Small vs. big IT: Two teams, two plans, one winner

A regional tech group gives the parent company's development squad a run for the money during a data migration

A significant factor in how smoothly a project is completed is a team's culture, whether it's bogged down by extra hoops to jump through, a negative environment, or even size. And when time to market affects the business's bottom line, an IT team's efficiency becomes even more important, as I learned.

Back in the early 1990s, I was working for a regional bank that was part of a larger banking parent company. We retained our own name, brand, and a separate technology platform, so it was not apparent to most people that we were not our own bank.

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Internally, it was a different story.

The IT teams didn't interact that often. But there was a sense that the regional bank was the stepchild of the parent company, and we were treated as such. For example, one of the people who worked for me managed our mainframe printing environment. There was an annual national conference that he would have benefited from. I tried multiple times to get approval from the parent bank for him to attend, but was always told it was not in the budget and to try again next year.

One year, I called the parent bank's IT team to request they make a small change to a print job it ran for us. I happened to make the request when the meetings were being held. The response: "Can this wait until next week? Most of our people are attending the conference this week."

Despite such instances, our group enjoyed an important benefit: We were more technically nimble. We were smaller, we knew who did what, and we could get things done quickly. The parent company's team had many more silos and red tape, and any time we had to coordinate with them it took many times longer than necessary. Getting them to do something was like turning an oil tanker.

But for the most part, our IT departments kept to ourselves and we were given enough space to make decisions that worked best for our region's needs.

At one point, the parent company bought out a competitor -- a fairly large one, at that. The challenge for the IT teams was to convert the competitor's accounts to our own applications; management did not give us the option to continue to run the competitor's applications. Checking and savings account conversions would need to be planned and executed perfectly.

I was part of the team that worked on the planning for our regional bank. We worked and reworked plans for converting our portion of the competitor's accounts and a checklist to roll out the changes as quickly as possible following the feds' approval of the acquisition. We were ready.

The CIO of the larger parent company called a meeting to coordinate the IT teams' conversion plans, so key managers from our IT team flew to corporate HQ.

The meeting was held in mid-February. The CIO started the meeting by asking the parent company's team when their conversion would be completed. They replied that they'd have their plans done by late summer.

The CIO then asked when our regional bank's conversion would be completed. Our managers told him "end of June." He said, "You mean that's when you will have your plan completed?" Our managers told him that no, that was when the conversion itself would be completed -- all checking and savings accounts, everything.

He turned to the managers representing the parent company's technology team and asked them, "So these guys are going to have their conversion completed before you even have your plan completed?!"

We tried not to gloat, but the word got around that the parent company's tech team was "challenged" by management to speed up their portion of the conversions. "Big" does not always mean "great."

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