. He was employed at Nextel as the Manager of software support and development for over five years. He had started his career in the US Air Force, where he worked for over 12 years in the fields of Developmental and Operational Testing and Quality Assurance.

The article was the Cover Story for the April 2016 Issue, to download click here

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