Andy West was so tired his eyes hurt and his bones ached.
Crawling out of bed after only a few hours of sleep, he understood why sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture. In the midst of a three-month string of 70-hour weeks, there were moments when all he could think of was curling up and sleeping for a year.
His assignment was to convert a major U.K. financial wealth management firm to a new enterprise technology platform in half the time necessary to do the job. When he wasn’t in meetings, he was negotiating with engineers in London, the U.S. and India to program software and deglitchify code, or coordinating training so his client’s wealth advisors would know how to use the new platform when it was switched on.
West, who describes himself as “a 6'3" blonde surfer dude,” could scarcely remember the last time he had made it home in time to read to his four young children before bedtime. While he took comfort the finish line was near, he and his team still had 22 more days to go before the crushing deadline – and time was running out. They still had a thousand things to do and less than 300 hours to do it.
But they had no choice. Failure, as the old saying goes, was not an option.
The only way was forward
It all began half-a-year earlier at an on-site client meeting with a London-based financial services firm. Afterward, the company’s chief operating officer asked the affable West to stick around. The COO had something to tell him.
The client was set to acquire the UK arm of a Fortune 500 financial services firm with revenue in the billions. The COO wanted West’s employer, SEI, a Pennsylvania-based provider of asset management and investment processing solutions, to handle the data migration of some 65,000 accounts and outfit and train more than 50 employees.
For West, then 37, this was a major coup. He had been tasked with helping SEI expand into Europe, and this was only his second customer. Four months earlier he had transitioned his client from a largely paper-driven operation to SEI’s state-of-the-art, wealth management enterprise solution: the SEI Wealth Platform℠.
Never easy in the best of circumstances, the stakes were even higher this time because the transition from paper to digital involved an enormously complex new services-based solution that SEI had created to revolutionize wealth management. The integrated platform had been a significant financial investment and had taken SEI nearly a decade to design, code and test.
The SEI Wealth Platform, was created to ultimately replace the company’s legacy investment processing solution, TRUST 3000®, whose roots went back 40 years, when computers were fueled by vacuum tubes and software driven by punch cards. Founded by Al West, who started the business as a graduate student at Wharton, the TRUST 3000 platform was a processing solution that was a long-time leading investment in the United States. But SEI had a global vision for the future.
A new partner + a new platform = new potential
To go global, SEI needed to construct a new platform from scratch. It had to handle multiple currencies, the thicket of government regulations that govern doing business in Europe, and ever more powerful hardware. It had to be fully integrated and open-architecture-based, plus web-enabled and infinitely customizable. This was the platform that West had been tasked to sell to what he hoped would be an eager clientele. The fact that his client was pleased with the new solution boded well.
Before SEI came along, the client had retained a local software firm to help it travel from the Stone Age of slow, costly paper transactions fueled by people power to the Jet Age of fully automated trading and investment. After two years, though, there was little to show for its vendor’s efforts. SEI, on the hunt for potential clients, approached some of the firm’s management team at a conference. It turned out to be fortuitous timing. It wasn’t long before the two firms began what would become a long-term relationship as strategic partners in wealth management.
It took the better part of a year to migrate the firm to the SEI Wealth Platform, and it involved substantial changes to the way it did business – from installing a new IT architecture to retraining hundreds of workers, and much more. Just three months after going live, the firm was set to hire SEI for another big project – migrating tens of thousands of newly acquired accounts to the SEI Wealth Platform and then training new employees to use the unfamiliar technology.
West’s excitement about the new deal was only a few moments fresh when the firm’s chief operations officer dropped a bombshell. SEI wouldn’t have a year, the typical time a project of this scale and complexity took to accomplish. The migration had to be completed within six months.
“Are you kidding me?” West blurted out.
A race to the finish line begins
The COO could have just as easily asked SEI to design, manufacture, and launch a rocket ship to Mars.
West went into wrangling mode, asking for any flexibility in the schedule. But there was simply too much money at stake to extend the migration past six months. It was a golden opportunity if the business could be turned around, but only if the turn were quick and the cost of integration kept low.
If the cut off date were missed, according to the terms of the transaction, there would be a steep cost — to the tune of a couple hundred thousand pounds a month — to keep using the original proprietary system. West knew there was no point in arguing. It was a nonstarter. He needed to move his client to a new system in six months. End of story.
But before SEI and West could begin the process, an intelligent plan would be needed to manage the impact of such a migration on an expedited timeline. As the team worked to engineer the best way forward, hours, days and weeks blended into months. Finally, a solution was at hand. “Long story short,” recounted West, “we determined with the client that the only real way to do this in a way that met all the necessary requirements was to move over every single account.” Normally this kind of enormous task would take nearly a year, but with time dedicated to formulating the right plan, SEI didn’t even have six months anymore. The deadline was now down to four months.
Limits are meant to be pushed
West and his eight-person team began in earnest, working around the clock and supported by hundreds of additional staff at SEI headquarters in Oaks, Pa. SEI also turned to firms in India to offshore some of the programming. Normally, SEI engaged a team of 25 to handle a project of this scope. Here it quadrupled it, sparing no expense in scrounging up additional resources, tapping consultants and expertise wherever it could find it.
Over the final days, West and his team worked every single day without a break, often clocking 14 hours at a stretch. While engineers frantically uploaded code, tested it, and debugged it, the firm’s brokers ran through simulations that showed them how to use the new state-of-the-art platform. To West, it was all a blur.
Finally, it was time to flip the switch. The day of reckoning had come.
“We were live,” West said, “the platform was working, the firm’s employees were trained, and with only a few minor hiccups, things were running smoothly.”
The chief operating officer has since declared, “We could not grow nearly as quickly if it wasn’t for the scale that SEI was able to bring to the business.”
And even though the SEI team was asked to exceed impossible expectations time and again, there was one thing above all that made it worth it: “The client’s customers were happy, so they were happy — which meant we were happy,” West finished.