It is often said that the decisions you make today will have a huge impact on where you end up tomorrow. In the case of PETRONAS ICT Head of Business Technology Services David Vannut, the decisions he made over the course of his career brought him to many crossroads. From his first job in SIEMENS [in Belgium] some 30 years ago to making Malaysia his home for the last 16, David knows all too well about the importance of making the right career decisions when it matters most.
Graduating from university in 1986 with an MSc in Electronic Engineering and Computer Sciences, David’s first major career decision began when he was given two job offers - one from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and the other from SIEMENS, which he accepted.
At SIEMENS, David was attached to the mobile switching centre division. “The first mobile phones that we used were as big as a briefcase! Initially, I worked on analogue mobile systems for about six months,” he added.
Everything changed after the division head informed the employees at a town hall that SIEMENS needed an eavesdropping module for its mobile systems. The project needed “a few people for a couple of months”.
Eager to show his capabilities, David volunteered for the task and within six weeks, delivered as promised. This led him to his next role in the newly established digital mobile switching centre system’s team.
“I was 25 at the time and working with people that were 20+ years my senior, which allowed me to learn a lot in such a short period of time,” he recalled.
After three years, David traded mobile systems for railway automation systems, where he ended up writing software to control unmanned locomotives using radio frequency technology as well as manage cargo trains in storage yards.
Soon after, David started working on real-time passenger train control systems. “This made me realise that mistakes in software could result in not only bugs but the loss of life.”
In 1992, David left SIEMENS for Cap Gemini to work on the high-speed train systems (TGV, EUROSTAR) between Brussels, Paris, and London. “I had had enough of working in engineering and wanted to become a Project Manager. My boss then gave me a choice between becoming an ‘SAP consultant trained in two SAP modules’ or ‘move into project management’. I opted for the latter as I thought it was more important,” he said.
At Cap Gemini, David was assigned to the DHL world headquarters to manage a project. Once again David excelled and rose to the occasion, successfully meeting project deliverables and new solutions to the business. As a reward, DHL offered David a role based in the United Kingdom.
In London, David managed a department responsible for DHL’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa’s transportation management systems. Amidst the 2002 economic crisis, DHL moved its European development function to Kuala Lumpur and India and posted him to Malaysia. After heading the supply chain solutions department for six years and going through several mergers and acquisition exercises as well as dealing with some personal matters, David was keen to return to the UK.
“But it was my Malaysian girlfriend at the time who persuaded me to find another job so I could stay in Kuala Lumpur. So I stayed out of love and subsequently joined PETRONAS,” he said with a laugh.
David spent his first five years in PETRONAS managing the applications and support department (now called Application Delivery and Support) before he was tasked to set up and lead the Enterprise Project Management Office (EPMO). That assignment had led to his present role as General Manager of the BTS division. He celebrates his 10th year in PETRONAS on 1 August 2018.
Life in PETRONAS
“BTS gets involved in many projects. The Upstream Enterprise Content Management (ECM) project was a memorable experience for me. While we faced many technical challenges, the agile delivery process, and teamwork between Upstream CIO team, our SharePoint as well as ECM subject matter experts, made the difference. It resulted in a quality solution that has been deployed in Upstream and serves as a solution and/or basis for other businesses’ ECM solutions,” said David.
Head of Business Technology Services David Vannut presenting the Project Management Workbench 2.0 to the audience at the launching ceremony on 28 June 2018 at Menara ExxonMobil.
A Bitter Lesson
With some 30 years of industry experience under his belt, David has had his fair share of career pitfalls as well. A key lesson he learned is never to take anyone’s word at face value.
“While working in Belgium some 20 years ago, my manager assigned me to a project that was behind schedule and facing a significant cost overrun. After turning the project around, my manager congratulated me for being his crisis manager and told me he had another challenging project for me to handle. He needed me to spend a week or two to help him formalise a contract.”
“As the work had already begun without a proper contract, I understood that the contract was a priority and trusted my boss. What I did not know was the customer had been working with four country offices before; each had made promises they could not keep,” he said.
For nine months, David was a mediator for the company and had to deal with a demanding customer that wanted to collect on promises. “At the end of the nine months, I got burned too, and all parties agreed it was best to have me replaced,” he added.
A subsequent audit cleared David of any wrongdoing, and he was assigned to a smaller account before he was reassigned to key accounts.
“This taught me a valuable lesson to do my due diligence irrespective of what my boss tells me. I was flattered by the compliment (that I was a successful crisis manager) and accepted a job that I was not skilled to do,” he said.
Advice to Aspiring Leaders
David has some advice for those who want to be leaders:
- Stay up to speed on market trends.
- Learn to work as a team with your peers, deliver, and keep your promises.
- Learn new things every year to establish a broad foundation.
- Build skills such as marketing, relationship building, communication, negotiation and persuasion, as well as financial management.
- Be flexible and adapt to your surroundings.
- Find mentors
“I had mentors throughout my career. Often people are too focused on the technical aspects of their careers ignoring communication, persuasion and negotiation skills. I would strongly recommend having one to two mentors that you look up to and work with to guide and grow you in your career. “I looked up to the late Steve Jobs. His drive for innovation is an inspiration to all. He might not have been the easiest person to work with, but you can learn a lot from [people like Jobs] if you hang in there,” he added.
If there is one thing we can learn from David’s career journey, it is that the road to leadership is filled with challenges. “No one is a born leader. Our work performance, the decisions that we make at life’s crossroads and the challenges we face determine the roles we end up with,” he said.