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A CIO prescription for continuous disruption.
By Robert Alexander, CIO, Capital One Financial
In any organization—especially one that has grown large and successful—it’s easy to make the next year’s strategy simply an incremental improvement on the previous year’s. Too few companies make the effort required to position themselves for the future. But it’s critically important, particularly in this era of digital disruption.
I’m celebrating ten years as CIO of Capital One this year, after nearly two decades at the bank. During my tenure, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in an organization that is making that kind of continuous business transformation, driven by technology.
That journey began decade ago with the primary task of integrating numerous acquisitions. Since then, we’ve changed just about everything we could – hiring and sourcing strategy, the way we work, and the environment in which we do that. Today, we're working on an array of new digital capabilities – next-generation mobile capabilities, real-time analytics, intelligent assistants, and wearable technology.
Our story is one of disruptive – and continuous – transformation.
The Seeds of Change
When I took this job in 2007, we were on the cusp of real change in the banking industry, our company strategy, and our technology approach. We were integrating banks that we had purchased and rationalizing infrastructure across these entities. We developed a competency around great delivery of big, complex projects.
With our purchase of ING Direct in 2011, we became a major player in the digital banking realm. We knew that digital leadership would be a competitive differentiator. But it required a different kind of IT organization, a novel delivery approach, and a new way of doing business.
Like many IT organizations, we had taken the waterfall approach to project delivery; everything took 18 months. We delivered projects with precision and quality. But we needed to develop a more progressive way of working.
We decided to adopt the agile approach to development in 2011. We began by using agile development for just our new digital capabilities, but quickly realized that the approach could deliver value more broadly. By 2013 we rolled it out across the organization. The constant iteration, checking progress against market demands, and continual improvement was incredibly powerful.
A Home Team Advantage
We needed to build out our internal software development team with great engineering talent, creating a critical mass of talent that would serve to attract others. In order to do that, we needed to shift our operational approach to mimic not our traditional financial services competitors but the top technology companies where those professionals liked to work. We were convinced that the winners in financial services would be those that operated the way the tech giants do.
Today’s best developers don’t want to work on legacy platforms or deal with slow, bureaucratic ways of processes—an unfortunate hallmark of the banking industry. They want to hit the ground running and work with the latest technologies. Our agile transformation helped. We also began to embrace the world of open source development. We not only drew on open-source technologies, we launched our own open source projects and now give back to the community. It’s become part of the fabric of the way we work internally, as well, sharing and collaborating on software development. That’s helped us build a strong community of software engineers and has advanced the state of the art of our own technology systems.
An ecosystem of open source projects has emerged, changing the way companies can do data and analytics. We want to ride that wave of technology innovation in order to handle vastly larger quantities of data in ways that we never could before. That will enable us to become a more integral part of our customer’s lives, showing up at the moment when customers need our services.
We also made changes to our physical work environment. I believe people naturally like to collaborate and move quickly and get things done. As we started to scale our agile approach, we recognized that this way of working required more physical interaction. We created new open workspaces that enable interaction. We’ve adopted new technology solutions to foster collaboration across geographic locations. We also introduced a scaled agile framework to enable multiple teams to work together on larger programs.
A Move to the Cloud
In addition to growing our software engineering capabilities, we have reimagined how we deliver IT infrastructure. We chose to take a cloud-first approach to software development, with AWS as our predominant cloud infrastructure provider.
We don’t want to be in the business of building infrastructure. There are companies that have invested an awful lot in that, and have tremendous scale. We can instead focus on building great applications for our customers. That’s where we can make a difference—not building data centers or running our own private cloud. That has enabled us to move quickly and nimbly while some other big banks remain mired in their own kind of internal infrastructure challenges.
A Culture of Ownership
Our move to DevOps has been another aspect of our continuous transformation. It’s partly about automating how we build software from development to deployment. But it’s also enabled a very important shift to a culture of ownership within IT.
