Staying in front of rapidly advancing technology is not something Christian Blais, Dart’s Vice President Information Technology, aims to do.
“I wouldn’t for a moment presume that I’m in front of it; in many ways I’m holding on for dear life,” says Blais with a laugh.
Over his 32-year career in computers and technology, Blais has seen and worked with the major advancements as they came along. He’s seen hardware miniaturisation: computing that once took an entire room to house the required hardware can now be done with something that can be held in a hand. He’s seen refinement in materials: a large disk drive that held 10 megabytes of data used to cost about $15,000. Now a two-terabyte USB drive the size of a finger can be bought for under $1,500 – more than 200,000 times the storage for 10 per cent of the cost.
He has also seen the birth and rise of the internet and the way it has revolutionised the way the companies do business. Blais knows that advancements in technology aren’t going to stop.
“As we start getting into the realm of quantum computing and moving down into sub-atomic particles for both data storage and for computing itself, and indeed using light instead of electricity and magnetism, I think we’re going to see a further leap forward,” he says. “I think technological advancements will continue to accelerate apace for the foreseeable future.”
Our help desk handles on a given month about 600 tickets.Christian Blais
Born in Montreal, Blais has led what he refers to as a nomadic life. His mother, who was British, divorced his Canadian father soon after he was born and moved back to the United Kingdom.
Blais says he “fell into” a technology career in part because after his mother remarried, his stepfather was a computer engineer.
“There were always computers in the house and as a result I was able to get exposure to some of those very early iterations of computers,” he says.
After returning to Canada at the age of 17 and spending a few years there, Blais jump-started his IT career, working for UBS and then Hewlett Packard, getting several international postings in Europe and Asia along the way. He also lived in the United States and then in Bermuda for 13 years before coming to the Cayman Islands in 2013.
Blais says well-travelled life experiences have taught him the importance of assimilating into the cultures in which he lives.
“I’ve been an expat for a long time,” he says. “One of the things I’ve learned along the way is that you can have a much richer experience integrating with the local community than keeping yourself cloistered away in the expat community. But one doesn’t just fall into a local culture and a local society without having a genuine interest in being a part of it.”
Beyond having that interest, Blais says he feels he has a responsibility to contribute to the communities he calls home, which is now the Cayman Islands.
“Because I don’t have a permanent home, this is for all intents and purposes my home,” he says. “I don’t know for how long it’s going to be my home. I hope it will be for quite a long time, if not forever, so I want to contribute here.”
In effort to contribute, Blais became a Big Brothers, Big Sisters mentor for a local youth and joined the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman.
“My club is a really fun-loving bunch,” he says of his fellow Rotarians. “They work hard, they play hard and I’ve been very fortunate to become involved with such a vibrant club. I now serve as a director on one of its boards. That’s probably the easiest way to get involved in the local community to try and make a contribution, so that’s why I do it.”
When Blais joined the Dart, the group of companies had just gone through a period of rapid expansion and as a result, its IT department had outgrown its systems.
“The IT environment had gone from being quite small to growing rapidly in terms of size and complexity, but not necessarily in terms of capability, innovation and sophistication,” he says. “Most companies that go through the kind of meteoric growth Dart had experience these types of growing pains.”
Dart’s IT department had been so busy just trying to keep up, they weren’t able to embrace the maturing best practices in the industry, Blais says.
“There are a lot of very established frameworks out there that most IT teams use to provide a basis for structuring how they’re going to execute their work,” he says. “So, for me, it was a delicious challenge from an IT management perspective.”
The work started with an overhaul of the IT infrastructure and then progressed to software improvements, particularly with regard to process and information management. As the number of employees in the Dart group of companies has continued to grow, so have the requests for IT service.
“Our help desk handles on a given month about 500 tickets,” he says. “That volume has gone up considerably and people’s expectations for a swift resolution have increased as well.”
The statistics are daunting. “Just from a network security perspective, in one month recently at Dart we were scanned 108,000 times,” he says.
“That’s external parties that were just scanning our defences, our firewalls, and seeing if they could find a way to get in. In addition, that same month we had 43,000 web-browsing links that people using our network attempted to click on, but were blocked by us because they were nefarious sites.”
Blais says that firewalls and other security can do only so much and that ultimately, hackers can still gain entry to a network if someone accidentally allows them in. He pointed to the fact that the Democratic National Committee in the United States was hacked last summer simply because one of its top employees opened an email that contained a link to malware. This year, Dart had all of its employees complete several IT security awareness training modules and they’ll be asked to complete more modules in the near future. All new employees also have to complete the modules before they are allowed to access Dart’s network systems.
“In the business world, over 60 per cent of penetrations into corporate computing environments have happened because employees made a bad decision,” he says. “So security awareness training is seen as a significant barrier to that.”
Almost all of Dart’s IT staff are Caymanians and Blais knows he needs their help to be successful in his position.
“If you’re going to be an expat parachuted in or arriving into an organisation to lead a team, particularly a young team of locals, you’re going to have to come with a particular style,” Blais says. “I think that involves having a fair amount of humility and respect for what they’ve experienced thus far.”
One of the first things Blais says he did was try to get an understanding of each of his staff members’ capabilities, their strengths and weaknesses.
“I think if you genuinely approach your team in a manner that conveys that you have their best interests at heart, over time the trust will build and the staff will accept direction, accept coaching, accept even criticism in a much more open way,” he says. “I think it’s a death sentence for any person entering a new environment to come in swinging their ego around suggesting that they know it all and that everyone should shut up and listen.”
Blais says he has a good relationship with his IT staff.
“I’m very fortunate that this group of young Caymanians are very bright, they’re a lot of fun — they’re a mischievous bunch — and there’s a lot of camaraderie in the workplace,” he says. “As a result, when the stuff hits the fan and backs are against the wall, they’ll go the extra mile for each other and for the company, and that’s important.”
Just as Blais wants to contribute to the Cayman Islands community as a whole, he wants to contribute to the continuous improvement of the IT staff.
“I’m here to make myself better at this and if I come to that conversation with them expounding that viewpoint, I hope that over time it becomes contagious and they accept it as well and we go on this journey of learning together,” he says. “I feel a real responsibility to them and if my engagement and coaching and leadership turns them into better leaders, more successful professionals, then hopefully it continues downstream and they will also repeat this themselves with the next generation coming up.”