Ensuring all systems go

August 7, 2015
in Achievements

Following the recent conversion from the Acumen to the Wealthview Banking system across its Valley First branches, First West Credit Union takes a look at what’s required to make a technology project of this magnitude and complexity successful. In the first of this four-part series we speak with project manager Richard vander Helm.

Can you describe what a banking system conversion entails?
A banking system is the nerve centre of a financial institution. It contains all your members’ personal and financial information and is the engine room that powers daily transactions. Given its importance, no FI looks forward to a system conversion. They are complex, long-term projects that carry a significant degree of organizational risk, but there’s nothing to fear when you plan carefully and have the right people in place.

With any conversion, hundreds of thousands of pieces of data have to make it from the old system to a new system. And, the new system has to immediately start processing tens of thousands of transactions daily. During our conversion, the testing team uncovered and resolved almost 2,800 issues—that’s a good thing—and ran, ran and ran again more than 2,500 test scripts. When you push the button to begin a conversion, you’ve got to be 100 per cent sure you’ve covered every possible angle.

Technical knowledge, allocating resources, costs and budgeting, scheduling, team building, reporting — project managers have lots of skills they draw on at various points in a project; which was most important to the overall success of the project?
A lot of organizations fail to deliver when it comes time to put together the team. With First West, I didn’t just get the available people, I got the best people. We also realized early on we’d need some specialists from outside the organization and were fully committed to getting the best people out there.

While specialists were required in some areas, we didn’t focus solely on technical skills or banking system knowledge. In fact, some of our testing team had little to no experience with the mapping or test script procedures they were assigned. However, they knew banking from the member-service side or were branch operations experts and, most important, they had a history of being exceptional team players in their branch roles.

We had absolutely no personality conflicts for the entire two-year duration of the project. Unlike many projects I’ve worked on where everyone is dying to get to the end, many of our project members would have happily continued on for another two years.

Highlights and lowlights?
We made the decision early in the year to delay our planned conversion date. Pushing back your go-live date would normally be a lowlight, but with our conversion it demonstrated the value of our holistic approach to evaluating the project. While our earliest mock-conversion test revealed our technical readiness was acceptable, our change management and business readiness were equally important factors. With our go no-go date looming, there were some concerns around the amount of process change for our member-facing teams as well as evaluating some of the effects on our members.

While many organizations would have pushed through with conversion at this point, our executive steering committee realized the extent of these potential problems. It was a difficult decision to delay at the time, but a smooth conversion was dependent on meeting strict requirements for both technical and business readiness.

The highlight was definitely a flawless go-live weekend. Lean principles and continuous learning are engrained in First West culture and the hundreds of steps in the process were evaluated one by one after each mock test and scrutinized for improvements. We were able to shorten the process dramatically and our actual conversion was complete in about 36 hours; half the time of our initial expectation.

Succeeding where others have failed, what made conversion so smooth?
It was definitely the people involved. I spent most of my time with the systems team and I could see a real personal commitment to the project. There were some long days and nights for the systems team, but I never had to worry about asking the team to stay late or give up a weekend. Empowerment is an often-used word but with First West it’s not about power. They believe in succeeding together and I saw junior people step-up and take on great responsibility as well as senior people diving into the trenches when we really needed to get through a pile of test scripts.

The branch teams were the other side of the equation and they also really took ownership of the project. They poured over the training materials, shared ideas and tips, and when we actually flipped the switch, they were more than ready to go. An interconnected, collaborative approach with a constant flow of information between the project team and the branches really leveraged the expertise in both branch operations and First West’s shared services departments.

What is the one piece of advice you would pass on to any Project Manager working on a banking conversion?

It’s hard to nail down just one. I already mentioned commitment from your client to assemble the best team possible. I would have to add plan for the unexpected. Making sure you have sufficient time and budget contingencies set up from the beginning will give you a little breathing room when things don’t go exactly as planned.

Richard vander Helm is a project manager with more than 20 years of project management experience.

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