PLEASANTON, Calif. — For many credit unions, one of the biggest technology undertakings is upgrading the core system, which is on tap for Safe America Credit union.

And though it's a significant task, there is a sense of calm because at the helm of the IT department sits a seasoned veteran of the financial services industry.

In this reoccurring feature, Credit Union Journal visits with IT professionals — the often unsung CU heroes — to better understand how organizational goals are executed. This month Safe America Credit Union Vice President of Technology John Gracyalny provides an inside view of operations — past and present.

"In my six year tenure at Safe America we have upgraded almost all aspects of our technology to current standards except our core system, and that will be our next big project," said Gracyalny.
He explained that recent initiatives have included migrating to paperless board meetings. Now each board member and executive team member has an iPad with security apps and a shared meeting app preloaded. The board is pleased not to have to tote around a two inch binder each month," noted Gracyalny.

Last year, the credit union also deployed a secure e-mail/digital signature solution for its lending department. Gracyalny said these are days of "instant gratification" and the upgrade had resulted in an increase in loan funding versus approval ratio because employees no longer have to fax or overnight documents for consumer loans.

Safe America CU's IT Department, which aside from Gracyalny includes and IT manager, IT coordinator for the core and IT specialist, also launched an automated IT Help Desk system organization wide.

"This gives me tools to better manage my resources, and also the ability to explain to other executives why it will take 'x' number of days to complete their pet project, based on reports produced of outstanding support tasks and project tasks," said Gracyalny.

Where It All Began
1n 1967, Gracyalny took his first computer programing course, but he didn't start programming systems for CPAs until the late 1970s. From there, he transitioned to credit union core system programming. By the mid-1980s, he worked for a number of leading core vendors and ancillary system vendors, which has provided views from both sides of the fence.

"I have helped build three start-ups, so I would say I have a better understanding of the business requirements side of technology than many of my peers," said Gracyalny adding that he came out of "early retirement" in 2006 to take his role at Safe America.

Currently, the $300 million-asset credit union, supporting 25,000 members in eight locations, is using a core engine that was designed in 1982. The proposed upgrade, estimated to take more than one year, is long overdue and what Gracyalny said is "the single biggest initiative" on the horizon.

"Over the intervening 30-plus years its operating system, and primary programming language have become far from standard and are no longer taught in colleges, making finding qualified resources a challenge both for us and for our core vendor," said Gracyalny. "We will be purchasing a system built to current technology standards and utilizing industry standard tools, which is designed to allow financial institutions to easily modify the system to support its work flow and processing requirements."

IT Communication
Aside from the time investment, a core upgrade requires a significant financial commitment. As a member of the executive team that directly reports to the CEO, Gracyalny participates in weekly team meetings, presents monthly status updates at board meetings and has a weekly one-on-one status meeting with the CEO. It is during this varied process that he pitches technology wants and needs.

"Generally I present ideas for significant new initiatives to the CEO in our private meeting first to get his buy-in. I consider him to be extremely progressive and tech-friendly," he said. "Then I bring up the potential project at the next team meeting."

As he undertakes the first step in revamping the core system, Gracyalny remains focused on the many other tasks at hand. When asked what are some of the continual challenges his team faces he responded with one word: security.

"My single biggest concern is with data security. In essence, we are playing a losing game, in the sense that we have to be right 100% of the time. If we are wrong just once, and/or the black hats are right just once, the consequences could be severe," said Gracyalny. "Not the kind of odds that promote a good night's sleep."

When it comes to working in a bank setting opposed to a credit union setting, Gracyalny said credit unions have a clear advantage due to the overall "spirit of family" within the industry as well as the collaborative approach to working with CUSOs and vendors.

"We [credit unions] can be more nimble. Any decision outside of my authority I usually just have to take to the CEO and get a quick answer, as opposed to the layers of bureaucracy that can make getting decisions finalized at a big bank like trying to turn the Queen Mary," he said.

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