A techie’s journey: from the back-room to the boardroom

Technologists need to become salesmen, says CIO-turned-CEO Ralph Norris

To make the journey from the back-room to the boardroom, Commonwealth Bank CEO Ralph Norris says he had to become a salesman, one that not only sold the benefits of technology but enabled successful implementations.

Norris says he was an unusual salesman, because “I also had to make it work.”

“It wasn’t just selling it, it was also working out how to actually implement the technology.”

For ICT systems to deliver, Norris says organisations have to take an architectural approach.

“I think all of us have been exposed to ICT systems that failed to deliver.

“Certainly the organisation I’m with today had some experience of that in the past,” he says.

“In too many situations we see a rush to actually build something, rather than actually getting the basics right. I think the industry today is much stronger in that regard than it was ten, 15 and certainly 20 years ago.”

Norris joined the Commonwealth Bank as CEO in September 2005 after a long career as a CIO across a number of industries in NZ.

With his experience in banking, Norris focused on many of the ICT challenges that have dogged the financial services sector.

Norris says banking systems have been built on the Tower of Babel principle rather than an architectural approach.

He says it is about keeping it simple because complexity creates errors.

Referring to the Commonwealth Bank’s new front end platform, CommSee, Norris says it is a huge system that was developed by some 1,000 people working together over a two-and-a-half year time-frame.

“It has delivered what it promised, ahead of time, and within budget,” he says.

“When I look at how that happened, it happened because there was a very strong architectural approach taken. It was having a clear understanding of what the end objective was going to be, how it would be built and structured.

“People understood the basics before they actually started to turn the ideas into code.”

While Norris has “thoroughly enjoyed being able to practise my craft as a technologist”, the role of CEO has also provided a great degree of satisfaction.

“And the best and most differentiating resource any organisation has is its people,” he says.

“And getting your people to buy into a vision, to be able to understand what the objectives of the organisation are, to understand how they play a part in making a difference to an organisation, is a very critical piece of that process.”

Since moving into the role of CEO at ASB Bank in early 1991, Norris says the biggest challenge has been unleashing the staff’s potential and giving them a belief the organisation is doing something worthwhile.

He says people go to work to be fulfilled. They don’t go to work to be saboteurs, they want to do their best.

Norris says his most challenging ICT projects were undertaken at Air New Zealand and ASB Bank.

“I was very fortunate to be able to begin my career at a time when computing was still very nascent, as far as banking was concerned.” He began his career at ASB in 1970.

“The bank had a small electronic data processing department and all of us who joined the organisation were asked to sit an IBM aptitude test.”

Norris worked in the data-processing centre and undertook classes with IBM in programs such as Assembler.

He went from being a systems programmer to a systems designer to a systems analyst, then a project manager.

“Use of ICT was obviously relatively expensive for the resources of such a small organisation; so it was a case of doing more with less,” Norris says.

However, for its time the bank’s ICT was leading edge and based around tape operating systems.

There were different systems for cheques, deposits and mortgages.

“There was no integration. Each system had its own numbering system so getting a single view of the customer was impossible,” Norris says.

To solve this, programmers came up with the idea of reusable code.

“We developed a system that was actually object-oriented. We didn’t know it at the time but that’s what we built,” he says.

In 1975, Norris was involved in building a banking system from scratch. It was a two year project and the system became the backbone of the bank.

“So with the advent of ATMs in the early 1980s we were able to plug machines into our system very easily. All we did was reformat the transactions as they came from the standard transaction handling software in the ATMs and reformatted them to our gateway.

“Likewise with EFTPOS. In early 1984, we launched the first EFTPOS network in the southern hemisphere.”

In the late 1980s, Norris tackled the bank’s worst performing business — credit cards.

“We weren’t making any money becauses the processing was being done for us by a third-party, and transaction costs were expensive. We were paying for the inefficiencies of a poor system,” he says.

“So within nine months we developed a full-blown credit card system and turned a loss-making business into a profit-making business.

“That system now runs in some 50 banks around the world.”

Norris says the ICT group at ASB was successful because it identified with the business and was about finding technology solutions for the business.

“They were much more focused on using technology as a means, rather than an end in itself,” he said.

“I’ve always been somebody that looked for people to work for me that had a very strong understanding of this.”

Norris says when he looks back at his time at Air New Zealand, he sees it was an organisation in chaos.

It was in the process of going out the back door and staff were utterly demotivated.

“They had no confidence in senior management so it was about taking advantage of a crisis to make change,” Norris says.

“We had an internet system there that, if you wanted to book online, it was a struggle to do it under 22 clicks.

“In those days, were were booking less than two percent of our tickets on the net.”

Once the new system was in place, 40% of bookings were lodged online.

“It’s about focussing on what the customer needs and making sure we delivered,” he says.

“Technology is an enabler, not the end in itself.”

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