John Wei – CTO & SVP, Comerica Bank
Career Talk - John Wei
Episode A – Meet The Expert
Hi everybody. Welcome to an episode of Sourcing.Guru. I’m delighted to have with us today, John Wei, who is the Chief Technology Officer of Comerica. John, welcome.
Well, Atul, always a pleasure spending some time with you and learning from you.
Thank you, John. John, you are truly a thought leader, so I’m delighted we’re able to make time today. John, let’s begin by telling the audience more about you. Tell us about the journey that’s brought you to this point.
Well, I’m the Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President at Comerica Bank, and my life has taken a few interesting turns and after college I worked as a developer, technical lead architect. Eventually I got into a chief operating officer role at a publicly trader software, and later on worked at HP, leading a financial services industry, energy industry, and eventually worked at an insurance company that happened to own a couple software companies, but also launching joint ventures.
Now I’m with a bank. So along this journey, what I have learned is partnership. When you think about the efficient technology development, it always comes down to choice of build, partner, and buy. The partnership is so critical to be able to access the talents, the resources, the wisdoms that’s required to supercharge innovation.
So Atul, this is where our path, your path and my paths have crossed. I find this entire topic about procurements, supply chain management, partnership, relationship management fascinating. And it adds tremendous value to a innovative company.
Absolutely. And John, we’re going to tease that even more so, but maybe let’s begin by talking about some of the trends and love to hear your point of view.
Episode B – Expert Wisdom, John Wei
Let’s begin by talking about some of the trends and love to hear your point of view. And again to the audience, John’s point of view are his points of view from all the cumulative experience that you just heard, and they don’t necessarily reflect the point of view of the role he’s at today. So I just want to make sure everybody’s aware of that. So John, let’s talk about first, the pace of change and the continuous change and surprises. Talk to us about as a leader, how do you think about managing rapid change both in the external environment and of course the teams that you lead?
That’s really a very important topic. I think we all feel that everybody’s working really hard, and the pace of change is accelerating, but I do think there’s really two type of change. One type of change is adding immediate value, but another type of change is the change that is able to scale and to add a sustained value. I think a good leader really keeps the both perspective intact, and work really hard to preserve the head space, to develop those strategic long-term partnership and relationships. So when I think about change generally, I tend to break the changes into couple big buckets. One, is I call it must do change, regulatory compliance, security, things of that nature. And these sort of things are generally not things we just have to do. The way I look at these things are, it’s like a building a sport car.
If you want to have a fast running sport car, you really have to have stronger brakes. The stronger brakes actually allows you to put bigger engine into the vehicle, and it actually gets fast. So that’s kind of the must to the foundation, the governance and so on and so forth. And we see the change going deeper and more pervasive. And there’s a clear trend toward managing this compacity through automation, through simplification and rationalization. The second big change is really around the digital waves. The digital waves of both in terms of anywhere, anytime doing the business in banking is your mobile, your web presence, personalization, but it’s also turning a lot more enterprise capabilities. Unlock that capability to go toward open banking. So that bank is not a place you go to or app you click on, but it is a activity that’s already pre-integrated into your regular business routines.
Of course AI machine learning is paradigm change. It changes the way how we think about risk management and funding decisions. Automations is making everything more intelligent, more personalized, smarter. But above and beyond that, what we’re also finding is increasingly FinTech. FinTech is dramatically accelerating the timescale we’re able to implement change. I think there was a time when we all naturally think about, it’s every live transformations three, four year time windows. FinTech is now really changing the time horizon from a three-year transformation, in many cases is we call it a 333. It’s a three hours intensive focusing to figure out the problem to solve, three weeks to really do a very well thought out solution design, and three months to do the implementation. So this three-three model is becoming a more preferred model as we compete in this very intense marketplace.
