Tech People in the Know: Robert Mills
Updated: Jan 12
In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus will profile interesting and intriguing tech professionals who are positively impacting the credit union industry.
For this issue, we spent time with Mid-Hudson Valley Credit Union’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Robert “Rob” Mills. The $1.4 billion Kingston, N.Y.-based credit union supports more than 82,000 members at 14 branch locations.
By W.B. King
While Rob Mills had a strong desire to switch majors from business administration to computer science while attending Oregon State University in the mid-1990s, he couldn’t afford the financial undertaking required. Undeterred, and with diploma in hand, he took a back door marketing approach via the World Wide Web.
“From 1995 to 1997, I worked for a small one-branch credit union in Salem, Ore., which at the time was Oregon Employees Federal Credit Union,” he recalled. “I was 100% sure that if you were in marketing that you needed to be on the web.”
Seeing the future, and in an effort to further his career, Mills, along with a friend who had a computer science degree, signed up for an HTML class at the local community college.
“We used a program called Microsoft FrontPage [beta] to build the credit union’s first website. This got the attention of First Technology Credit Union located in Beaverton, Ore. as they had just built their first website at the same time and couldn’t believe that Oregon Employees FCU had done so as well,” Mills explained. “First Technology FCU then invited me to apply for and hired me as their first web services specialist.”
Mills would go on to hold a bevy of tech positions, including IT Worldwide application manager at Serena Software; director of Engineering at Corelogic; and before his current post at Mid-Hudson Valley Credit Union, he served six years as Rivermark Community Credit Union’s CTO.
“The world is night and day different from when my career began. In 1997, technology departments were focused on data processing as their primary focus was running the core on a mainframe...while the world was just really starting to embrace client/server architecture and technology,” he said. “The role of the technology department was almost strictly operational. Technology team members were primarily order takers, and you could hire talented technologists with no people skills, hide them in a back corner, and not let them interact with others.”
Among other key changes over the last 25-plus years, he added, is that technology departments today feature gifted personnel with welcoming people skills. This talent combination, he added, is essential to any credit union’s strategic plan. If tech employees aren’t “true partners,” credit unions, he believes, will not be “relevant in their members’ lives” five years from now.
Chief Roadblock Remover
As a CTO of a credit union, Mills said it takes a team effort to ensure that the organization collectively has its finger on the pulse of tech trends. This approach sometimes includes tapping external sources.
“With so much going on in so many categories, you can’t keep up with it all on your own. I have a group of peer CTOs that I stay in regular contact with, chair and participate in a couple of key industry committees and attend Finovate and other fintech meetups,” Mills said. “More importantly, I have each of my program leads doing the same for each of their specific areas and mentoring me up. If I didn’t do that, we couldn’t keep up as a team.”
Counted among Mid-Hudson Valley Credit Union’s 265 employees are 18 tech-facing staff members. And while Mills said that technology departments have historically “not been very diverse due to our society and educational system,” he is proud of how staff diversity is evolving.
“While not as diverse as I hope for us to eventually be, our team is 30% female, and [all employees] come from a wide range of backgrounds, and a wide range of ages,” he said.
“Technology teams do tend to be heavily male. I know that when I was in college, there were very few females in the engineering and computer science courses," he continued. "This has been changing for the better, but we have to keep making a concerted effort to improve here as an industry and as a society.”
When it comes to his management style, Mills said he generally follows a “servant leadership” model.
“Each employee is different and has different things that motivate them,” Mills said. “What that translates to day-to-day is instead of focusing on being a chief technology officer; my goal is to be the chief roadblock remover.”
Improving Strategic Focus
As Mills looks at 2022 and beyond, he has his eye on certain tech trends and hopes more organizations embrace “service-oriented architecture” and application programming interface (API) integration solutions.
“Venturing out into fintech and e-commerce solutions rather than just industry solutions…hiring their own staff to provide their own leadership and institutional knowledge,” he said. “And organizations overcoming their fear of cloud solutions.”
In Mills’ view, technology isn’t what differentiates the credit union industry from other industries, but noted that technologies can “empower credit unions to follow through and improve” strategic planning.
“What makes credit unions different is the opportunity to get up every morning and focus our time and resources on how to improve our members’ financial lives rather than how to increase a stock price,” he said.
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