By bringing development and operations together, our software engineers now own their code all the way through production, which creates powerful benefits. They’re able to quickly resolve issues that arise because they’re no longer throwing their work over a wall to operations. We’re also moving our operation teams upstream and integrating them into the development teams. DevOps has opened everyone’s eyes to the importance of code quality and delivery and what it takes to develop systems that can run at scale reliably in a very demanding environment.
There are employee satisfaction benefits to DevOps, as well. People like working in an environment that operates with a high degree of efficiency and turns out great capabilities and software products for our customers. As a leadership team, we’re telling our entire organization that this is what IT success looks like. And every part of our organization—every team—is working toward that goal.
An Evolving Industry
There’s an incredible amount of activity and innovation going on in the world of new technology for financial services, particularly with FinTech startups. There’s a recognition that the world of financial services and technology are converging in very powerful ways.
Our field of competition is very broad. We need to be attentive to what the large digital superpowers doing, what our traditional legacy competitors are up to, and what’s going on in the venture capital space. Everyone’s working to solve many of the same problems, but coming at them from different angles.
We stay engaged by having a San Francisco-based team that’s dedicated to keeping up with the latest technology companies and developments. We have relationships with VCs that are involved in FinTech as well as with other enterprise applications that are relevant for us. We bring in start-up companies to run pilots—some of which we have deployed widely. We’ve acquired a number of emerging technology and design firms. We’ve learned a lot from these start-ups – both in terms of how they operate and how they build technology. And we measure ourselves against their nimbleness and flexibility. Sure, they have the benefit of a clean slate. But we’re only 22 years old; there are a lot of areas where we can start fresh.
This approach has helped us introduce some great, new digital products to help our customers with their financial lives. Our Wallet app provides a ton of capabilities for customers to track and manage spending, earn and redeem rewards, and benefit from notifications and insights generated by their use of our products. We launched a new capability using Amazon’s Alexa that enables customers to use a voice interface and natural language queries to manage their money.
It’s amazing how much our company has changed in ten years—how much our IT organization has evolved, how much our business model has shifted, and how much the world of technology outside has advanced. I may have a longer CIO tenure than most but the job has continually changed along with everything else. It’s so dynamic—and that’s the only thing that’s not likely to change.
Lessons for a Future CIO
I’m not your typical CIO. I served in the Air Force, was a strategy consultant at Bain and Co., and earned an MBA at Harvard Business School. I’ve been at Capital One for 18 years, but spent a good portion of that time working in the lines of business. But while I don’t have a tech background, my experiences have served me well in the CIO role.
In the Air Force, I developed missile systems. It gave me good insight into how to manage huge projects. Business school broadened my mind and the case study approach trained me how to think like a business manager and speak the language. My time as a consultant was a continuing education of sorts, in a variety of different industries. You are typically tackling some of the most difficult problems a company is struggling with and are engaged with some of the most senior leaders. That’s where I learned strategy.
Here at Capital One, I spent a lot of time in our credit card and lending businesses at a time when both needed a much more modern IT infrastructure. I “volunteered” to lead the largest information technology system replacement program in Capital One’s history, delivering an innovative, new infrastructure for Capital One’s credit card businesses, replacing the billing system and surrounding systems and applications. It was a big, risky program, but we pulled together folks from the business, operations, marketing, and technology to get it done. It took several years and affected every aspect of the organization.
At that point, I knew enough to be dangerous, so when our former CIO left, I took on the CIO role. I had acquired a good skill set to step in. But looking back, I couldn’t have known then how much more I’d have to learn. And that continues today. I’ve developed a deep appreciation for how much there is to learn, and one of my favorite parts of what I do as a CIO is continually learning from the talented people I work with every day.
It’s all too easy for a successful organization to make next year’s strategy simply an incremental improvement on the previous year’s. But in this age of digital disruption, companies need to be regularly repositioning themselves for a radically different environment.
Software talent is attracted to an organization that already has a critical mass of great software engineers. And you won’t succeed in building that core group of top talent if they have to work on legacy platforms in an environment marked by slow and bureaucratic processes.
DevOps fosters a culture of ownership in IT, with software engineers owning their code all the way through production and thus able to quickly resolve issues that arise.