A CIO Conversation: First-time CIO opens new doors of communication

Midwest Independent Bank CIO Ron Dinwiddie discusses his transition into his first chief information officer role.

Six months ago, Midwest Independent Bank (MIB) didn't even have a CIO. The Jefferson City, Mo.-based company is a banker's bank, which means it's owned by and only does business with independent community banks. MIB provides services to more than 450 retail or "people" banks in Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska -- so it's a good-sized business to have no CIO. But a recent change in executive leadership brought a greater emphasis on IT.

Enter Ron Dinwiddie in July 2003. A 31-year IT veteran, this is his first CIO job. In this profile, he tells SearchCIO.com how the transition has gone so far.

How would you characterize your relationship with the business unit? Can you speak each other's language? Is there a mechanism in place that facilitates communication?

Dinwiddie: My relationship with the business units is very good. Since I am the company's first CIO, some adjustments have been made. Some processes are in place now that they didn't have before. One thing I think has helped this relationship is the way I approached my responsibilities when I first arrived. I didn't get here and say, 'I am going to fix everything, and here's what I am going to do.' What I've done is sit down with other officers in the business units, asked questions about goals for the year and what problems they've had in the past. I actually listen when they talk. That's opened doors of communication that weren't there previously. I'm asking them questions, asking what they need. They hadn't had that before -- [an IT leader] keeping in mind that communication is two-way, not me dictating to them what was going to happen. By working with officers, I get their buy-in; they feel they're part of the decision making. Ultimately, I am responsible for the final decision on what to purchase and how to implement, but it's a lot easier when I have their buy-in and participation. It sounds over-used, but teamwork is a big part of the success I have experienced here.

Have you found yourself spending more time in the executive suite than you did in previous jobs? How extensive is your involvement in the making of business decisions?

Dinwiddie: The company wanted someone at a higher level who could bring techies and businesspeople together and take it forward. My involvement at this company is much higher than other places I have been. I attend all officers' meetings. Any time a business decision is being considered that even has the appearance that it might impact IT ... I am contacted, and either I attend or I send one of my staff to participate. [Making the transition into the executive suite] has not been difficult. The hardest thing is not being down in [the] trenches. Your technical skills and knowledge tend to get behind the times because you're in meetings and planning. I have a high level of confidence in my staff. They understand that I trust them and rely on them to give me technically accurate information when I request it. By getting them involved, I find that they participate more willingly and come up with ideas. Example: I was looking for a particular application [and] everything was much more than I needed. A young lady [on the IT staff] walked in and said that she could write the program -- there was no need to go buy something that's more confusing than helpful. So she's working on it.

What kind of relationship do you have with the CEO and CFO?

Dinwiddie: I have an excellent relationship with both of them and all of the other bank officers. When I interviewed with the CEO, CFO and senior vice president, the thing that really got my attention was how well they related to each other. Later, I could tell how well all the bank officers related to each other and that they had respect for each others' expertise. No one said, 'My area's more important than yours.' No one was trying to climb the corporate ladder. The CEO and CFO are true believers in the value of the IT department. We had a meeting this morning about expanding IT's role within [the] company. The CFO is fairly well-educated in IT, as far as terminology goes and some of the technological capabilities out there. He'd be quick to notice if I came in blowing smoke and were trying to build an empire.

It's obviously a position other CIOs would envy, but are there any pitfalls that go with it?

Dinwiddie: Yes, resisting the temptation to say 'ooh' and 'aah' and buy the most expensive equipment, software and services on the market. There's a lot of responsibility to do things right. You have to do your due diligence before you make a purchase ... to make sure it's in the company's best interest. Sure, you can say, 'Here's the chance to build the infrastructure I always wanted to build,' but it's not always best for the company. You just don't build a dream IT environment when it's not necessary.

It sounds like you almost have a blank check to get IT up and going.

