Financial systems are normally considered mission-critical. Consequently, there is a belief that project managers in financial services require a specific set of key attributes. The best project managers are good leaders who understand user requirements, says London Market Systems’ Martin Sexton
Reference data projects tend to be vision-led and benefits-driven, requiring good clarity of scope. Nonetheless, the ability to react to change is vital given the potential influences of external drivers, such as regulatory requirements. This highlights the need for leadership capabilities in a project manager. Other attributes include a good appreciation of users’ needs and the ability to manage their fears about change. The capability to manage both internal and third-party resources is essential, especially as a supplier’s goals do not necessarily align with those of their client.
It may sound obvious, but the most important focus is stakeholder management, and at project initiation stage, this means obtaining approval from the most senior management possible. In addition, to getting approval from heads of trading desks, IT and back-office operations departments, one should aim to achieve sign-off from the chief financial officer. A senior executive once told me he had never before been contacted by anyone from the IT department, and this experience is not rare.
When running a project, the project manager must engage with stakeholders. Obtaining a global buy-in is imperative, as projects driven by a single geographical region with the aim of encompassing others later are at great risk of coming to an abrupt stop long before any goals have been achieved. With emphasis on different asset classes and the use of different third party products in each region, identifying a “one size fits all” solution is a real challenge. Therefore, a project manager in such a situation has to encourage dialogue with their counterparts elsewhere. Having a better understanding of the big picture can facilitate a culture of global thinking and make the project manager a more valuable asset to the business.
The project manager can then continue building the business case. For reference data initiatives, it can be difficult to quantify in terms of tangible benefits that would support the business case. Regulatory compliance, reduced data errors resulting in less manual intervention and simplification of process are good drivers. Strategic benefits, such as obtaining a competitive edge and reduced corporate risk, can also be worth looking into. Benefits relating to reference data initiatives may not come to light until some time after the completion of a project, therefore project managers need to ensure these are identified and recorded for future reference, and that post-project assessments are planned for.
I have seen reference data deployments piggybacked on other projects, this is not ideal and a good project manager should be able to identify business benefits without the need to go down this route. Nonetheless, even a reference data-related project, such as a golden copy deployment is never standalone, as it affects all aspects of the trading lifecycle. Therefore, it requires a good understanding of how information is used throughout the organization and demands an appreciation of the flow of data—or messaging choreography—especially given that downstream systems require more accurate reference data compared with the front office, which may need only the minimum amount of information to trade.
In the financial industry, the majority of projects are migration-related, for example, upgrading an existing system with the latest version of a third-party product. Such projects require a lot of testing, including regression testing, potentially putting a lot of onerous and time-consuming demands on users. The users have day jobs, thus the art is to create a set of tests that less-experienced individuals can execute on their behalf, which are then signed off by these valuable operational staff members.
In fact, the typical challenges related to reference data projects can all be overcome by choosing the right management approach. The perfect project manager should be business-facing, have a good understanding of reference data and have a reasonable understanding of technology.
I think the project management methodology is secondary to good relationship management and the ability to manage expectations. Given the global nature of financial institutions, an appreciation of cultural differences is required, and in some instances, it can be beneficial to employ an external project manager, as they can be immune to the internal politics that can affect the performance of someone who has been at the company for many years.