Automating the Key Man

Anthony Malakian, deputy editor, Buy-Side Technology

It's insane to me how much vital work is conducted via a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet—just one person sitting in the back office compiling the data that will either ensure success, or doom the firm to failure.

The other day I was out having a drink with a contact who works for the US arm of a major international investment bank. His boss put him in charge of developing an Excel spreadsheet that details some of the firm's operations. (Since it's not pertinent to this discussion, I'll leave out what exactly it's used for.) He's not a developer, but he's young and had been educated in front of a computer, rather than with a pencil and loose-leaf paper, so he was the natural fit.

He said that he intentionally made the program complex because he had no intention of spending the rest of his days at the firm. So, essentially, this was something of an insurance plan. "I hope to one day leave and they have to hire me back as a consultant," he boasted.

Ah, the perils of key man risk. Give him enough rope and he'll hang ya.

Earlier this week I met with Bonaire Software Solutions CEO Christopher John. His firm works in the niche space of revenue management and fee billing software. This is one of those jobs that as of a few years ago was likely done manually.

John says that as a result of the financial world meltdown that hit its zenith in late 2008, asset managers are now much more concerned with automating previously manual processes. When I ask him whether this trend will continue once the good times return, he says he believes it will because it's a measure of success, for these firms, to see how much they can automate.

Fair enough. Besides, if you've already begun the process of automation it's highly unlikely that you're going to go back to manual. But the point is this: If you're not making the move now, what exactly are you waiting for—Steve over in accounting to quit and leave you in the lurch?

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