by Charlie Feld

How Agile Development and Virtual Teams Help the Fed Set the Economy’s Course

Aug 27, 2009
IT Leadership

Meredith Black, SVP of the Dallas Fed, tells how agile development and virtual teams enable the Fed to respond more quickly to changes in the economy

Charlie Feld: The Federal Reserve System has been traditionally decentralized. Has IT been able to gain any synergies?

Meredith Black: We are 12 independent legal entities with our own IT priorities. Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Fed, saw an opportunity to improve efficiency and save money and set about changing the IT governance model with his peers. They created the position of system CIO, [held by] Lon Zanetta, to create a larger view and coax the 12 CIOs to cooperate wherever possible.

Charlie Feld: How did that new model help you respond to the economic crisis?

Meredith Black: As it happened, there were many business systems that were reaching end of life. They needed to be redeveloped, replatformed and rationalized. So we already had a joint modernization plan. Now we had a new call to action as a result of the economy. By happenstance, among the first systems reworked with our new methodologies were for our Discount Window operations (which provide banks with short-term loans). That has paid off in spades for us.

Read more of Charlie Feld’s Columns: How the United Kingdom Delivers Customer-Centric Government Services and J.C. Penney’s Recession Investment Strategy.

We have had new programs to help inject more liquidity into the economy in a variety of new ways during this crisis. One might be announced on Thursday that had to be made available on Monday morning to financial institutions. It was only because we had the agile development methods and modern technologies that we could deploy the necessary capability. I’m not going to tell you it was easy, but we were able to pull it off month after month, so that as policy makers were developing new policies, they could count on IT backing them up. There is no question that had we not begun to change our IT model and culture several years ago, we would not have been able to act as boldly and rapidly as we needed to.

We have also naturally evolved in such a way that different banks are specializing in certain technologies or fields. This has helped us build more depth than we could have if we all invested in everything. For example, in Dallas we are predominately a J2EE shop while others focus on .Net or ColdFusion or specialize in a field such as automated testing. So I know that when I get to a certain stage in development, I can turn to New York for penetration testing or to San Francisco for usability testing and I don’t have to invest in those skills myself.

Charlie Feld: How did the changes you made affect how the different IT shops, including yours, operate?

Meredith Black: One of the things we had struggled with was that from location to location we had all adopted different technologies and methodologies. If I had a very large project, it was hard to partner up with another bank; I usually ended up having to contract for additional resources. So we picked one development methodology—the unified process—and we standardized on the Project Management Institute’s project management methodology. That allowed for virtual teaming across the country.

We thought our next big push to drive down costs and improve time-to-market was going to be common services, but we had a lot of difficulty articulating the business value of that to our customers. Besides, they were getting a little tired of all our emphasis on process. They just wanted to see results. So we continued to standardize our underlying infrastructure in order that the assets that were being developed by the virtual teams could be plug and play as much as possible. We knew there were more cost savings to be had.

That’s where we had transitioned to when the economic downturn hit at the end of 2007, beginning of 2008. The business areas were working through their response to the changes in the economy and turned to IT for both analysis and rapid implementation. Fortunately, we were well positioned with our common methodologies and governance models to muster up whatever resources we needed, wherever they were positioned, and to apply them quickly to the business problem of the week.

Charlie Feld: Bringing ideas to market quickly requires you harmonize data definitions and externalize business rules so you don’t need to get a programmer in the middle of every change.

Meredith Black: There is no longer any debate about that given our need for a high rate of change and flexibility. But we are awash in data; getting to that data and turning it quickly and effectively into information is hard. By combining data across business areas we can begin to do analysis in a different way. We think that’s our next big nut to crack.

The data issue has really risen up as a result of the market crisis. Like common services, this is an area that we knew held tremendous payoff for us but we had real problems explaining to our business customers the value of investing in newer data management techniques.

Charlie Feld: The analytical cycle has been dramatically reduced from a periodic event to a real time game over the last two years.

Meredith Black: Exactly. We’re still interested in what happened last year. But we want to drill into current events to looks at causes and effects. Being able to bring disparate data together so that we can understand inter-relationships will help us. Then we want to use the trends to suggest what is likely to happen next.

Just being able to bring disparate sets of data together to see if there is any correlation among them is very new to us in many business areas. However, everyone is convinced that the speed of change and the many variables that can affect our decisions in this global economy will require robust management and analytical tools be accessible to business users without going through IT. In monetary policy, the research economists have been doing this for years. But the volume, velocity and variety of data has changed the game forever.

Another thing that has changed forever is the 24/7 need for things like Blackberry, e-mail, remote connectivity and printing services. The need to be always on has put great pressure on infrastructure resiliency and continuous operations. This has been a bit of a surprise to us; roles were reversed and we found ourselves having to be convinced by the business areas that there really was a critical need for these types of services at o-dark-thirty at night. After all, it’s just e-mail.

But we’ve found is that these productivity services have become as indispensable as the telephone. You never really think about the telephone’s value until you pick up the receiver and you get no dial tone. In the old Fed, if e-mail was down at three a.m. for maintenance it was not a problem. Now it is.

Charlie Feld: I guess the old cliché of a job with bankers hours has been blown up.

Meredith Black: We are more like a FedEx we never sleep anymore. We are always on and we like it that way.

A member of the CIO Hall of Fame, Charlie Feld retired from HP in 2008. In 2009, he relaunched The Feld Group, focused on IT leadership training and development.