Free interns boost Suncorp

Suncorp won an award based on a working system that was built by university interns who worked gratis for three to six months, the tier two banking giant's chief information officer Jeff Smith revealed last week.

Suncorp won an award based on a working system that was built by university interns who worked gratis for three to six months, the tier two banking giant's chief information officer Jeff Smith revealed last week.

Jeff Smith
(Credit: Suncorp)

The bank has an intern program with universities where students come in for three to six months and build things, Smith told the Agile Australia conference in Sydney on Friday. "[We] used that team to build an online monitoring environment for our claims environment," he said.

That product won a global innovation award, he said, marvelling that it only took three months and Suncorp didn't pay anything for it: "I figure that's pretty good productivity. I [said] we should start about 10 of these."

This experience was in line with Smith's belief that the skills shortage doesn't exist. "I don't believe in the skills shortage. There's a leadership shortage. Skills and the raw talent exist. Our job is to find ways to really unleash that," he said.

The shortage was really in leadership, he said. "Few people are willing to go through the displeasure and discomfort of leading," he said.

One way the CIO has managed to find people's potential is to provide them with effective training. Suncorp received $2000 per year per person for training. "That sounds like a lot, but that's one day at a Cisco course," he said.

Wherever possible now, Suncorp uses e-learning. The equivalent costs of that is around $300 or $400 per year per person. It has also started its own training school called Agile Academy.

Along with training people, the CIO also believes in empowering staff to make their own decisions. He disbanded a 100 people architecture group whose job was to set policies and standards and put them back to using their skills.

"If the community works well, the practitioners can set up those standards," he said. "That's really helped ... people are making their own decisions. If you do that, you're eliminating your overhead and you're quickening your decisions."

Another thing Smith has done has to encourage his employees to stop fearing feedback — killing what he called the "avoidance culture", a phenomenon he said was prevalent in his former employer Telstra.

At the telco, he'd been told all the time that his ideas were great, but they wouldn't be implemented. He said he wouldn't have minded if the company had simply said no. "What I do mind is if someone says 'Jeff, that's a great idea, but not yet'. That allows the aliens of resistance to regroup and come back at you... Next time never comes."