It’s what every CIO wants to do: marshal IT’s resources to help the company innovate and gain competitive advantage in the marketplace. Unfortunately for some, it never happens. They’re relegated to the task of keeping the IT lights on, and they never get a sniff of those loftier IT missions.
And then there are the lucky ones like Cam Murray, Senior VP and CIO, Information Systems at Fidelity Investments Canada Limited, one of the largest mutual fund companies in the country. A big part of Murray’s job is helping his firm bring new products to market and execute its core strategy of helping investors plan and save for retirement, while making it easier for brokers and financial planners to do total management of their clients’ needs up to and throughout retirement.
Over the past year, Murray has been immersed in delivering the first in a suite of products that will provide full end-to-end solutions to the marketplace. Green-lighted early last year and scheduled to launch this spring, the new Internet-based offering will allow financial planners and brokers to put together a basket of mutual funds for their clients and have that asset mix automatically rebalance itself at specified intervals in accord with the client’s instructions.
“It’s going to be a really flexible tool for planning the client’s investments throughout the course of their life,” explained Murray. “The real advantage for planners and brokers will be that they won’t have to manually put the trades through themselves. Trades are automatically triggered when the asset mix in a client’s portfolio deviates by a predetermined percentage.”
If, for example, the investor or their advisor wants to rebalance every quarter and move from an aggressive to a conservative asset mix over time, the product will enable that to happen automatically. Tolerance levels have been built in so that slight variances in the predetermined asset mix do not generate a lot of transactions.
A complex undertaking
On the face of it the project might seem relatively straightforward, but in fact it has been a very complex undertaking.
For starters, the product could have a lifespan of 30 years or 40 years for some clients. Trying to take into consideration all of the variables and everything that could potentially take place in that timeframe raised a lot of questions and put pressure on the design team to be really forward thinking.
But that was just the start of the challenge. What really complicated the project, according to Murray, was the wide range of groups it would touch upon. “It’s been a long task trying to build something that is going to resonate with all of our 14 stakeholders and ensure that it meets with their requirements,” he noted.
Those stakeholders include the brokers and planners, and their back offices and head offices, as well as Fidelity’s back-office processing people, marketing people, and systems people. As well, information must be pulled from Morningstar, a mutual fund research organization. And then there is FundSERV, an organization that sits between the fund company and the brokers, providing the ability to place, reconcile and settle orders. Finally there are regulators and compliance issues that must be taken into account.
To accomplish all this, Fidelity has had a team of up to 60 people working on the project for nearly a year, made up in equal parts of people from IS, the product development group, and the marketing group. Murray stressed that this is not one of those projects that has been tossed over the fence for IS to implement.
“We’re treating this as a business project, not an IS project,” he said. “My developers read the marketing literature and training manuals, and all the press releases were reviewed by systems personnel. This helps make sure that there is full engagement by everybody and a complete understanding of what’s going on.”
Project managers from the IS side have been tasked with managing all aspects of the project right through launch, including coordinating training for both IS people and clients.
Importance of governance
Murray credits Fidelity’s governance process as being one of the keys to the success of the project.
The company has a technology steering committee, which is chaired by Murray and includes senior IS management along with all the members of the senior executive team, including the President and the various department heads. Four senior members from that group comprise the steering committee for the project, including Murray and the heads of Operations, Products & Marketing, and Sales. Having these four senior executives on the project steering committee was crucial to its success, Murray believes.
“Once the steering committee established the project as a top priority, it gave me a lot of latitude and I was able to get good focus among my team and the organization. I could get resources quickly and pop them in where I needed them, and then pop them out,” he said. “Having senior people there, able to provide input or make decisions on a timely basis, really expedites the process. It’s a model that we will try to continue to use where appropriate.”
Murray noted that having team members see their respective bosses at the table and committed to the project gave them the assurance that they had full support in what they were doing. If they had questions, concerns or ideas that they wanted to funnel up to the steering committee, they knew they were going to be listened to.
