A techie's journey from the back room to the boardroom

Technologists need to become salesmen

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

Norris said 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," he added.

For IT systems to deliver Norris said organizations have to take an architectural approach.

"I think all of us have been exposed to IT systems that failed to deliver; certainly the organization Im with today had some experience of that in the past," he said.

"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 10, 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.

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

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

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

"Complexity is the enemy of mission critical systems," Norris said.

Referring to the Commonwealth Bank's new front end platform, CommSee, Norris said 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 said.

"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."

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While Norris has "thoroughly enjoyed being able to practises 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 organization has is its people," he said.

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

Since moving into the role of CEO in early 1991, Norris said the biggest challenge has been unleashing the potential of staff and giving them a belief the organization is doing something worthwhile.

He said people go to work to be fulfilled, they don't go to work to be saboteurs, they want to do their best.

Speaking at a breakfast event organized by the Australian Computer Society (ACS), Norris highlighted his most challenging IT projects 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 said pointing out that he began his career at ASB in 1970.

"The bank had a small electronic data processing department and all of us who joined the organization 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, systems designer to systems analyst, then a project manager.

"Use of IT was obviously relatively expensive for the resources of such a small organization; so it was a case of doing more with less," Norris said.

However, for its time the bank's IT 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 said.

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 said.

In 1975, Norris was involved in building a banking system from scratch.

He said 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 transacction 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 said.

"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 said the IT 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."

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Norris said when he looks back at his time at Air New Zealand, it was an organization in chaos.

He said 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 said.

"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 per cent of our tickets on the Net."

Once the new system was in place, Norris said by the end of the year, 40 per cent of bookings were lodged online.

"It's about focussing on what the customer needs and making sure we delivered," he said.

"Technology is an enabler, not the end in itself."