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Destined for the big time

It was his destiny. His journey from Chennai to Mumbai was arduous, but things worked out rather well. He automated the Indian operations of Bank of America, and now aligns IT with business at HDFC Bank. Deepali Gupta traces the footsteps of C N Ram, Head IT, HDFC Bank.

Despite being an extremely successful IT strategist, C N Ram has an unassuming air as he taps his fingers to an old Bollywood tune playing in the lift of the posh HDFC Bank premises in Lower Parel, from where he heads the bank's IT team.

He left the protected environment of his hometown, Neyveli, (Tamil Nadu), to join the mainstream of life at IIT where he was soon going to find himself as a small fish in a big pond. Destiny already had his future planned. After graduating from IIT he would soon complete his management degree from IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA), and eventually head the HDFC Bank IT team for over a decade.

Despite his one and a half-year experience at Tata Steel and an engineering degree, Ram chose to work with a bank after IIMA. He joined Bank of America (BOA) as an IT employee with a mission to automate all four BOA branches in India.

The expressway

Having a technologically developed parent company in the USA helped, because knowledge of IT systems did not have to be gathered ab initio. However, Ram recalls, the Indian branches of BOA were primarily involved in non-retail banking. The functions and business of the Indian chapter were small and were generally treated as insignificant by the parent company. "We had our own hardware and software strategies and the only network we plugged into was the e-mail server of American Express," he explains.

Nevertheless, by 1991 Ram and his colleagues at BOA had set up a complicated mainframe-based system that supported the retail functions, which the Indian branches of the bank were beginning to venture into. Around that time the bank acquired See First Bank. See First had a large retail presence in Asia, and after the takeover BOA had to develop and scale its IT infrastructure. The existing system, which Ram and his team had established in India fulfilled the technical and functional requirements, but was rejected because it was too expensive. The Indian team therefore volunteered to completely disband the existing implementation so that all the Asian operations of BOA would run on the same system. This was when Ram shifted to HDFC bank.

Headed in a new direction

He joined HDFC Bank as the Head IT in 1994. Although it may seem like he has held the same post for ten years, but his role has been expanding consistently. He started with a team size of four and now has 172 people working under him. His role required him to select and implement a suitable core banking solution. Today, he is responsible for strategic IT planning, alignment of IT with business and new implementations that may assist the bank’s business in the future.

Over the years Ram has taken over responsibilities of managing the data center operations from the Operations department. He is now also in-charge of the Business Solutions Group—the group that interfaces between the business groups and IT in the bank—which identifies the required changes or improvements that bank processes need to undergo. The IT team then, facilitates these changes. "My boss doesn't think of me as an IT person. He says that I am a Business IT Head," Ram expresses enthusiastically.

Ram has implemented so many projects since he joined HDFC Bank that he has no ‘pet project’ in particular. However, he comments on the behavioral changes caused by the volumes and the intensive work that went into coping with a truly 24X7 banking environment. More recently he suggests that the Business Intelligence solution the bank put in place was a purely IT-driven initiative at the outset. HDFC Bank has a data warehousing solution that determines the profitability of customers and enables the business to identify the target group for each of its products. In addition to the value it brought to business it was an inexpensive implementation.

In real life

You'd imagine from all of Ram's projects that he would be an ambitious and authoritative manager. Well you would be wrong. Few at such a high level are as easy-going as he is. Ram goes to work at 9 a.m. and leaves from office by 5:30 p.m. This gives him time to just relax, watch movies, and spend time with his wife and children. Once a year he goes abroad on holiday with his family.

Presently he is involved with his son's tenth standard exam and daughter's application process for her postgraduate studies in the US. Nevertheless his children excercise a fair amount of independence. "Kids these days can teach you a whole lot of stuff," Ram says lightheartedly. He rarely reads fiction but to keep abreast with technology and business he reads newspapers and magazines and every now and then he slips in a little time to read philosophical books.

Meeting the challenge

In his career at HDFC Bank, Ram never faced the common challenges, such as legacy and poor aptitude for IT among employees, that the IT Heads of most Indian banks face. His challenge was to resist pressure from the business to launch facilities hastily.

He cites the example of Internet banking. Several banks went online using a mirrored core approach. Ram found this unsafe because for a short window of time the account balance could show incongruent figures when accessed from different points (eg. an ATM and a branch or the Internet). The HDFC Bank IT team thus refused to make Internet banking facilities available till it actually married the ATMs and the Internet to the core banking aplication. "We spent time architecting the channel strategies so that we were able to get online in real time. That's how we did it from day one. The competition was there much before us but we resisted the pressure to deploy any solution hastily," says Ram.

The near future

From his present post as Head IT, Ram sees retirement next on the schedule. He is young and could have upto 12 more years of service, but, "I won't last that long," he says, "I'll consider voluntary retirement and give others a chance to come up as well." Although he might consider an advisory role after retirement, Ram indicates it is no longer necessary for him to work.

Nevertheless, he considers IT to be the best field of work, and is quite sure that if he got a second life, he would walk down the same road again.

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