“If you’re on some working committee, spending long hours on a project, it really helps if your boss is involved in the project – knows about it, acknowledges the work you’re doing, and asks you questions about it. It gets everybody mustered around the project,” he said.
As the senior IT exec, it’s important not to overlook the little things, he added. “You’ve got to do walk-arounds – make sure that people know the project is on the radar and that you are appreciative of the efforts they’re putting in. Just asking a developer, ‘how’s it going?’ can make a difference. The smallest gesture goes a long way sometimes.”
One of the initial challenges the team faced was in determining how to build the product – how to architect it in order to ensure proper response time on the Web applications and on the back end.
“We had to decide where to put the business logic,” said Murray. “It seems fairly intuitive – you want your business logic on the back end. But there were times when we said, ‘maybe this should be on the presentation layer’. In the end we settled for pure presentation layer on the front end and all of our business logic on the back end. And that will serve us well going forward.”
The project channeled into two streams – the back-end Progress 4GL stream and the Websphere front-end presentation-layer stream. Sonic ESB infrastructure was used to integrate the two. As things moved forward and work began on the middle tier, some of Fidelity’s Boston-based IT staff were brought on board in order to make sure that present and future corporate standards were abided by.
“We wanted to make sure that any code we developed here could potentially be used in the US, and vice versa,” said Murray. “We tried to make a lot of reusable objects in this design, so that we or our U.S. operations can leverage them in the future.”
The project started getting really good traction when it reached the prototyping stage in late June. “That’s when we really started to get a feel for the power of what we could do, and all the ideas really started to flow,” said Murray. “Then it became a matter of how to control the scope of the project and what to put into Phase II.”
In retrospect, Murray would like to have gotten to this point quicker.
“Getting to the prototyping stage as early as possible in the project lifecycle really pays big dividends,” he said. “We’ve got another initiative under way right now and we started doing wire-framing early in the process. And we’re certainly seeing a quicker development lifecycle on something that may not be as complex, but which is a major initiative. There are fewer questions arising – fewer people asking if we can do this or that at a later stage when such requests are harder to implement.”
Taking it to the street
As the product approached maturity, it was rolled out in phases to different audiences to get their input. By the time it was presented to senior management it was quite polished and easily established its credibility.
In the fall, the product was far enough advanced to reveal to the brokerage community.
“You don’t really want it out on the street for competitive reasons, yet in order to execute it properly you’re reliant on input and buy-in from the users,” said Murray. “So we started out contacting people at the senior levels within the brokerages and planning firms to make them aware of it, not only from an operations perspective but also from a compliance and a head-office sales perspective.”
The team then started dealing with the back-office people to see if they had any concerns and were able to accommodate the transactions that would be coming in. By December, all of the major challenges had been addressed and the team looked forward to preparing for the spring launch. “We had a little celebration just before Christmas,” said Murray, “and it was nice to see how proud everybody was of what they had accomplished and how they feel it’s such a class product.”
Getting all the stakeholders to work together as a cohesive team with a single focus was one of the real accomplishments of the project, said Murray. Everyone associated with it took ownership and accountability for the project, putting in long hours to make sure that timelines were met.
Perhaps one of the reasons the team gelled so well was that the right people were on board from the start, and good internal communications were in place.”
“You’ve got to make sure there’s a good pipeline up the organization,” said Murray. “Hire good people and have faith in them – let them do their job and respect their opinion. When they’re telling you something, they’re telling you for a reason, good or bad. So let those people have an opinion and listen to them.”
Putting on a show
Murray and the IT team are in the midst of a complete rewrite of another major application called Net Benefits for the Retirement Services side of the business. Scheduled for release in June it will require Murray and his team take the stage with clients.
But their time in the spotlight will be short-lived as approval has been given to commence work on two other major initiatives focused on retirement planning.
The fun never stops.
–David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is editor of CIO Canada.
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