As a college student studying to become a high school history teacher, Eric Starkey had no idea a job he took in IT support would change his career progression forever.
Starkey realized he enjoyed “tinkering with computers,” and when he landed a full-time job while still attending Southeastern Louisiana University, he learned firsthand how a better-paying line of business would aid in supporting his young family.
After college, Starkey spent time in accounting and logistics management roles before pursuing a master’s degree in business administration. To pay the bills during graduate school, he took a job in 2018 as assistant IT director at Louisiana Federal Credit Union ($438.0M, La Place, LA).
“I was looking for a carryover job while I finished my master’s,” Starkey says. “I didn’t know much about the credit union industry. I’ve always had a heart for nonprofits and community service, so it ended up being an area where I could blend my technical management skills with community service.”
Within a few weeks, the credit union promoted Starkey to fill the vacant director of IT role. After many successful projects and one global pandemic, he became the credit union’s first full-fledged chief information officer in 2021.
Starkey holds a number of professional certifications, including Certified Information Security Systems Professional (CISSP), Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Information Security Manager (CISM), and Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP), but he says IT management is about more than just understanding technology.
“The technical side of what we do is actually pretty easy,” he says. “It’s working with the people and getting everybody on the same page that’s sometimes the most challenging part.”
Just-In-Time IT Modernization
As with most jobs, timing is everything. As IT director, Starkey was responsible for both technology modernization and cybersecurity. In the year leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, he managed the credit union’s implementation of Microsoft Teams, which would prove critical during the lockdowns and the move to remote work in March 2020.
“We upgraded and modernized everything and finished all of those upgrades literally two or three weeks before the pandemic hit, so we were perfectly positioned,” Starkey says. “We deployed 60% of our workers to remote within a week. We were able to do that because of all the upgrades we made in the in the few years prior.”
Since Starkey joined in 2018, the credit union has moved its core banking to a Jack Henry system in a private cloud. It also has moved its phone and contact center system to a cloud-based solution. Although some systems do still rely on an on-premises data center, the hardware is co-located with a third-party data center to ensure redundancy and resilience. According to Starkey, Louisiana FCU reviewed its entire IT estate with a digital-first agenda and made infrastructure decisions based on a member service as well as a financial standpoint.
The credit union also has assessed the usability of its online systems and found ways to streamline process, such as loan applications, and create better integration points between systems to pre-populate customer information fields and ensure a common look and feel across applications.
“Most of the effort was making things as frictionless as possible for our members in the online digital environment,” Starkey says.
New C-Level Role
For the first three years, Starkey reported to CFO Melissa Matherne. He credits her with speaking to the CEO Rhonda Hotard about the need to give technology a voice at the executive level.
CU QUICK FACTS
DATA AS OF 09.30.22
HQ: La Place, LA
NET WORTH: 11.5%
HR reached out to other credit unions for background on a CIO job description, and Starkey joined the executive leadership team in an official capacity in January 2021.
“The transition felt really natural,” he says. “I was basically running the department and, outside of having the title, I had already developed a voice of leadership in the credit union.”
Larger credit unions might have a chief digital officer in addition to a chief information officer, but Starkey says Louisiana FCU isn’t quite ready for that. So, IT, marketing and operations share the responsibilities for digital initiatives.
“We’re not quite to that size yet,” Starkey says. “We have all these thoughts, and we want to act like a like a $2 billion shop. We’re trying to figure out what can and what we are ready to do.”
Building Out The IT Team
With demand for technical resources at an all-time high, one of the biggest challenges of building an IT team these days is keeping it together, Starkey says. He has a 10-member team and says he’s fortunate to have lost only two employees during the past four years.
“A lot of people put all of their attention on putting a team together that has all the technical skills,” Starkey says. “Skills are important, but you’ve got to get people who have personalities that fit the culture and the team.”
So, part of the credit union’s hiring process includes a meeting with the team. Team members have the opportunity to evaluate applicants and have “veto power” in hiring decisions. That inclusive team environment is key to retention, Starkey says.
“I tell them all the time that my goal is to make them as happy as I can, where they never want to leave,” he says. “And I really mean that.”
One of Starkey’s first major hiring decisions was a new position to the credit union — director of information security. Until last year, Starkey handled both IT and cybersecurity roles himself.
With news headlines broadcasting ransomware attacks and business disruptions, the board understood the need for a dedicated cybersecurity professional. Starkey encouraged a member of the team to earn the needed cybersecurity certifications, moved him to an information security role, and promoted him to director in July.
“We’ve been able to do a lot of good things quickly because anytime I’ve asked for support, I’ve gotten it,” Starkey says. “That’s from the board, the CEO, and the rest of the senior management team. There is no way we would have been able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished here without that support.”
Louisiana FCU’s innovation will continue in 2023. The cooperative is converting some of its drive-thrus into interactive teller machine lanes and is also installing ITMs in lobbies. By the end of the year, Starkey hopes to have 10 to 12 ITMs operating across the branch network.
The project requires coordination among IT systems, operations, accounting, marketing, and risk management.
“It takes the whole village to deploy these properly,” Starkey says.
That level of collaboration is essential to the long-term success of the credit union, he adds.
“We’re at that place where we are transitioning to having an enterprise IT staff that is involved in more conversations,” the IT chief says.
Starkey wants to see the credit union become an organization where IT interacts with other departments rather than sitting alone in a dark room. He wants IT to work with co-workers to discover what they need and then find a technical solution for them.
“So, almost thinking about IT from the marketing angle to help people understand we’re here to help,” Starkey says. “Let us partner with you so we can help you even more.”