You might expect a self-confessed technologist, who has trained as a software developer and maintains a somewhat excessive enthusiasm for code and algorithms, couldn’t translate their expertise into true business or customer outcomes.
But that’s not the case with ASX Group CIO, Tim Thurman, who has spent his working life striving to bridge the gap between technology and business.
“I’ve had the opportunity throughout my career to work with a number of really good CIOs,” he tells CIO.
“But one thing I noticed was that many didn’t have the business acumen; they didn’t understand how the organisation worked, or how the services they were building underpinned business value or even impacted clients and people externally.
“The big thing for me… is that it’s all about the experience of our customer. Everything we do is about how it's going to impact them. Trying to instil that way of thinking into my team is what I'm pushing now.”
Born in Canada, Thurman made his technology start at retail group, InterTAN, which manages the RadioShack retail chain across Canada and Europe. Tasked with building a point-of-sale system, he says the job required direct touch points from a client perspective.
“What I was trying to understand was what the client wants, and what they wanted to see,” he says. “I was intrigued with that process.”
Thurman then took up a position with IBM Global Services in Toronto, before being transferred to the vendor’s European team to build trading platforms for exchanges in big banks. Even though he was a senior software architect, the experience again relied on understanding the client experience.
He started working with the Bank of Italy and met with senior and c-suite executives. As well as picking up the Italian language, he says the biggest business lesson was that engagement comes first, and technology second.
From software developer at IBM, Thurman progressed into project management, pre-sales and contract negotiations. “This also helped me build a lot of skills I can utilise as a CIO, such as looking at how to negotiate with vendors,” he says.
His next move was to the Toronto Stock Exchange (TMX), firstly as an IBM contractor, then as an employee. Tasks included launching trade platforms, rationalising systems, and building new efficiencies. When president, Richard Nesbitt, took over, he presented Thurman with the opportunity to go into the business and run trading services.
“I said to Richard, ‘I'm a technologist, not sales or product development’. His response was: ‘You know this business well, you speak the language very well. You have the personality to speak with the clients. Our clients are also traders, and you know what they're doing with our systems’,” Thurman recalls.
“He convinced me to do it and I had an absolute blast. I’d sit on the trade floors with the 300-400 sales traders and saw them entering their orders, how that got to the trading platforms as well as how the data came back. I realised right away how we could make things more efficient on the banks’ side.”
Thurman’s success at understanding the pain points of TMX’s clients landed him a job client-side at investment bank, TD Securities, running technology for the trade floor.
From there, he helped build the Alpha Trading System (ATS), a real-time trading platform launched by several Canadian financial institutions as an alternative to TMX. Thurman classes his work on ATS as one of his major professional achievements.
After a year as a part-time consultant in Canada, championing competition across liquidity markets and researching global trends around trading quants and algorithms, Thurman joined Credit Suisse to run its Canadian technology group.
In March 2012, he was head-hunted for the CIO’s role at the ASX. Although initially surprised at the offer, Thurman points out the market structures in Canada and Australia are very similar, and his mix of skills unique. He relocated his family to Sydney in May last year.
Thurman’s discussions with the ASX kicked off six months after new CEO, Elmer Funke Kupper, set out to shake-up the organisation. While pointing out the ASX is one of the top 10 exchanges globally, Thurman says the CEO’s vision was about “what it could be”.
“Over the course of time, things were just getting old,” Thurman comments. “Business moves on and you have to keep pace with the market. My experience with ATS as a market challenger was important, as Chi-X had entered the Australian [equity trading] market and was attacking our profitability line as well as causing challenges.”
Key to Thurman’s role today is his contribution to the management team. “I didn’t want to be a guy who just comes in and fixes problems, because I’ve done that,” he says. “I wanted a seat at the table, making those strategic decisions that make this exchange better than it is today.”
The first priority, however, was specific: Break down the siloes between IT and the business.
“When I joined we’d just done an employee survey and one big thing about technology was that there wasn’t enough transparency in what we were doing,” he says. As well as literally breaking removing the dividing walls, Thurman has worked hard to invite business into technology discussion.
“Today, every piece of wall in our office is a whiteboard and our project plans are there by month and milestone for everyone to see,” he says.
Thurman is also in the process of a mobility pilot to ensure staff can work wherever they need to. He points to the fact that he now operates solely through a surface, tablet and phone and hasn’t handwritten on paper for nine months.
Over the last month, 50 ASX employees from across the organisation have evaluated mobile devices and narrowed the list down to three options, which will be deployed by the end of Q1. End users can choose from the three devices, and have the option of personalising their virtual workspaces.
“I want to first give people the option because that offers a different level of risk within the organisation, but we’ll also look at allowing their own devices too,” Thurman explains.
The transition from physical desktop to fully virtualised environment will also see the ASX further leverage capabilities in its offsite Australian Liquidity data centre in Gore Hill, Sydney.
Another part of Thurman’s inclusive strategy is ensuring the team can deliver in shorter and guaranteed time frames. To do this, it has adopted Agile methodology and holds stand-ups daily to discuss workloads and solve problems. Project milestones are set around two- and three-week sprints.
It’s already paying dividends. Over the past year, the IT department’s standout achievement was launching a new OTC (Over the Counter) dealer-to-dealer market product in eight months, an unheard-of turnaround time for such a product worldwide, Thurman says.
“Elmer came to us with this challenge and told us he wanted to launch it on 1 July, and that’s when we told our clients it was going to be ready,” he says. “This was about gaining a competitive advantage.”
Clients were able to use the platform from 1 July, with the caveat of a post-launch phase for final functionality, Thurman says. “When we socialised what we were going to do, many didn’t believe us,” he continues.
“I even had a few betting me bottles of wine it wouldn’t launch, but when we started getting close to that date and we commenced industry-wide testing, people finally realised we were going to pull it off. It has been considered one of the best programs ever run out of the ASX.”
Thurman is now working with a consulting group to refine its Agile approach in order to allow the ASX IT team to meet their regulatory requirements while running projects in a dynamic way. Once confirmed, the methodology will be rolled out company-wide. He expects this to be in place by the first quarter of 2014.
Building a strong and transparent relationship with regulators such as ASIC is another vital part in ensuring the ASX can innovate faster, and Thurman has made that an ongoing priority. Given the tightly regulated nature of the financial services industry, all of the ASX’s products and services have to secure ASIC approval.
“A lot of the time we also need them to make decisions quickly. If ASIC is going to change the rules for instance, that means I've got to change software,” he adds.
Next up: Getting management on-side