November 14, 2008, 12:20 PM — This interview is part of ITworld's regular "How I got here" series which focuses on the career path of successful IT professionals.
Ken Kucera grew up on a farm in rural Nebraska, doing various farming related activities such as cow milking, harvesting and putting up hay -- but he quickly decided that farming was not a long-term career path for him, so he studied IT in college. At Mutual of Omaha, Ken began life in IT as a computer programmer and quickly ascended into more responsible management positions that lead him to larger organizations and very different work environments (New York City).
Ken ultimately found his niche "back home" in Omaha, where he currently serves as Senior Vice President and CIO of First National Bank of Omaha, a subsidiary of First National of Nebraska, (20 billion dollars in assets and over 7,000 employees); one of the top fifty bank holding companies in the United States.
How did you start your career? My IT career began at a two-year college, where I earned an associate degree in Computer Science when I was 19. When I graduated from high school at age 17, I immediately went to summer school at college to pursue computer science -- and I landed my first IT job as a computer programmer, programming COBOL on a mainframe computer at Mutual of Omaha.
What experiences along the way helped you in your IT career? I got into the financial services industry after I left Mutual of Omaha, and have been in financial services for 29 years. The financial services career path started in1976, when I worked for a savings and loan in Omaha managing a small group of people. I then moved to Citibank in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to gain exposure to banking, working for the biggest company I could find. I learned a lot in a large company environment in a very short period of time. The IT culture was highly competitive -- both inside and out -- and only the strongest survived.
What surprised you most about the big company experience? My job at Citibank involved working three weeks every month in Sioux Falls and one week in Manhattan, New York. I was from a small town in the Midwest, so working in New York City was a complete cultural change. I immediately felt overwhelmed, but after awhile, I found that there was plenty to do in New York. Where else could you see the New York Yankees, see a play on Broadway and then dine at one of the finest restaurants in the world. I actually fell in love with the city.
How did you get introduced to First National of Nebraska? I missed Omaha, so decided to move back and made the transition by helping First National through a computer conversion from an NCR computer to an IBM mainframe. Five years later I took a CIO position with another bank in Omaha. Shortly after that, the bank was sold. As a result of the merger I pursued a career as an independent consultant. As a consultant, the pay was good but the work was not challenging. When First National of Nebraska called me in 1995 and asked if I would consider re-joining them, with a career path to the CIO position, I decided that was what I wanted to do.
What were some of the skills that you think made you an attractive CIO candidate for First National of Nebraska? It's all about achievement. On a daily basis, I have to personally feel that I get a lot of things done to feel good about how the day has gone. This is important, because many companies go through periods where they are trying to get things done, and it just seems to move at a snail's pace. They spend multiple years on projects before reaping any benefits from their efforts, and by then the project or product is no longer a market differentiator. It is important for me that I accomplish what I say I will. My father always told me to put my heart and soul into whatever I was doing, or not to do it at all. â€œBe passionate about your work".
As a CIO, how do you balance technology with business? My entire job is all about the business. Technology is a tool we use to solve business problems. I understand the technology, but I do not miss being a computer programmer. I also understand that some technology people develop "brand loyalty" to certain vendors or solutions because they have expertise and knowledge in those areas. When you are dealing with the business, you have to objectively look at the best technology at the least cost to apply to the problem â€¦ and you also have to keep in mind that for any technology, people generally use only 10-20 percent of that technology's full capability.
What is your personal highlight from working at First National of Nebraska? We were featured earlier this year as a national cover story in data center virtualization and I was proud of that -- and proud of the fact that we were doing virtualization back in 2003, when most people were just thinking about it. We have run a virtualized data center for nearly five years now, and have reaped the benefits. We have also realized my vision of eliminating all of the different brands and systems sitting out on the data center floor -- and have developed a more streamlined energy utilization and operational approach.
What personal areas do you continue to work on? I have a personality of a high achiever, so I make it my business to spend time with my staff, getting out of my office, walking around and visiting with people to get a better understanding of the challenges they face in doing their job. We are proud that we were ranked in the top 35 of IDG's Computerworld 100 Best Places to Work in IT in both 2007 and 2008.
How I got here in 10 words or less? Truly understanding the technology and knowing how to bridge the technology to the business. Building strong relationships with business leaders will allow companies to be best in class. Ken Kucera Quote: To become world class, you must continue to take it to the next level. World Class is only achieved when you have the very best people working together to achieve common goals. There is no hardware or software that can do anything without talented people who are passionate about their work and accomplishments.