The New Role Of Tech Leaders In A Non-Legacy World

IT is increasingly working with operations, facilities, and marketing to make drastic changes happen successfully.

Sam James, vice president of information systems for Mobiloil Federal Credit Union ($465.2M, Beaumont, TX), has seen many advancements in technology during his 10 years with the credit union and previous experiences with credit unions, banks, and the broader corporate world. In this Q&A, James reflects on the changing role of the technology leader and the opportunities for increased collaboration on the horizon.

Talk a bit about your background. Has your career always been in credit unions?

SAM JAMES: I’ve been with Mobiloil FCU for a little more than 10 years and have previous experience with New Mexico Educators Credit Union in Albuquerque, NM. Prior to that, I was in the military and worked for Rocky Mountain Bank, which became John Harland. I also spent some time in the corporate world, so I bring a varied background to my current position.


data as of 12.31.13

  • HQ: Beaumont, TX
  • ASSETS: $465.2M
  • MEMBERS: 40,009
  • 12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 7.00%
  • 12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 15.94%
  • ROA: 1.65%

Do you report directly to the CEO? How is the management team structured?

SJ: I report to both the CEO and the EVP, which is an interesting structure and works well for us. Throughout my career, it has been the same type of structure. With my background in strategic planning and business management, I am fortunate to participate in a lot of discussions that others in my position might not.

Are you involved in Mobiloil FCU’s strategic planning efforts?

SJ: Yes, I am involved in the annual strategic planning. We do business planning as well and involve all of the senior team in that. We recently held a snowball conference where we took all of the senior level and some mid-level managers off-site for a one-day conference that focused on online services. I led that conference and did something similar for our core conversion. The goal was to get everyone talking and sharing without leading anyone in a specific direction.

Have you seen or are you seeing the role of the IT leader change?

SJ: In some places, the IT leader is still just the guy who runs the team and makes sure everything that plugs into the wall still works. However, as technology has advanced and programming features have gotten better, I believe the role of IT is now more focused on streamlining processes and building automation tools so we can make things work better. Some of the things we only dreamed of in the past are now readily available. For example, faster data transfer speeds and more reasonable rates can allow us to build new partnerships between like-minded financial institutions. These types of collaboration projects are something the technology leader needs to be heavily involved with whether it is a partnership in online services, call centers, or other areas of the operation. Technology and the technology leader are central in the evolution of shared infrastructure and allowing the organization to grow without adding a bunch of new people to manage that growth.

Reach For The Cutting Edge

Read more from Sam James about how Mobiloil FCU built an expansive technology base without breaking the bank.

Is the role of IT is moving more toward the business side of the organization versus a support role?

SJ: Yes, especially as IT professionals rise in the ranks, they need to be moving more toward the business side. It’s also absolutely necessary for the technology leader to know project management thoroughly in addition to business management, strategic management, and risk management.

What new or different skills does the person making technology decisions need?

SJ: I think the leaders need to have a clear understanding of risk and mitigating risk. This has always been true, but today it is especially critical to keep up with regulatory changes, which takes constant education. They also need to know which technologies are available or on the horizon for two reasons: one, they need to be able to introduce them; and two, they need to have adequate risk mitigation strategies in place.

Where do people skills rank on the list of tomorrow’s tech leader?

SJ: In the old days of IT when we were down in the dungeon programming, there weren’t as many opportunities to give presentations to the board and executive team. The education component is becoming a larger part of the job, and I think some of us need to be more comfortable making presentations to make sure everyone understands what is possible. We also need to work more closely with other areas of the credit union than in the past.

Are there specific areas where credit union IT leaders should be more involved?

SJ: I think credit union IT professionals should certainly be involved in non-traditional branch design and what might have traditionally been considered operations projects. Technology is becoming more critical to our facilities design with self-service areas and lobbies that look more like an Apple store than the old standard branch. IT needs to be able to meet with the senior teams early on in these projects to be able to deliver the right types of technical options and help guide the initial design. In the future, I see IT working more closely with operations, facilities, and marketing to make drastic changes happen successfully.

We also need to be looking ahead at how things are likely going to work in the future and what the credit union is doing to prepare for that. Taking indirect lending as one example, at some point I envision you’ll be able to use technology to walk into a car lot, pick your vehicle, scan it with your device of choice, and walk out with your car. The credit union will take care of approving your loan and paying the dealer on the back-end; but for the consumer, that will be that. It is legacy thinking to see a future world where people have to stop what they are doing to think about their financial institution. It will be much more likely that taking care of your financial business will be something people do while multi-tasking or continuing on with their day. Banking has already become fast with mobile services, and it’s only due to get faster.

July 21, 2014

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