When I sit down with Saki Missaikos, the new Internet Solutions (IS) MD, at the canteen at Dimension Data’s sprawling campus in Bryanston, north of Sandton, he immediately takes a shine to my new Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone.
He confesses that he’s moved almost wholesale to Apple products at home, and he carries an iPad and an iPhone wherever he goes. However, he tells me, while carefully inspecting the Galaxy S3, that he’s become a little tired of the iPhone and may move to another platform soon. A geek at heart, he says technology is one of his favourite hobbies.
And leading IS, with its hundreds of hardcore engineers, how could it not be, I wonder. Born in SA to Greek parents — his dad moved here nearly 50 years ago, with his mom following a year later — Missaikos has always had a keen interest in IT, especially complex networking and communications technology.
“I had a love from a very young age for maths and science,” he says. That led him to the University of the Witwatersrand, where he began studying towards a BSc degree in electrical engineering. It was at Wits that he first met IS co-founder Ronnie Apteker, now a movie maker, and its future CEO, David Frankel — who now has a wildly successful career based out of Boston in the US.
Realising he wasn’t keen on the “heavy current stuff”, he did his final-year thesis on the-then nascent TCP/IP protocol, which forms the underpinning of the Internet and most modern communications networks.
Upon graduating, his parents were keen that the young Missaikos find stable employment. That led him into the graduate recruitment programme at First National Bank. With one of the largest computer networks in the country at the time — based on the now outdated OSI protocols favoured by IBM — Missaikos quickly found a home in the bank’s research and development division.
It was geek heaven. “All the vendors would bring in their latest modems and switches,” he says. “From Cisco Systems to Bay Networks, I just dabbled with technology all day long. We’d just look at technology and decide which of it would be applicable to FNB.”
He says he quickly “fell in love” with Cisco’s technology, which was all based on TCP/IP. But, he says, TCP/IP was “a swear word in all banks”.
“The quickest way to get kicked out of a bank was to talk about TCP/IP. It came from the US military and was synonymous with hackers and techies.”
It wasn’t long, though, before Missaikos was buried head-first in the fast-evolving world of the Internet protocol. He was hired at FNB-owned telecoms business, FirstNet, with CEO Mike van den Bergh — who now runs Vodacom’s Gateway Communications subsidiary — becoming his “first real boss”.
FirstNet was beginning to build virtual private networks (VPNs) based on TCP/IP and looking to win outsourced networking business from corporate SA. In the early 1990s, Missaikos helped set up a separate VPN business in FirstNet, built using Cisco’s Internet protocol networking gear.
“This is where my love for the Internet really came in,” he recalls. He became one of the first South Africans to sign up to America’s CompuServe — a company that offered an early form of the Internet as we know it today — in order to chat to a mate who had moved to the US. “The first bill that came in was for about R3 000 and I was almost fired.”
As part of his work at FNB, Missaikos was invited to talk to master’s students about how the bank was using communications technology and about how it had deployed a TCP/IP-based network. “There were two guys at the back of the audience, Ronnie Apteker and Thomas McWalter [who co-founded IS with Apteker], and the questions kept coming,” he remembers. “After the talk, they came and asked me even more questions. They had started IS at Wits.”
About a year later, they called Missaikos and offered him a job. “I told my parents I was leaving the bank and going to a start-up and didn’t know how they were going to pay me yet.”
His mom was horrified, but the move proved highly fortuitous as IS quickly went on to become the biggest business-focused Internet service provider in the country, signing up some of SA’s biggest blue-chip companies as clients, before the company was bought by Dimension Data in two tranches in the late 1990s.
Missaikos relates a number of highlights of his time at IS to me, but one that appears to have really captured his imagination in the early days was his efforts to convince the big banks they needed to launch Internet banking websites. Frankel, he says, was convinced it would be the killer app that drove uptake of the Internet in SA. But convincing the banks was an uphill battle.
“Meetings lasted no more than five minutes,” he says. “There were some seriously ugly meetings.”
Through Dimension Data, IS was able to get “quite close” to Nedbank and its then chief information officer, Barry Hore. “Even he was quite negative about it,” Missaikos recalls. “But a year later he said Nedbank was going to do it. We launched Netbank after three or four months [of development]. It was nerve-wracking. It was literally hacked together, a very clunky solution and we thought no one would embrace it, but it had 40 000 registered users in the first month.”
By 2002, though, Missaikos was itching to move onto pastures new — he had become “comfortably numb”, he says — and was giving serious thought to striking out on his own. But Allan Cawood, who until last month headed Dimension Data’s Africa and Middle East division, offered him a job running sales and marketing. Though his first love was still technology, he had recently completed an MBA and had already moved into more of a business development role at IS.
“Allan had this view that DD was going through such a big transmission that they needed a technically minded sales director,” Missaikos says. “I wasn’t convinced and it took him months to win me over, but he’s the best guy I’ve ever worked for. I said to him I’d give him three years’ commitment and ended up staying for eight years.”
When he first took on the role, Dimension Data was going through deep financial pain. The dot-com bubble had burst and IT spending had dried up after the Y2K date-change nonevent. “I loved the challenge and we had a superb time, including expanding into new geographies.”
This year, though, Missaikos was given the opportunity to take the reins at IS. Its MD, Derek Wilcocks, was being promoted to take over from Cawood. Dimension Data Africa chairman Andile Ngcaba first broached the idea with him. “It’s very difficult to say no to Andile. He’s like SA’s Steve Jobs and is driven by his love of technology.”
He accepted the offer, he says, because he believes the Internet industry is still in its infancy. “We are now in times that are as exciting as they were prior to Y2K,” he says. “We are only at the start of something massive and I certainly don’t have all the answers and that’s the really exciting part.”
As we near the end of our allotted time, Missaikos’s passion is becoming palpable. He’s on a roll as he talks about bridging the digital divide in SA, admonishing government policies, berating the “big bullies” in the local telecoms industry and talking about how the country has slipped behind the rest of the world when it comes to the Internet and broadband. “We want to try to get everyone connected at the lowest price possible,” he enthuses. “It’s a tragedy what’s happening in this country. Our journey should only rest when the Internet becomes the fourth utility.”
He believes the time is right for companies like IS to flourish and to “really do what should have been done 15 years ago and at rates that are really affordable”.
To relax, Missaikos says he is a keen golfer, though only in the corporate context — he doesn’t play at weekends. Like many of his senior colleagues at Dimension Data, he’s also an avid cyclist and often gets out on the road with group chairman Jeremy Ord. But his first love remains technology and he says he often “fights” with his “close mate” Mayan Mathen, the chief technology officer of Dimension Data Middle East & Africa, over who first gets to play with the “latest and greatest” gadgets they get their hands on. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media