Digital banking is transforming the industry, nonbank upstarts are rattling at the gates, data security has become as essential as managing interest rate risk, and technology is more important to banks than ever. So how do information technology executives fit in among lenders, traders, advisors, and other strategists and operational leaders in today's rapidly changing executive suite?

According to CIOs themselves, they are becoming ever more integrated into the strategic process, with decisions on what technologies to pursue often determining the course banks follow.

That view emerged clearly in an online survey SourceMedia's research unit fielded in July. To get a better picture of how roles are evolving, the survey put a range of questions to 50 bank chief information officers and senior technology executives: on how they see their priorities and challenges, and what they look for in recruits for IT departments. (An overview of survey results on another set of questions about changing bank technology priorities is provided in a related article.) Respondents came from banks of all sizes, including ten from institutions with more than $10 billion of assets. The vast majority — 80% — have served as information technology executives for six years or more (almost 40% have had the role for 16 years or more), though nearly 70% have been IT executives at their current institutions for five years or less.

Respondents said they spend their time on a diverse range of activities, from corporate strategy to technology planning and implementation to operations and budgeting. The self-characterizations of IT executives' roles were also diverse, if overlapping: 26% said "leader of strategy execution," 18% said "strategic adviser," 16% said "driver of change," and 14% said "problem solver."

In explaining why they see their jobs as they do, many respondents expressed confidence in the critical role IT plays at banks and its importance in shaping banks' future. A self-described "strategic adviser" said technology executives' vantage on the "winds of change" creates unique insights to offer to management. A "problem solver" said other executives value input from IT even outside the technology realm because "they value the kind of thinking involved in the IT world." A "leader of strategy execution" said, "I know where we should be. I set a course and then it is full speed ahead."

Asked to select their top five challenges, 60% of respondents cited security issues, and about 40% identified tight budgets, regulation and hiring new talent. One executive said upgrading and replacing legacy systems is "like changing a wheel of a bus riding full of consumers." Another described "peaks and valleys" in capacity from periodic acquisitions.

In fact, the challenging nature of the job was frequently invoked when respondents were asked to say what it's like being an IT executive in a few words — along with the flip side to chaos and "fire fighting": variety, "constant change," and the opportunity "to wear different hats."

The CIOs surveyed frequently reported backgrounds in other IT roles — such as consulting, support and project management — before rising to the executive level. Most said they expect to continue in IT in their next jobs, and 44% said they are "somewhat satisfied" with their current jobs and another 48% said they were "very satisfied."

As for what qualities they believe are most important for aspiring bank IT executives, current executives ranked leadership and communication skills, and flexibility at the top. Respondents ranked bank IT and technology experience fourth. Those skills and attributes echoed in brief statements executives gave about the keys to their own success. "Being very open-minded and always thinking ahead," one said. Another said that being alert to new trends was vital, along with "finding the right balance of caution and early technology adoption."