Destined for the big time
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
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 banks 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 Groupthe group that interfaces between the business groups and
IT in the bankwhich 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
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.