In today's environment, there is no way to separate technology from the strategy of a bank. From deciding how to serve commercial clients to figuring out how to make acquisitions work, technology is omnipresent.

Amy Brady is emblematic of the way the bank chief information officer job has evolved, or at least the way experts say it should evolve. She was brought in to the Cleveland-based bank five years ago to change the way the organization viewed technology and has played a critical part in forming the bank's direction.

"The way we manage technology here is integral to our business strategy; we don't think of them as separate things," said Amy Brady, chief information officer for the $136 billion-asset KeyCorp. "Technology influences business strategy as much as the business strategy influences it. They are so intertwined that at this point that's the way it has to work."

A major part of that strategy this year was KeyCorp's $4.1 billion acquisition of First Niagara Financial Group.

The IT team has a big hand in any acquisition, but in this instance, Brady said, the company's approach — having its IT staff working side by side with business leaders — led to a relatively smooth integration.

"Tech and ops play a huge role when you do an acquisition," she said. "We tried to really leverage our tech and engineering capabilities to make sure the transition went as smooth as possible."

The systems conversions were completed by Oct. 11, less than a year after the deal was announced and about 75 days after it closed. Brady said the speed is a result of preparation and having a concrete plan.

"Early on, we inventoried and assessed [First Niagara] systems and executed a decision process for any applications that had an overlap with Key systems or functionality to ensure that only one system moved to the target environment," Brady said. "In doing so, we focused on architecture simplification with minimal duplicate systems. The analysis resulted in very few systems migrating to Key outside of systems that supported new businesses."

Further, the integration team had weekly "cross-workstream meetings" and executive updates on the status of and progress on any risks and issues. The team formed a "command center" that acted as a centralized overseer of the project, coordinating communication and cooperation between the different groups involved.

"We also provided continuous monitoring of system performance in real time — before, during and after the event — to ensure early identification of any potential performance issues and allow for proactive intervention," Brady said.

Issues, even for a small number of customers, are common in integrations. Key's First Niagara integration was no different. A small group of customers in the consumer and small-business line had problems authenticating themselves when they tried to log on for the first time, Brady said. Because of the collaborative structure that the tech team and business-line heads had established ahead of time, Key was able to redesign the digital home page to display the first-time-login area more prominently; streamline the authentication process; increase staff at the contact centers and do more training; and issue a formal apology, along with $100, to each of the affected customers. All that was done within 48 after the problems arose.

All the coordination between Brady's team and the individual business lines resulted in a "considerably fast" conversion given the size of the two institutions involved, Brady said.

"The rigor and discipline that we used to drive the conversion were essential to our success," she said. "We knew that there would be some bumps in the road and having the team prepared to quickly react and resolve was critical to our successful conversion."

Brady and her team's involvement in the integration demonstrates the larger shift happening in banking — technology is touching everything and the CIO's role has been elevated.

But it wasn't always that way. Even 10 years ago CIOs "weren't considered part of the C-Suite" and many didn't report directly to the chief executive officer, Brady said.

"But Beth and I have regular conversations about bringing transformational solutions to the table," Brady said, referring to KeyCorp CEO Beth Mooney. "Now, more than ever, as a CIO you want to really drive transformation."

When she is not integrating mega-acquisitions, Brady said, a lot of her time is focused on looking for ways to further digitize the company.

"We're thinking about, 'What is the experience the clients want?' and how we can use new technologies in a way we haven't been able to in the past."

For example, Brady and her team recently have conducted brainstorming sessions on how artificial intelligence and robotics may play into the future customer experience, as well as the potential of blockchain in financial services.

Still, many bank CIOs and the IT departments they lead still function in the old role of order-taker, fulfilling requests to fix tech problems or simply keep the business running. But banks that still have that mentality risk falling behind, said Matt Guarini, who leads Forrester's research team serving CIOs.

"In the past, IT was more of a cost center operation and now it is an enabler of profit," Guarini said. "The CIO has become very important, in some cases the second-most important to the CEO. But some banks still have one foot in the old camp. And if you're thinking about [the role of CIO and IT] that way, that will present challenges in the future."

That's because new innovation is accelerating.

"Banks have so much more information than ever before, and technology is evolving so much more quickly," Guarini said. The CIO has to not just understand technology but "understand the customer and the business and how to build out the right solutions to help the bank move forward."