What a great point, John. We saw for example, ChatGPT got to a million viewers in less than five days. So the pace of change is accelerating very dramatically. John, to the point you were talking about AI and automation, talk to us a little bit more in how are you thinking of that as both opportunity and number two is, what are some of the risks that you’re keeping an eye on as you look at adopting more automation, greater use of AI?
So these two topics are interrelated but not exactly the same. I do think the business has become so much more fine grant and complex now. The foundational way to ensure a resiliency, it has to start with simplification. Simplification both in terms of number of assets we manage, but also the fundamental business processes, because a lot of our business processes were really built with a lot of manual handover, handoff points in mind. Having simplified those business processes, the immediate next step should be automation. It’s this notion of virtualizing the work so that a lot more decision making, a lot of more clicking around. Even today as infrastructure has become a code. A lot of decision making has become a code. There are just incredible amount of opportunities for automation. One degree of automation really is AI informed automation. Frankly, when I talk to my industry peers, we all love ChatGPT, amazed by what it can do.
I was chatting with one of my colleagues and the fact ChatGPT nowadays can make mistakes, and you can challenge the answer and say, I don’t think you are entirely correct. And the ChatGPT was able to come back and give a correct answer and rationalize and expand the mistake it made, exhibits a remarkable human-like intelligence. But at the same time, I think perhaps it’s sad about ChatGPT like generative AI than it’s actually norm. So we’re in this interesting stage of tremendous interest and motivation to put the technology to work, but we also need to manage the risk. So I think the general consensus now is front loading the risk assessment, front loading the business case earlier in the cycle. So for example, we used to have a innovation cycle that’s 20 plus steps resembles almost like a project SDLC.
We just try to run with a little bit less of ceremony. But if you look at our latest FinTech strategy, right after discovery, we do partner with a few prominent communities where they already have down the pre-screening, but immediately we do a shift left, we do the testing. And the testing is really based on putting the risk envelope around the initiative, and being very clear-eyed on the specific use cases, and the business value is able to generate. So really is playing on both risk and value side and do that early on. And that seemed to have so far worked pretty well to have early conversation with the business. I do think there’s one positive change. A lot of time in the past, a lot of those innovative automation or AI projects tends to driven by IT. IT is excited about certain ideas, the solutions out there looking for problems.
I think there is a general trend of both IT and business are really two sides of same coin. And every business problem needs to be solved with a innovative technology led solution. And the flip side is, without the guiding principles and the shepherding of the business insides and strategy and technology, it just creates a lot of heat sometimes, perhaps not light. So I see this as a close collaboration, and that frankly goes into, if I may just sidetrack a little bit, the type of talent we hire. We’re no longer hiring just people that are smart. We want people who can really collaborate with people and listen well.
John, this is a perfect segue, because I was actually going to ask you, so maybe you can kind of tease that a little bit more, which is, hey, when you think about this pace of change, when you think about automation AI, and you think about kind of eliminating tech debt and others, talk to us about talent, state of talent, and what are you doing to make sure that both internal development of talent, but also getting talent into add to bolster your ability to be more successful?
Well, at the end of the day, in this day and age when cloud dominates the technology field, majority of the technology is readily available. It’s in many cases available as a service, at a economic point that is accessible for big company as well as for very small company. Talent really is the single most important differentiator. And I think the old leadership mindset of how many people work for me, that no longer works. And I remind myself, but also my colleagues and my leadership team that, frankly nobody really works for you. They work for themselves, they work for their family, they work for their own sense of dignity. I think part of the leadership is important to create a compelling vision and to enable and empower the right talent to thrive.
So the type of talent we’re looking for often is, we’re looking for people who number one, with strong character, because people with strong character, strong talent, they will work hard not to impress you, but because who they see they are. They will naturally attract customers, and repeat customers dramatically reducing the overhead cost, if you will. And they will naturally be humble enough to recognize it’s more important to find the right solution versus being right. So that creates a positive dynamic. And what we’re also learning is the right talent, one of the mental model we have implemented, we talk a lot in the leadership conversation is we want to work with people that we would be happy to entrust our retirement home.
