Ahmed Yahya, Chief Information Officer, Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre, takes time out to speak to CNME about his career journey which led him to the Abu Dhabi firm.
For Yahya, the path that has landed him at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre has been winding. Even determining his origins is an exercise in geography. “I am originally Palestinian, I am Jordanian and I am American,” he answers cryptically. “But I was born in Saudi Arabia.” He explains that his parents are both Palestinian, but like many Palestinians, no longer maintain residence there, but in Jordan instead. An oil and gas man, Yahya’s father was working for Aramco in Saudi in the 1960s where Yahya was born.
Though he moved away for some time, Yahya’s latest stint in Abu Dhabi is not his first. “My family moved to Abu Dhabi in 1975,” he explains, “I actually went to school here.” Abu Dhabi has changed a great deal since the 1970s and 1980s. However, when Yahya left in 1983 to attend university in Jordan, he may not have realised he would be returning in his adulthood to see first-hand how much the emirate had transformed.
In 1983, he moved to Jordan to attend Yarmouk University, though his major was determined more by location than by interest. “My interest has always been in computers, but as the eldest son in the family my father wanted to stay in the region,” says Yahya, “Yarmouk only offered a minor in computer science, and to earn that minor, I had to be enrolled in the science department, so I decided to major in Chemistry.”
In 1988 he graduated from Yarmouk, and decided to pursue his Master’s degree overseas—a move that his parents supported. In 1988 he was accepted to Western Kentucky University. “Everyone always asks, why Western Kentucky? Why Bowling Green?” Again, it was a matter of location. “It had nothing to do with academics. My brother was there working on a pre-pharmacy degree and, frankly, I wanted to be near family.”
In 1990, Master’s degree in hand, Yahya had every intention of returning to the Middle East. Unfortunately, with the Gulf War fully underway, the unstable situation in the region grounded him in the United States. Instead of returning to the UAE, Yahya was able to secure a temporary US visa for practical training and moved to Houston, Texas.
With a specialisation in UNIX he was able to land a position in Houston with Scientific Software. At Scientific Software, he worked for his first year on systems for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Specifically, Yahya took on software that supported satellite and space shuttle monitoring – truly a dream come true for a young science fiction fan. On his temporary visa, he was only able to work for one year in the US without an official sponsorship from a company. Thankfully for Yahya, Scientific Software saw his potential, and sponsored him for his work visa.
In 1996, Yahya moved to Southern National Gas, a Houston-based oil and gas company, where he updated the company’s IT infrastructure and data centres. He was also put in charge of moving the mainframe systems to client servers. After much success at Southern National Gas, the company was acquired by El Paso Energy, and as a testament to his necessity as an employee, Yahya was not only retained, but moved into a new role. In this new role, he was in charge of maintaining infrastructure as El Paso Energy began to acquire a number of new companies.
It was at El Paso Energy that Yahya came to what he recognises as a pivotal point in his career. Just prior to the infamous Enron scandal, El Paso Energy assigned Yahya to build and streamline the company’s marketing systems. At the time, the company was experiencing a great deal of instability in the area and needed to reduce outages and integrate their trading infrastructure. “I was put into a role as a principle engineer, but I was dealing with mostly upper management.” Yahya recalls the challenging project, “At this point they basically told me that if I succeeded, it would pay off, and if not, I knew where the door was.”
In this make or break moment, Yahya was able to focus on the task at hand and succeed. He pins his success on his team and a keen attention to communication skills. Just as his project completed in 2002, the Enron scandal broke. As his colleagues were losing their jobs around him, he was the only employee in the company to receive a promotion. With that promotion, he was then put at the head of all infrastructure projects at El Paso Energy.
After much success in Texas, in 2007 Yahya was approached by an organisation in Dubai. The Emirate was looking to break ground on Dubai Healthcare City and wanted Yahya’s help creating key IT infrastructure for the project including a data centre, the technical aspects of the hospital as well as a post-graduate school and hotel. In addition, he was tasked with creating an electronic health record system.
At this point, money was no object in Dubai, and the plans for Healthcare City were vast. Unfortunately for Yahya, and the rest of the world, the global financial crisis hit in 2008, bringing the plans to a screeching halt. While others were unable to find opportunities in the UAE, Yahya was offered a position at Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi.
When Yahya came to Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre, the IT infrastructure of the hospital was decentralised. He was tasked with the enormous job of implementing full technology overhaul and integrating the hospital’s systems, as well as the IT staff. As the Director of IT services, he teamed up with the CIO of SKMC to transform the IT department into a forward-thinking unit, rather than the “keep the lights on” staff that it had been up until that point. In 2012, Yahya succeeded the CIO and is now at the head of the technology division.
Yahya pins his continued success on not only an understanding of IT principles, but on his dedication to finding the right people. “Anyone can be taught a new system or be given new information, but it is essential to find IT staff that are innovative and willing to see the larger picture.” In addition, he says, senior management needs to be on board with all IT projects as technology is now the infrastructure on which businesses are built.
Though it has been many years and many successes since Yahya was a child obsessed with science fiction, the CIO of Sheik Khalifa Medical Centre still recalls Star Trek sparking his original interest in technology. “I saw how innovations could impact people on a daily basis, and I keep that idea in mind,” he says.
When he is not developing his own knowledge base or creating new IT infrastructure at SKMC, Yahya spends time with his three daughters. “We try to travel every chance we get. I think it is very important that they see new parts of the world and see how others live,” Yahya emphasises the importance of giving a developed world view to his children.
Indeed, it has perhaps been Yahya’s experiences all over the world that have been the key to his success. “I developed a sense of competitiveness during my time in the US,” he recalls, “and more than IT systems, communication skills have really been a driver to my success.” As for what is next, Yahya knows the importance of staying current in IT. “You have to change your skill set as technology progresses,” Yahya says, “whatever you do, never stop learning.”