By John Adams
Colin Eccles knows he's fortunate - being recruited to run an entire bank's tech shop is a plum assignment for an IT exec in any economy. But he's also made his own luck.
Surveying the financial tech landscape like a race car driver who simultaneously looks to the challenges in turn three while planning how he'll attack turn two and executing turn one, the new Umpqua Bank CIO's done a stellar job of melding his IT skills, experience, learning curve and knowledge of the banking business to his career and geographic goals - recession be damned.
His career achievements are a lesson in how up-to-date tech skills, broad training in business disciplines as well as technology, and a flexible mindset with regard to size of institution and scope of job duties can lead to opportunity in even the toughest of markets.
While thousands of bank IT workers, hundreds of thousands of banking professionals and millions of Americans scramble to stay employed or find new jobs, Eccles early this year smoothly moved from CIO of the retail banking unit at nearly dead Washington Mutual to Portland-based Umpqua, recruited to the top IT job at a relatively stable institution in a location that allows him to stay close to home in the Pacific Northwest. He'll also have the chance to hit cleanup on a number of interesting cross-enterprise initiatives, such as spearheading the bank's efforts to enhance online banking and treasury management. And Eccles will be front and center in determining the best ways to align enterprise architecture to enhance vendor management and integrate the various brands of software used across the bank.
"It's a difficult time for a lot of people in our industry. But I've always been fortunate. The work has found me," says Eccles, who says he wasn't downsized from WaMu, nor did he make the move because he felt a layoff was imminent. Eccles says his move was driven by corporate culture - the tech-friendly Umpqua is known as an early adopter of new initiatives like branch automation - and the opportunity to more broadly flex his IT muscles. "What attracted me to Umpqua was the chance to come in and be involved in all aspects of technology," says Eccles, who now oversees about 100 IT people at Umpqua, whereas WaMu's IT shop had about 2,000 workers. "There's far less bureaucracy at a smaller bank, you can move quickly and do so without having to go through a lot of internal processes."
To stay viable, career experts say IT execs will have to consider opportunities they may not have in a better economy - such as a move to a smaller bank or a cross-industry move such as leaving a tech start up or hedge fund for a job at an established retail bank. "In a typical market, you wouldn't see someone go from a larger bank to a smaller bank. But because of all of the failures and the toxic assets at the larger banks, the ground is starting to soften," says Robert Boroff, a managing director at Reaction Search International in San Francisco.
The ground is being softened by ugly data. The U.S. Department of Labor says there were about 7.9 million people working in the U.S. financial services industry as of February, down from just over 8 million at the end of 2008, about 8.3 million at the end of 2007 and 8.33 million at the end of 2006. (The statistics don't break out IT workers from the general financial services workforce.)
Many of those 430,000 displaced workers are undoubtedly feeling the pressure. "There's a clock ticking, and it's tied to my bank account," says Steve Kerstein, an out of work IT specialist from Bergen County, NJ, who most recently worked on trading platforms for hedge funds.
Kerstein has searched for hedge fund and trading desk work throughout the New York area, but with the well seemingly dry, has started to look at other categories of finance, as well as nonfinancial verticals such as healthcare. "None of the large financial institutions are hiring right now," he says. "I'm not being that selective."
Kim Boatson, the president of careermanagement.com in Seattle, says the severity of the downturn breeds the kind of self-reflection that makes dramatic career moves more likely. "The banking industry's at the center of the economic downturn. The bank executive is forced to ask 'Where do I go from here? Do I leave the industry? Do I take my skills into other areas of finance?" she says. "If you're a bank IT exec, you have to take inventory of your achievements and be able to quantify the impact you've had at all of the places that you've worked as a way to create a personal brand."
For Dan Houlihan, that personal brand is being a noted specialist in investment operations outsourcing, and about a half year ago he used his experience as president of tech provider Citisoft in North America and 20 years of overall experience in the tech development and IOO business to snare position as head of product and strategy for Northern Trust's IOO operation in Chicago, where he'll oversee a range of middle and back office services and global tech architecture.
It would appear to be a strong position for Houlihan to survive and thrive during the downturn. All of the bad press over the bank's misadventures with TARP funding, golf sponsorship and Sheryl Crow concerts aside, Northern Trust in the past year generated $4.3 billion in revenue and $795 million in profits, and considers IOO to be a strategic growth initiative. "There's going to be a lot of opportunity in the IOO space," Houlihan says of the bank's goals to leverage its IOO technology to attract business from other institutions. "Our front office is their back office. There's going to be a lot of innovation in this space."
Eccles' career success was forged over three decades of experience and training. Beyond the obvious retail banking experience from WaMu, he also worked for Hogan Systems, a Dallas-based firm that provides integrated banking software that's used by institutions such as Wells Fargo and US Bank, giving him insight into both sides of the vendor/bank relationship. It also helps Eccles that he has a Masters of Business Leadership Degree earned from the University of South Africa (that country's version of an MBA), and a PMP (project management professional) certification from the Project Management Institute that he earned about 10 years ago, giving him a knowledge of business and organization structure that goes beyond software. "Banks are looking for more ability and flexibility from their IT organization today. They want IT execs who can deliver new products and services quickly, and manage different vendors and in house solutions," Eccles says, noting the advantage of project management training.
At Training Camp, a Philadelphia-based IT training firm specializing in Microsoft, Cisco, security and other IT certifications, the percentage of IT execs coming in on their own has recently increased dramatically. The traditional split in Training Camp students that are sent by their employers, versus those who enroll independently has been 80-20 across all industries. Since October, that ratio is narrowed to 65/35 as companies cut back on training and IT workers go back to school to make themselves more marketable. "The students want to bundle and achieve multiple certifications," says Training Camp CEO Chris Porter, who like Boatson observed overall training volume was at first slow in the fall, then spiked considerably as the reality of the crisis started to sink in. "To be more valuable you now need to have multiple skill sets. You want to be someone who can come into an IT department and standout with a breadth of capabilities."
This article can also be found at AmericanBanker.com.
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