Capital Markets CIO: Life Blood Provider, Not Bridge Builder

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Technology insights by HFF Chief Information Officer Jeff Roberts. 

Many people compare the role of chief information officer (CIO) to that of a bridge builder – connecting the separate worlds of technology and business. Analogies can be useful in giving us a mental model to overlay onto a complex concept, in this case yielding a basic view of how to approach an extremely challenging executive role. Unfortunately, the “CIO as bridge builder” analogy falls short in many ways, particularly in a capital markets context.

Of course IT, or information technology, groups need to deliver technology solutions to our organizations, but those solutions shouldn’t be conceived or evaluated in a separate “world” and then brought across a “bridge” to the business. IT departments should strive to create stable, scalable architectures; to develop innovative systems and reporting platforms; and to do excellent technical work…just not in isolation on the other side of the “river” and not for its own sake. Ideally, capital markets CIOs should think of ourselves not as bridge builders but as providers of the life blood our firms need to succeed.

Information is the life-blood of capital markets firms, not a side function to connect by a bridge.

In other industries in which IT need only provide “commodity” services to their organizations, it may be accurate – and without any negative connotation to IT in those businesses – to envision them as separate isolated groups, between which a connecting bridge may be sufficient. Not so with capital markets firms because we comprise information workers who utilize data to get work done all day, every day.

Beyond that, for our firms, systems and data can rise to the level of competitive advantage, enabling unique insights, enhancing business capabilities and, ultimately, driving revenue. We can’t let it be thought of as living “on the other side of the river” from our core business operations.

Teamwork doesn’t thrive across a bridge but when IT sees itself as one with our organization.

I am a huge believer in the power of mindset in the workplace. Too often, individuals and teams underperform not because they lack the technical skills to do better but because they have the wrong idea of how they can and should contribute to the firm. IT suffers from this problem far more frequently than other groups for several reasons:

  • IT training focuses mainly on the technical aspects of our roles. There is far more focus on how than why.
  • There is an enormous amount of energy focused on obtaining technical certifications as proof of competency.
  • Many IT professionals choose this line of work because of the satisfaction they derive in solving challenging technical problems.
  • Many IT managers view revenue and competitive advantage as problems for “business” people.

The more a capital markets CIO can move the mindset of everyone in IT to grasp our unity with the business, the more teamwork and trust will flow in every direction. Everyone in IT must understand the truth that, when the organization wins, we all win; when it loses, we all lose. Are we finding solutions to business challenges even when they’re not specifically requested? Do we have the right sense of urgency when responsive support is needed? Do we prioritize in the same way our CEO would set priorities? Are we fully leveraging our role as the provider of life blood information to the firm?

This mindset affects day-to-day maintenance and support requests as well as strategic planning because it widens the context in which judgments like “better,” “more efficient” and “cheaper” are defined and evaluated. From management to staff and from applications architects to help desk technicians adopting this approach helps drive better alignment and changes the language and culture of IT to better fit – and partner with – our organizations.

The right mindset is key as CIOs contemplate “best practices” mega-trends in the IT industry.

Viewing IT as one with our organization is extremely critical when scanning the IT horizon for potential tools, methodologies and technologies. It becomes clear that the right question isn’t “would this change improve our IT?” but rather “would this change benefit the firm?” Sometimes the answers to these two questions will match up completely, but in other instances, asking the right question will make all the difference to IT success.

Applying this philosophy to some of the dominant current trends in IT illustrates the point. Although many white papers claim near-universal applicability of these concepts to most IT shops and companies, CIOs must apply the right mindset together with our technical and business expertise to make the right decision for our firm. The only “best practices” we should care about are those which are “best for us."

  • Agile Development:  Agile was possibly the first example of the overarching IT trend to break down complexity in smaller pieces. For firms which can wait for a system to evolve into being, this can be a powerful approach which enables adaptation and tailoring based on user feedback as the system comes to life. If our firm needs a system launched as a cohesive whole, though, Agile can be code-speak for “less planning,” resulting in a lower-quality product.
  • DevOps:  The coordination of operations/infrastructure evolution with Agile development is a natural fit where Agile makes sense on its own and where the investment in tools and new infrastructure makes financial sense. If development isn’t moving the needle on our firm’s infrastructure needs and/or applications changes are very limited “tweaks,” DevOps makes less sense.
  • Cloud Applications/Storage:  This is a category in which many CIOs are gaining wisdom as the cloud concept leaves its honeymoon phase. The benefits of flexibility and scalability are obvious, but IT professionals increasingly realize that costs are rarely reduced, users will experience higher latency from the cloud than from a local server and the firm’s circuit bandwidth needs and dependency will increase substantially.
  • Micro-Services/Containerization:  Amazon, Ebay and Netflix have shown their effectiveness as an architecture for uber-complexity, but that is a far cry from proof of applicability to capital markets firms. For firms needing frequent changes to certain sections of code, turning these into micro-services can make them independently changeable black-boxes, maximizing nimbleness without sacrificing stability. On the other hand, for more stable/interrelated code bases, going down this road could amount to buying an expensive piecemeal version of the system already up and running.

From an IT purist and white paper perspective, and often when considered from a bridge builder view of the CIO role, each of the mega trends above are no-brainers for some level of adoption. But our role as CIOs, particularly capital markets CIOs, is not to operate IT separately with only ourselves as a bridge to the business.

We must decide where, when and how different solutions should be taken from the advancing, expanding tide of technology options to meet our firms’ specific needs and opportunities, to fulfill and empower our firms’ specific strategies. I can think of no better industry in which to lead IT than capital markets!

About Jeff Roberts

Jeff Roberts is an executive managing director in HFF’s Houston office and the CIO for the firm. He has more than 20 years of technology leadership experience and has served as the top information technology executive at five different companies. Mr. Roberts leads HFF’s IT department and strategic technology vision for the firm, managing our technology staff and all aspects of our systems infrastructure, development and operations.

Mr. Roberts has led global information technology operations spanning three continents; he is experienced in creating innovative mortgage and real estate technology solutions, and ensuring an efficient control and operations framework appropriate to a publicly traded firm, which serves clients with the highest standards of security and reliability. Prior to joining the firm in December 2015, he spent his career focused on technology leadership primarily in the mortgage and real estate industry. He previously served as the CIO of Carriage Services (NYSE: CSV); Situs, a privately-held commercial real estate advisor and servicer; Saxon Mortgage, a division of Morgan Stanley; and Litton Loan Servicing, a mortgage division of Goldman Sachs.

This article originally appeared in Capital Markets CIO Outlook Magazine.

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