Trailblazer Award: VP of IT Nicole Bowen Shows Grace Under Fire
Nicole Bowen stood in the parking lot, clutching her backup tapes as she watched fire hoses pour water into the main office of Fairfax County Federal Credit Union.
Her new data center was getting drenched, but two good things were going on: No one was hurt and the disaster recovery plan her Fairfax, Va., credit union had just implemented was working as it should.
That was July 13. Now, everything is back to normal at the $281 million Fairfax County FCU. And its vice president of information technology, compliance and facilities is the IT Executive of the Year winner in the 2014 Trailblazer Awards from Credit Union Times.
The fire was sparked by roof repairs and when the alarm first went off, Bowen said, she didn't think it was anything serous. “Then there we were in the parking lot and you could see flames coming out of the building, and I really started to panic,” she said.
She needn't. In fact, she didn't even really need the backup tapes. The disaster recovery plan that Bowen had undertaken not long after she was promoted to her current job in 2009 had been completed just a few months before the fire broke out that summer afternoon included real time data backups to the credit union's Springfield, Va., branch.
A third-party hot site also backs up the data and extensive virtualization is also used to make it that much easier to replicate the credit union's IT infrastructure when necessary. That project, and following up on repairs after the fire, were just part of what Bowen was up to in the past year.
Projects under way also included modernizing her credit union's service offerings to include the digital products that today's members expect. That included launching a new mobile banking system, debit card, checking accounts and loan products, not to mention online account opening and even an online document delivery and e-signature system.
That was all while continuing her political advocacy work with the Virginia Credit Union League's Northern Virginia chapter.
Bowen, who just celebrated her 15th year with Fairfax County FCU, has pretty much done it all. She began as a teller and has been a loan underwriter, member service rep, branch manager and compliance officer before assuming her current VP role.
While the nuts and bolts of bytes and bits are not her specialty, that has hardly been a hindrance since she assumed her new role in 2009, Bowen noted.
“Do I get in there and configure routers? No,” Bowen said. “But I have a really great team of people who do that. And that has afforded me the opportunity to set direction, decide where we need to go and line up everyone to do the work.”
In fact, she said, her breadth of background has been a benefit. “If I had come from just an IT background, sometimes I might not have had a broad an understanding of how things impact employees and members, of what it looks like from the outside,” Bowen said. “It's nice to have that perspective from both the technical and non-technical side and I think that's a strength for us.”
Her boss agrees. “Nicole's exemplary career at Fairfax County Federal Credit Union illustrates her talent, dedication and willingness to work hard at whatever task is at hand,” said Joseph Thomas Jr., her president and CEO and Credit Union Times 2014 Trailblazer CEO of the Year.
“Nicole has accomplished her IT tasks while also performing a variety of other crucial duties for the credit union,” Thomas said in his nomination letter. “As the person in charge of our facilities, she was responsible for coordinating the reconstruction of our damaged headquarters building. As a Certified Compliance Officer, Nicole is responsible for ensuring regulatory compliance for all our initiatives.
“2013 was a busy time for any compliance professional, yet Nicole was able to keep the credit union up to date while still performing all her other functions.”
Maintaining the credit union's daily IT operations, and ensuring it remains in compliance with an ever-changing regulatory landscape, is one thing. Doing it while rebuilding after a fire was quite another, Thomas said. He said Bowen's leadership was crucial to that process, putting to the test the business continuity preparations completed and tested last February.
“Five short months later, those extensive IT preparations paid off when a fire destroyed our computer room, an IT manager's worst-case scenario,” Thomas said. “Nicole and her team immediately swung into action, switching IT functions to the new disaster recovery system within three hours. Due to her advance planning and hard work, there was no loss of data and minimal downtime, an amazing achievement.”
He also noted Bowen's leadership in the rebuilding process, which included ordering and installing all new equipment, leading that complicated dance with numerous vendors and complicated systems.
The CEO said the work was accomplished seamlessly while she also continued her new product introduction efforts, her compliance oversight and her participation in the credit union movement, which included traveling the state to meet with state and federal legislators.
“Nicole Bowen is a very dedicated, hands-on manager who has motivated her staff to perform well,” Thomas said, praising her grace under pressure.
“Under an incredibly difficult set of circumstances, she ensured that everything worked as it should.”