Mary Cecola’s IT Bridge

Mary Cecola links technology with finance to improve customer and employee experience at Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines

The first thing people need to know about Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines (FHLB Des Moines) is that it’s a bank for banks, founded after the Great Depression. The critical differentiator, Mary Cecola says, is that its banks turn liabilities into assets.

Federal Home Loan Banks demonstrated its value during the most recent financial crisis; while other parts of the credit markets shut down, FHLB Des Moines banks continued to lend to their members. The bank is also invested in helping communities. In November 2015, FHLB Des Moines awarded a $700,000 grant for a rehabilitation project that will provide safe housing to low-income families and individuals in Great Falls, Montana, in partnership with one of its member banks, the Bank of Montana.

“I woke up the day of the merger, and everything that needed to be in place was in place. I would call it a miracle, except that would discount the incredible hard work of our team.”

Cecola helps guide the bank as its chief business technology officer—a role, she says, that is just beginning to emerge in the banking industry.

“IT really grew up under accounting, automating basic functions,” Cecola says. “There has been a massive shift in the last couple of years. From social media-driven marketing to user-led technology, there are so many places to see tech emerging. There’s no option to opt out. Technology is forcing all of us to change everything we know about banking, and a relationship between business and technology is necessary not just to be successful, but to survive.”

The chief business technology officer says she has one overarching goal when she comes into the office each day: to make the bank a better place through tech and optimization. At FHLB Des Moines, this requires a multilayered approach.

The most transformative IT change on the horizon for FHLB Des Moines is that employees will no longer need to be in a brick-and-mortar bank to contribute to the success of the company. Through the use of desktop cameras, videoconferencing, and other technology, working remotely will soon be much easier.

More small yet impactful changes are also in the works. The bank is in the process of automating end-user computing by allowing employees to bring their own devices, incorporating instant messenger, and transitioning to soft phones. The bank is also working to install desktop video cameras and hopes to add Microsoft 365 so email will not be connected through the network.

The bank has modernized its core banking system through the use of Calypso, a leading technology platform for cross-asset trading, accounting, processing, and enterprise risk management. Cecola says this has been pivotal, especially after a recent historical merger. In June 2015, FHLB Des Moines announced that it had completed its merger with the Federal Home Loan Bank of Seattle, the first voluntary merger in the more than eighty-year history of the FHLBank System.

FHLB Des Moines now serves nearly 1,500 financial institutions in thirteen states and three US Pacific territories, making it the largest bank in the FHLBank System in regards to membership and geography. This new geographic reach is part of the reason why Calypso is so useful. Cecola says the technology’s reporting tools make it easier for the right people to access the right data at the right time.

In the wake of the merger, Cecola recalls her team accomplished everything everyone said they couldn’t.

“I woke up the day of the merger, and everything that needed to be in place was in place,” Cecola laughs. “I would call it a miracle, except that would discount the incredible hard work of our team.”

No one is as surprised that Cecola ended up in banking as she is. To say her path was untraditional would be an understatement. In college, Cecola had every intention of becoming a biochemist, but a natural affinity for math led a professor to suggest she look into computer science.

“I was told it was a great emerging field, especially for women,” she says. “I started taking classes, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was hooked.”

Cecola’s role at FHLB Des Moines has her dividing her time and energy between two decidedly different functions: operations and business transformation. That’s the unique position of an executive role that requires equal amounts of expertise in business and in technology.

“Business transformation is strategic and project-based; it requires a different mindset,” Cecola says. “Operations is more risk averse, more tactical. It’s about keeping up to date and following regulations. I have to wear many different hats while always looking to optimize processes.”

Moving forward, Cecola is looking to leverage the talents of her team to optimize business performance and focus heavily on cybersecurity.

“Security is on everyone’s mind, and we’re no different,” Cecola says. “We want technology risks to be  non-issues, something that none of our clients have to worry about. [Accomplishing that is] a big task, but one of the most primary.”