If somebody is going to go out there, build our retirement home, that’s kind of checkpoint number one. Checkpoint number two is, would you like to have this person live next door to your house in your retirement? If these things are checked off, so you have a person that is competent, but that also knows to be a good neighbor. And the rest is really about creating the sense of autonomy. But that autonomy has to be guided with a clear vision of change, because without that it’s chaos. So this is a constant interesting dynamic. Overall, the way we see the market is, the A players are always going to be in high demand, has nothing to do with the state of economy, because they’re just only a small percentage of population that are just absolutely top of the class, and they tends to produce out sized impact.
So these talents were always in the business of… Frankly listening to the talents, what they are looking for, and what we’re learning is, of course it’s compensation, but frankly compensation is not the main deciding factor. It’s just a checkbox you have to check off. Generally, the A players are looking for a positive working environment, where they are empowered having economy, they have the resource they needed to make a change, and they’re also looking for frankly, an environment where they can grow, they can learn from other peoples wisdoms.
You talked about the role of talent and one of the things you said earlier was, one of the areas that you look for also is to make sure good partners, and helping both you and the partners’ success. Well, talk to us about what role do partners play typically in your organization, and what are the best ones that you find do right? And so that can be advice for the others that, hey, if you do that you are better partners, you’re better part of the ecosystem. Talk to us about that.
I think this is really a very good question, because every suppliers if you will, comes to me and say, hey, we want to be your trusted strategic partner. And generally we say, that’s wonderful, but we really want to define what that actually means. In general, we say what that means is, you feel the way we feel. When we are thriving and you really want to understand why we’re thriving, what are the things we take joy in, where we see value, and the type of culture we want to build. But at the same time, if we are going through a period of difficulties, and you are not looking at this as another opportunity just to make a bucket of gold, you’re actually coming along to say, let’s travel together. Let’s travel together, let’s understand how we can solve this together, really becoming the extension to each other’s team.
So number one checkpoint is, at our heart, how do we feel towards each other? Number two is, just like when you’re a real team, another interesting measure we use is, do you show up only when there’s a check on the table, or do you show up when there is nothing in return? I personally, actually encourage my team to reach out to the business, help the business when there’s nothing tangible for the business to give back to us. Because what I find is, these are the moments where the true character is revealed. In general, people like to do business with people they can trust. So when you do these things, not as above and beyond, but as a reflection of our character, it really builds trust.
When trust is there, it really dramatically simplifies a lot of the conversations. So this morning right before this call, I was talking to a partner and their senior leaders, and just getting to know them at a personal level, their family, their personal aspirations, because the reality is anything that’s worth doing, it’s going to be difficult. And then, to find partners you can struggle together, and to keep that end goal in mind as you persist through the journey, it’s one of those blessings in life. So I personally always try to find people that share similar values, and you want to do the right thing and not because it’s easy, but because it’s right.
Well, John, just on that note, one of the things that reminded me is, you and I have had many conversations, and I know one of the things that’s really important to you is giving back social responsibility. So you think of that as an individual, what you do for the community, what you do for the overall space, but also I know that when you think about corporations, the kind of companies you work for, they’re the fabric of their communities. They’re helping that community be successful. Love for you John to share kind of your thinking about both personal social responsibility, but also corporate social responsibility.
That’s really a very important point. I think when we think about these corporate responsibilities as managers, as executives, we’re naturally trained to think about in economic terms. But the reality is to be a responsible leader. We also think through our legal obligations, but also our ethical obligations. And especially, when it comes to those ethical obligations, we do have a responsibility to our community. And that’s one of the reasons at Comerica Bank, we encourage our employees to go out, volunteer the community, we give benefits to our employees to volunteer, frankly paid at the company’s cost.
