Against the Flow

Ben Robinson recalls attending a conference where the speaker, a CIO, whipped up a PowerPoint presentation on "how to integrate IT with the business".

Ben Robinson recalls attending a conference where the speaker, a CIO, whipped up a PowerPoint presentation on "how to integrate IT with the business".He winces at the recollection. "I just hate the term IT and the business," says Robinson, who is chief information officer of Paymark. "No other department in the organisation calls the rest of the company 'the business'. Our finance team, they don't call the rest of the company 'the business'. Our help desk team don't call the company the rest of the business."That phrase is banned within my department and people have got it," he says. "The technology people in my team are expected to understand why they are doing developments, why they are deploying stuff; they need to understand the reason why, in business terms, of what they are doing."For Robinson, it is the very nature of Paymark that dictates this strategy.The company runs the country's largest electronic transaction system, with more than 73,000 merchants and 100,000 terminals connected to its network."We are a background company, a lot of people don't know who we are," says Robinson. But, he notes, one-third of New Zealand's GDP is processed through Paymark's network.The company, formerly known as Electronic Transaction Services Ltd, was formed in 1989 when four banks joined together to form a national, real-time payment system. Since then, Paymark estimates electronic transaction volumes have grown to around 60 percent of all retail sales. The Paymark network now processes nearly 75 percent of these transactions.Paymark has around 120 staff and 50 of them are under Robinson's department called technology and projects. But even if IT accounts for almost half of the total Paymark staff, it gets around two-thirds of the budget."Our service relies on technology. It is the product that we sell," explains Robinson. In some organisations, he says, the CIO reports to the CFO, but at Paymark this reporting line will not work. Mission criticalThe company has just completed a two-year project migrating all of its merchants to a new IP network. The complexity of the migration is compounded by the different ways the merchants are connected -- through traditional telephone lines or IP DIAL, or specific data connections (IP Eftpos).He shares some of the lessons learned in the project, which he says ended up with both parties -- Paymark and Gen-i, having a "strong working relationship".It was not like that at the start. Prior to the network migration, Paymark's relationship with Telecom, Gen-i's parent company, was as supplier/customer, "purely contractual", says Robinson."We were just ordering circuits, so we would catch up with account managers now and again and it all worked fine," says Robinson. "But suddenly when you got to work together to migrate the entire electronics payment system, almost the entire 75 percent of merchants from one network to another and the government mandated this change, we had no choice. We were forced to work closely together, far closer than we had before."It was a complex project," says Robinson. "When we got into difficult situations, the conversations got a little bit heated." The key to the project's success was the joint steering committee composed of managers and executives from both parties. Paymark and Gen-i each had a project manager who reported on the project status to the steering committee every fortnight. "It was great because the people at Paymark could interrogate the Gen-i project manager and vice versa, and it worked really well.""It took a while for people to get used to," he admits, but it created what he describes as a very open forum for both sides. "Gen-i had no choice but to very open with us about the issues they were facing and we with them," says Robinson. "To start off, it was a little uncomfortable, but as we grew to trust each other and realised we were working for the same goal, it was very, very effective."To underscore the importance of making the project work, he says, "If the technology failed, basically New Zealand would grind to a halt in terms of electronic payments.""To give you an idea of the scale, a third of New Zealand's gross domestic product gets processed by us," he notes. "Imagine taking a third of the economy out of circulation. It would just be devastating for New Zealand. This project had to work. It was mission critical, not to us but to New Zealand."Interestingly, he says that the project did not cause him to lose sleep. "We always knew we will get there, that was not really an issue," he says. "We had the right focus with both Paymark and Gen-i. Our board had an active interest in this. We had executives within Telecom interested in this. Government was aware of it, the Reserve Bank knew how important it was."Lessons from EuropeRobinson started on the ICT career path through various stints in the telecommunications sector locally and offshore.Robinson graduated from Massey University with a bachelor of technology information engineering. He started as a graduate engineer with Telecom New Zealand. During his four-and-a-half years there, he worked half of the time in engineering and the other in technical sales support.He went to the UK for an OE where he planned to stay for a year. This was extended to eight years and he worked as a network engineer for a company that was "famous for poor controls" -- WorldCom. He applied for a different post, but they gave him a managerial role. "Being a young Kiwi overseas I thought I would give it a go."He stayed at WorldCom for one-and-a-half years, working with a team of project managers rolling information systems across Europe. "This was in the dotcom days," he recalls of his stint at the turn of the 21st century. He also worked at other telecommunications companies such as British Telecom and O2. Working in the UK gave him his first taste of managing people and directing projects of increasing size. "It was a good decade in telecommunications," he says, but he also realised the sector was not a right fit for him."I actually got a bit frustrated about the disorganisation in that industry. It is quite haphazard and you have a high level of staff turnover and a high rate of change.""It is not so much the organisational change due to government, but telcos for some reason just seem to have a high staff turnover," says Robinson. In one