Building business knowledge deep into the technology stack

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I was recently at an event where I ran into Anil Cheriyan, CIO of SunTrust Banks, and we started chatting about how to bring IT from the back-office to the front-office. When he told me that his team no longer refers to “internal clients,” I sensed that was the tip of the iceberg in cultural change. So soon after, I interviewed Cheriyan about why it has been important to eliminate that term and the relationship between IT and its business partners at the $206 billion in assets financial services firm.

How have you created a “business outcomes” culture in IT?

Five years ago, we said that we are a purpose-driven bank. We have a fundamental purpose, which is lighting the way to financial well-being for our clients, teammates, communities, and shareholders. That’s why we are here, and it is part of every teammate’s responsibility to embody that purpose. If you don’t, you don’t belong at the bank.

When I introduced this concept to my team, they said, “I’m just the mainframe guy,” or “I’m just developing solutions for the client facing people who are lighting the way.” But they are beginning to understand that now technology is at the forefront of a client’s interactions with the bank; IT is on the front line. The IT organization is lighting the way to financial well-being. We are all equal partners in this whether we are in client-facing roles or not. My team knows that no one group owns the client, we all do. 

How have you designed your operating model to ensure that your IT teams are integrated into the rest of the business?

When I joined the company, we decided to restructure our operating model around business focused Chief Technology Officers (CTOs). We have a consumer CTO, a wholesale CTO, a mortgage CTO, and a CTO for our wealth business. We don’t use the term relationship manager because that title can imply an “empty suit” standing between IT and its business partners with no authority and responsibility. Our CTOs have deep domain expertise in their businesses and lead dedicated business focused teams.

The CTOs report on a solid line to me, but they are infused in their business areas. These CTOs have deep business skills and leverage our core shared services – such as information security and infrastructure. We are now taking this a step further and adding business focused skills in each layer of the “stack.” We have production support people who are dedicated, for example, to our consumer business or to wholesale. We are developing business information security officers with deep knowledge in each business area. We also have data analysts each dedicated to a business area.  

This allows IT, at all levels, to engage in consultative discussions with our business partners. These vertical teams, which are becoming stronger and stronger, leverage shared components including the data lake, API layers, and the services oriented architecture. User interface and user experience people are also shared because we want to have a common look and feel across all of our solutions. Strengthening our vertical capabilities at multiple layers of the stack has been a major mind-shift for us.

How do you ensure that business CTOs stay strategic rather than fight fires?

In our model, our CTOs own the operating piece as well; they are responsible for uptime and performance. They know that when they spend 90 percent of their time with their business partners talking about uptime, they cannot be as strategic. They have an incentive to minimize the uptime conversation and focus on higher-value business challenges. In our old model, where this alignment didn’t exist, there was less accountability. We changed all of that by giving our business CTOs ownership of production operations and by drilling vertical orientation down into the operation layer.

What role do metrics play in your new operating model?

We currently separate our metrics into four quadrants: The first is around business capabilities. For example, as our business seeks to grow its consumer lending capabilities, our domain specific CTO is a key partner in building the capability needed to meet that business’ strategic plan; we measure the consumer CTO on that outcome. The second set are traditional IT metrics around infrastructure and stability. We are keeping those metrics, but we are beginning to define them in a more granular way. For example, we are looking at stability metrics that impact only client facing solutions and working to figure out how to measure availability from a real business value standpoint. How does one extra point of availability impact revenue or client satisfaction? What are the proxy metrics that we can use to connect mean time to restore to revenue? That’s the next horizon in our new operating model.

The third area of metrics is around risk: How does our technical debt impact business continuity? And the fourth is financial: What is our run vs. change spend?

In a digital era, IT people must think differently than in the industrial era. How would you characterize this new way of thinking and what have you done to cultivate it? 

We have a business accelerator group that is looking at design thinking, DevOps, Agile, APIs and cloud as one holistic transformation of the full technology stack. By the end of 2017, roughly 25 percent of our investments will be in this accelerator mode, and by the end of 2020, my goal is 75 percent. In other words, we are creating a digital mindset that horizontally impacts every solution we deliver across all of our workstreams and capabilities. We are also helping our business leaders to get out of their own silos. We are working hard to strike the right balance between vertical focus and horizontal capabilities to bring financial well-being to our customers.

About Anil Cheriyan

Anil Cheriyan is CIO for SunTrust Banks, Inc., responsible for SunTrust’s Enterprise Information Services (EIS) division, the organizational unit that provides the company’s overall technology, operations and information-related support. Prior to joining SunTrust in April 2012, Cheriyan was senior partner at IBM Global Business Services, where he has served financial services industry clients and led a variety of business systems transformation, technology and process re-engineering initiatives. Before joining IBM in 2002, he was a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting. Cheriyan earned master of science and master of philosophy degrees in management as well as a BS in electronic and electrical engineering from Imperial College in London.

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