Asiff Hirji, now a Partner at TPG Capital, shares his journey from application developer, to CIO, to President of T.D. Ameritrade
Where a lot of IT executives think of their careers as a game of checkers, planning one move at a time, Asiff Hirji has thought about his career as a game of chess, planning several moves in advance. He was an engineer by training, and realized he needed a more formal business education, so he got an MBA. He was a CIO multiple times over, most prominently at T.D. Ameritrade, but each time, he took on responsibilities beyond that role, eventually becoming president and COO of T.D. Ameritrade. In this interview, which is drawn from the Forum on World Class IT interview that I conducted with Hirji, he described the way in which he has managed his career, managed his colleagues, and now manages his portfolio of companies as a venture capitalist at TPG.
(The “Beyond CIO” series kicked off with this article, and the all past interviews in the series can be found here. If you are interested in future articles in the series with executives from companies like HP, Symantec, Schneider National, Fifth Third Bancorp, Ameristar Casinos, and Aetna, among others, please return to the Technovation column in the coming weeks.)
Peter High: Asiff, I was very interested in reading about your background; you were a CIO for quite some time, in fact, you were the President and CIO of a company called Netfolio in the late 90s. At an early stage in your career, therefore, you saw the connection between the duties of the CIO and the broader responsibilities within the firm. Back in that time, it was not necessarily as common as it is today for people to have ‘CIO-plus’ roles. Could you speak about those early insights that lead to the birth of a hybrid CIO role?
Asiff Hirji: I began life as a developer. I got my undergraduate degree in computer science. I was in the IBM R&D program, but it was there that I realized I was not an exceptional developer. This was back when the coolest technology that IBM had was all in the lab. I joined a group that was supposed to help commercialize the technology, and for me, that’s where the linkage between technology and business began. I realized that while I understood the technology, I really didn’t have a grasp of the business side of things, so I went off and got my MBA.
My big insight is going to sound simplistic, but I think there is a very big difference between companies where technology is the product, an e-commerce company for example, and a company where technology is an important part of delivering the product – manufacturing, retail, etc. It is very hard for someone as a technology leader to move to running the business if they are a technology leader, in a company where technology is not the core product. I don’t think it is impossible, I just think it is a lot harder.
I’ve always been in industries where technology was the product. I started first in financial services where products are entirely virtual and financial services is an industry entirely composed of technology. From there I moved into e-commerce and now to private equity. The theme is that I was always a leader in a business where the technology was integral to the product or service that was being delivered because I was driving the composition of the technology, I was driving, to a great extent, the nature and the strategy of the business.
I think it may be overly simplistic, but I think you have to start there. What role does technology play in the company or the sector you’re in? I think the roles of the technology leader will be very different in those two different environments and will evolve very differently. I think in technology companies, it is more than natural that the technology leader becomes a business leader.
In other companies, the tech leader is a very important part of the leadership team, but is more of an orchestrator of third party capabilities to help keep the place running and keep the product rolling off the assembly line, and not a part of how the business makes money.
Additional topics covered in the article include:
- You had been both president and CIO of Netfolio, so the link between CIO and a larger role was not foreign to you. What was the rationale in having both of those roles at once?
- Speaking about a different part of your background, in terms of your graduate education as well as your consulting experience, I assume those were other tools that assisted as you were taking on a variety of new kinds of issues and opportunities and problems in these broader roles. Is that a fair assumption?
- Moving to your experience at TD Ameritrade, you joined as CIO in 2003, could you talk about your progression from CIO to COO and later to president?
- As your role progressed at TD Ameritrade, I assume your own experiences colored how you thought about your successor as IT leader. Is that right?
- You’re also of course a partner at TPG, and as such you have a pulse on technology developments from your perch. What sort of IT trends particularly excite you as you look over the course of the next several years?