Dinwiddie: [The check] is not completely blank, but I have a tremendous amount of support, both intellectually and financially. During my interview with the CEO and CFO, I was impressed with two things concerning the IT arena. One, they both understood how important IT is to the success of the business. Two, they both expressed a desire to [have] high standards internally and for our customers and to position ourselves in a way that would carry us into the future. I put a presentation [for two new servers] before our tech committee, including the CEO and CFO. I presented my research and explained why we needed them, how much they cost, and how they would benefit the company. Cost to them wasn't a factor -- they wanted to know if it made business sense. The cost was reasonable, the business plan was there, the ROI was there for them to see. It got to the point where they said, 'We've seen enough; go buy them.'

Talk about your background and how the CIO position has changed over the years.

Dinwiddie: I've spent more than 31 years in the IT industry, dating back to 1972. I served in the U.S. Navy for 22 years, which is where I got started in the industry, and worked on a multitude of platforms (Univac, IBM, Honeywell, Sun, HP, PCs) and worked in a variety of positions (operator, programmer, system administrator, supervisor, manager and now CIO). I believe the CIO has moved from a strictly technical type of person/position to a more strategic business partner with the other business units of a company. The CIOs who have the most problems, in my opinion, are those who either aren't allowed to participate in business discussions and strategy meetings, or they try and tell the business units 'the what and how' of IT services that are available, instead of trying to work with and understand the other business units. I've seen both situations, which is why I feel privileged to work with the executives and other bank officers that I do.

Two things make life tough on a CIO, besides budgets. First, technology itself and how quickly it changes. I call it the 'trying to keep up' syndrome. Second, the technical understanding of users in today's world. 'Educated amateurs' are always offering advice or questioning decisions being made by the IT department. People who say 'I have a PC at home; this is what I do. How come we don't do this here?' It makes life miserable. I've seen it not here, but in other places.

Do you outsource any functions? Do you plan to do more or less outsourcing?

Dinwiddie: I do outsource a couple of our applications, more of a hosting-type of outsourcing than in personnel. My staff still oversees, manages accounts, and provides the help desk functions for the application. We've basically taken it and placed it on someone else's server here in the U.S. I don't anticipate outsourcing any of my personnel functions.

How are you dealing with the looming Sarbanes-Oxley deadline? How are you handling compliance issues in general -- is the onus on IT to make sure all is well?

Dinwiddie: I work very closely with our compliance officer to ensure that we are implementing processes and procedures that are in compliance with not only Sarbanes-Oxley, but with all regulations -- GLB [Gramm-Leach-Bliley], FFIEC [Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council]. We have audits every year and, before I came on board, our holding company brought in an auditor. I work with her as well. She does internal audits; I assist her in gathering IT's part of audits. We have to be familiar with federal regulations. So when they come in and do their external audits, we make sure our systems and network meet regulations and that processes and procedures are correct. We had an audit right before I arrived -- and got their highest rating. So the bottom line is that I am involved and fully integrated into our compliance requirements. But the onus is not on a single entity, but is basically a company-wide concern.

Is there a technology you're especially interested in for the future? Linux? RFID?

Dinwiddie: I come from a mixed background when it comes to operating systems, but my most recent -- and favorite -- is in the Unix arena (HP and Solaris, primarily). I started asking questions about Linux when I got here. I am looking for where Linux might play a role in our infrastructure and might fit better than what we currently have. But I am not an advocate of change for change's sake.

What kinds of technologies are you working with? Any particular success stories or headaches?

Dinwiddie: We are looking at biometrics. I want to take a look at that and see if it has a fit in my environment and if it would be of viable use for our customers. They look to us for guidance. Some don't have an IT staff at all and look to us. I don't want to recommend anything to them until I have used it, or at least played with it. We're almost done with a huge (for us) product conversion. More than 200 customers are going from dialing up our modems to a Web-based form of communication. ... The transition has been both a headache and a success. The headaches [lie in dealing with] the sheer quantity ... of customers -- more than 200 -- within a short period of time, while dealing with a second conversion at the same time in a different area and doing this with both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in the mix. The success part of this has been the relatively smooth rollout so far, which I attribute to the hard work, knowledge and dedication of my staff, keeping in mind that they also work the help desk for both the outgoing product and the incoming product, while assisting our customers through the actual conversion itself.

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