CBA CIO: IT skills still a challenge

CommBank chief information officer Michael Harte claims that finding skilled staff for the bank's core banking system upgrade is a difficult task despite the recent spate of ICT redundancies.

CommBank chief information officer Michael Harte claims that finding skilled staff for the bank's core banking system upgrade is a difficult task despite the recent spate of ICT redundancies.

michael harte commbank

CommBank CIO Michael Harte
(Credit: Commonwealth Bank)

The bank's $580 million core banking system replacement, expected to take five years and likened by some to a heart and lung transplant, has set CommBank on a hectic hiring strategy that sees hundreds coming and going each year, according to Harte.

"There are many streams of work in a program that large and so we are always looking for new skills. Our focus on that program has intensified rather than reduced," he said.

CommBank has hunted for a wide range of technology skills at a time when many workers in the Australian IT industry have been spooked by large layoffs. But, while he said it was difficult to make any general comment about the state of the IT labour market, the impact of those redundancies so far had not had a noticeable effect on the availability of skills.

"We haven't seen a flurry of people being made redundant from other organisations being available on the market," he said. "There's no doubt, however, that across the IT industry, generally, there are probably fewer opportunities and the market has been more oversupplied than it has been in the past 12 months. But we're not seeing any radical shift."

Not surprisingly, the most desired skills on Harte's wish list were related to SAP. More recently though, migration skills have become a priority. "People that know how to extract and load data off old applications, old databases and onto new — we're actively employing in that environment," Harte explained.

"We might want database administrators one month, engineers another or testers — there are large numbers coming in and out depending on the skill sets we need."

And while its search for migration specialists had intensified, redundancies that may occur as the bank switches off legacy systems were some way off yet, he said.

"That has been planned for the second, third and fourth quarter [of next year]. We will be doing the migration work much later but the planning for migration is well underway."

Even before the financial crisis, the Australian banking sector's technical workforce had taken a battering via moves by the likes of NAB and ANZ, both of which have reduced local technology staff counts as they transfer work to off-shore technology centres.

While major restructures at CommBank have occurred, such as reshuffling its line-up of outsourced contracts for application management in an effort to move away from its EDS-dominated outsourcing arrangements, staff cuts within CommBank's technology and operations division had not occurred, said Harte, who also drew a clear line between the bank's 2,500 in-house IT staff and 500 IT contractors.

"We have not specifically laid off Commonwealth Bank employees, but we have let go a number of contractors," he said. However, he suggested those contractor cuts were part of the bank's standard hiring strategy.

For example, the bank was currently seeking around 60 IT contractors, said Harte, while "there might be 30 to 40 we see out the door" in the meantime.

Unlike the staff cuts announced by ANZ Bank last Friday, he denied he was under pressure to reduce CommBank's technology staff count.

"Every single year we control, with machine like precision, the number of people we need from a skills and capability perspective... And as different project investments go up and down, we have the flexibility to move people in and out, so there is no change in that. It's business as usual," said Harte.

Core banking: CommBank confidential
The $580 million core banking systems replacement, which has been driving the revolving door of contractors, has been the subject of widespread speculation since CommBank's CEO Ralph Norris announced the project in April.

SAP's core banking platform was settled on, while Accenture was selected as the key integration partner.

At the time Norris said that a new core banking system would replace 40-year old systems and deliver "real-time" banking for consumers. However, in the absence of any major Australian bank that has completed a similar project, exactly what that would mean has remained a mystery.

Head of SAP Australia & New Zealand's Industries Division Stuart Pike said that core banking system replacements would typically allow a bank to get a more comprehensive picture of products and customers. Essentially, it would draw together systems and information which has for years been poorly integrated.

CommBank has refused to say what the systems replacement would mean, in part, according to Harte, to avoid the possible ignominy of under-delivering on such a large and vital investment in technology.

"We don't want to promise things we haven't delivered; we have to rigorously test stuff before launching to the general market," he said.

Harte wouldn't budge on the bank's vow to secrecy either. He would only say it had "brought up the first set of capabilities" but added: "They're in production and have not been launched to the public, so that's private and confidential."


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