When Jack Cutts arrived at the Nottingham Building Society he walked back in time technologically and inherited a team that was devoid of power and motivation. But in a little under three years he has completely overhauled the infrastructure of the organisation and given the team new goals and a new level of job satisfaction.
The Nottingham has been operating in the county since 1849, and was founded by a group led by grocer and Quaker Samuel Fox to promote home ownership, especially among middle and working-class citizens, as well as to provide a haven for savings. Over the next 150 years the building society has grown to include branches in Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire.
Building societies are once again in the spotlight, in part due to the world recession and the recent spate of government interventions into banks that once operated as building societies. A debate is growing as to whether we should renew our interest in the building society model.
"We are a solid business," Cutts says. "We are very prudent at what we do, but we do get hit by the cost of borrowing."
Although the Nottingham is feeling slightly more confident about the current wave of troubles affecting the financial services sector, it is certainly not immune. In early 2006 the organisation appointed Ian Rowling as its new chief executive and Cutts explains that Rowling set in motion a strategic review of the organisation. "It needed to be more efficient and the IT was holding us back as it was getting near to the end of its life," he says. Prior to Rowling's arrival, says Cutts, IT had received "little investment".
Cutts himself joined the Nottingham in March 2006 to lead an infrastructure overhaul programme and within three months he took over control of the IT function of the society, reporting directly to the chief executive.
"Things were worse than I had been led to believe," he recalls. "The desktop operating system was five years out of date and had received no patches whatsoever."
As an example of how poor the infrastructure was, Cutts explains how he very nearly never joined the organisation. "There was a problem with the email; it was down for three days," he says. Unfortunately, an email offering Cutts the position at the Nottingham was trapped in the dark forest of poorly run technology.
In a PowerPoint presentation that Cutts shares to demonstrate what he and his team have achieved is an image of a server room that on closer inspection bears a resemblance to the twisted growth of roots you can find under the oak trees of nearby Sherwood Forest, with cables snaking and trapping everything around them. His next image is of an ordered line of server racks, marshalled into order.
As head of IT, Cutts assumed responsibility for a £12m overhaul in an organisation whose profits were £8m. Cutts is blithely understated: "It was a significant investment," he says. The Nottingham has 600 users in 32 branches and three main offices in Nottingham. Prior to his overhaul, email was the largest generator of calls to the IT helpdesk; mostly because mail messages were being blocked. He quickly discovered the rules set on email traffic were too strict, which just caused needless work for his department.
Cutts directly correlates the lack of investment the Nottingham made in its IT infrastructure with the low morale among the IT team of 51 he inherited. "People are in IT to make change happen" is his view and he was surprised at the level of training in new skills he needed to source for his team. The development team had a length of service of 12 years, and one member of staff celebrated their 47th year of working for the organisation. "I was trying to get them to see a new world," he says, and it worked with no staff churn. "I motivated them by telling them that if they could overhaul the systems without disrupting the business, they would win awards."
Cutts has been lucky with his team and has driven through masses of change for the business while keeping his staff onside. Many of the deals for the new infrastructure had already been done before Cutts became head of IT, but he took the precaution of reviewing every single deal before he plunged headlong into the overhaul.
With a stable IT team around him, the first thing Cutts did before tearing out the old IT was to ensure the systems coming in would be stable. One of his first moves was to adopt performance monitoring software, choosing Nimsoft, the Norwegian outfit that is fast becoming a major player.
"Every time we built a new box, we put the monitoring in at the same time," he said of his strategy of measuring everything that was upgraded. Cutts sees ensuring everything in IT is stable as Act One, Scene One in the CIO handbook. "Using Nimsoft we have visibility of what is happening within the business, which has freed up time to do new stuff," he says.
The infrastructure refresh really was a root and branch replacement of everything. The network that underpins the building society was upgraded and every single PC was replaced, as was every server and even the room to house them. A new storage area network (SAN) was installed and Cutts opted for Unix as the core infrastructure. "I wanted something tried and tested. We are not a bleeding-edge organisation. I wanted something mainstream and once it was in, then we could begin to be clever with what we do," he says.
Loading the Nottingham's own applications was the nervous part of the exercise, but with a sense of pride Cutts reports that his team had the mortgage system up and running without anyone noticing. "If people notice the change we [IT] have failed," he says.
Cutts began his career as a programmer straight out of school at 16 and would return to education later in life doing a masters degree in business process engineering. He got his entry into IT via British Steel in his native Yorkshire, and the masters, he says, gave him a much-needed wider view of the business needs from IT.
The Nottingham is his first move into the financial sector from a career in travel, retail and manufacturing companies. Boots the Chemist, another Nottingham firm, brought Cutts south, where he was project manager for the till systems before moving to dotcom retailer Jungle.com.
Looking back at the overhaul with only the transition of the savings software to go, Cutts says he is enjoying a sense of relief that it went well, "right in the middle of the current economic mess". But he and his team know they have set the bar high for themselves now and that expectations from the organisation will be far higher than they have ever been.