company, he recalls undergoing three organisational changes in one year. "I decided I want to move into a more organised environment, so I switched to banking."His work included setting up a project management office for the Rural Bank of Scotland. It was then he was able to compare the nuances of, and the differences, between the two sectors. "I found banking too much the other way; it was too structured, too formal." He says he was reprimanded for talking to his boss' boss without asking permission from the latter, or for not wearing a jacket to an internal meeting.When Robinson left telecommunications, he moved into management consulting. One of his assignments was at the UK Department of Work and Pensions, which was implementing one of the largest IT projects in Europe at that time. "It was great just to see something in that scale. You couldn't get that [work experience] in New Zealand."Back in Auckland, Robinson worked as a management consultant with ASB and then with ETSL, which was later renamed Paymark. ETSL had a new CEO then, Simon Tong, who brought him in as a management consultant working on risk management, security and incident management and setting up a project management office. ETSL, he says, provided "the right balance between organised, but not overly formal, so you can get things done".After six months, Tong asked him to join the executive team as head of business operations. When CIO Richard Tims left to join the NZ Lotteries in 2008, Robinson applied for the job. His department was merged with IT.Zigzag careerRobinson says moving across countries, organisations and sectors provided him with important lessons that he applies to his current role. "You get to see what works and what doesn't work," he says.One of the interesting things he took from his varied experiences is that the same processes work for organisations of various sizes. "It is quite surprising how you can have an organisation, say with 20,000 staff or 100 staff and you can apply the same process. You can scale up and down quite easily."He is a firm believer in trying to get a range of experiences throughout your career. The old system of doing well in your job, getting promoted and then getting promoted to your boss' job is truly over. "You really need to zigzag your way up there," he says. And this need not involve working overseas and can happen while working in the same organisation. In the past, he says, you could start as a junior operator then become a senior operator, then maybe team leader, head of operations then CIO. "Those career paths don't exist [any more]. You need to maybe do that and then you zigzag to technical roles and maybe non-technical roles. And this could be in a different company. Most of the people coming through now have got this background."His advice then for ICT professionals is to work in different roles in the organisation, or in different industries. "Some of our best talents have worked on different areas," says Robinson. In his managerial team, he has five managers and three team leaders. "I say to the managers, 'You are employed to make business decisions about technology, not technical decisions about technology.'"Down at the staff level we want the best technologists, but at the management level, I need [business strategists]. I am not interested in a proposal that costs us the earth so that we have the best and the highest availability. It has to be balanced with an economic return."He says moving to the CIO role from an internal post at Paymark was helpful. "I had two years under my belt here," he says, referring to his previous role as consultant then a member of the management team. "I think I would be less effective in my role if I had not had any exposure to Paymark. I think you can change industries. But if I had come in managing two-thirds of the company budget and almost half the staff, having not worked here before, I would have been likely to make some bad calls or not make calls actually."In his eight years in the UK, all of his work was contract-based. During this time, he completed his MBA in technology management at Deakin University. Asked why he took on the challenge of getting an MBA, he smiles and says, "I am kind of a reluctant technologist. I always ended up in technology roles, but my interest is probably more in economics. I wanted more exposure to non-technical work."He is getting all of these at Paymark. "I don't think I could do my job here effectively if I was a pure technologist," says Robinson. "I see my role as a general management role. It is really translating company strategy into something new, that you can deploy. My managers need to make good business decisions about technology and I am just here to support them and ensure that [happens]."One area Paymark is focusing on is staffing. He says Paymark has gone on a recruitment drive and sourced some people with specialised skills from offshore. "The lack of these specialised skills impacted our ability to deliver, and now our throughput of projects delivered has doubled in a couple of years."Paymark trains people internally and provides them with a "good career path". One area they start with is the help desk, answering customer queries. Those with a technical interest will often progress to the operations sector which is a 24x7 monitoring team and from there, they will move to one of the core systems support roles."We get quite a high performance out of people we move through internally, because generally the people we progress are the motivated people who want to get ahead in a technology career. It has worked really well."Robinson says outsourcing is not a major activity in the company, as Paymark itself is an outsourcing provider. What the company is big on is security. Paymark has a security manager and three full-time security staff. "If we are not secure, we really don't have an operation," he says.If there is one thing he is ensuring the ICT team is cognisant on, it is the imperative of customer focus. And the four cornerstones to achieve this -- listen, understand, commit and deliver -- are found in Paymark's screen saver, on walls and in note pads. Robinson translates how this applies to the ICT team: "We have got the best technologists, but what we are trying to do is get people to culturally listen to our customers, understand what they are after, commit to those days and deliver. That is what our focus is on." Follow CIO NZ on Twitter @cio_nz


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