But many of employees go way above and beyond those paid hours and very active. And I can share with you one experience. We were traveling in India, and a lot of times we go to India, we just sign a business deal, get to know some of the developers, we fly back on this particular trip. We spend one day to visit the foundation. I can tell you, going to some of the less economically vibrant areas, handing off a bike to a young lady that’s first going to the college in her family, that really gives you a sense of why we are in this business for. And it really creates a reason for a motivation that is much more deeper, as we go through some really difficult projects, large transformations are hard to do.
When you go through the migrations, you start remembering there’s so many people in this world, they would love to trade their best days for worst days. And frankly, if you can look at a banking incident as, we got an incident, we got a ticket, we got to follow the process. I doubt my job and are waiting for the next person to come in, or you can look at that particular payment, is going to deposit that cash and it’s going to make a difference to 200 families. The sense of responsibility and urgency is just totally different. And these are the intangibles in the culture that builds a strong team, responsible team as opposed to a team that just do good enough.
John, you talked about a number of areas that are relevant today, and you talked about what is the right way to do it. Talk to us a little bit about, when you think about 2023 and maybe even further ahead, what are the areas you’re investing in more? And then, what are areas where you are thinking about and saying, I need to invest less in it? So love to hear your point of view on that.
I tends to think about five kind of broader scenes. It’s number one, strategy and really spending time to think through the strategy which is, what do we do? What do we choose not to do? And one of the story I tell on team is, when you go to a premium restaurant, usually the menu is pretty simple, but they’re successful. Nobody is running around super stressed, but the business is stressful. What we don’t want to do is open a buffet and do everything. So a leader’s job is making those critical strategy decisions. What do we do? What do we don’t do? And what are type of critical capabilities we need to develop to enable that strategy? That’s number one.
Number two, is the operating model. The operating model, a lot of folks think, operating model, just another reorg. The reality is, operating model is allocation mechanism for the skill and experience, to perfectly match with the project in initiatives that are coming ahead. Because we naturally have people that are more operationally focused, people who are more transformation minded, people who are more a connector of ideas versus people who are more out there implementing ideas. So thinking through the operating model and to match the structure of the organization to the demand ahead.
Then after that is people. People of the team, the right talent structures, the type of talents we want to build, the type of culture we want to build. How do we make certain decisions and what the implication to the culture? For example, agile methodology. Everybody wants agile, but the reality is we are going to be quite flexible on ceremony, and does it have to be PowerPoint? Does it always have to be 200 pages? We’re going to be flexible on that, but when it comes to the real content, and that justifies a rationalized decision. We’re going to be very insistent on that. So thinking through this type of conversations are very important.
And then next is process. How do we make decisions? Because of what I noticed is, as we accelerate the innovations, a lot of the difficult things requires high bandwidth conversations. But conversation in itself is not decision that propels forward motion. So setting up those mechanisms, where we have conversations and broad-based conversations, but also knowing how to turn those conversations into concrete decisions, plans and fundings and project teams, so we can make meaningful changes really important. And lastly is technology. You may find it odd for a CTO to be talking technology the last. The reality is technology usually is not the constraints. We usually have more than one options to go forward with, but it’s all the other elements on top, that really dictates the decision making of the right technology to go forward with.
That was a great way John, to kind of illustrate those points. John, let’s turn to success personally. What resources John, do you rely on to make yourself a better leader?
Episode C – Career Talk, John Wei
John, let’s turn to success personally. What resources, John, do you rely on to make yourself a better leader?
Well, first is associate myself with the leaders like you. And, it’s interesting that when I was young, I liked to hang out with people of similar age. Nowadays, I almost make a point to make friends with people that are five, 10 years older than me, a little bit ahead in my career, because I want to learn their life experiences, how they think about things. Second is learning from my team, because one of the saying that made a deep impression on me is, “A novice person sees many, many opportunities, the expert sees only one.”
So, a lot of times people who are in their early careers and spending time with them, listen to them, and almost refresh my memory on why I got into this career in the first place and the possibilities that I saw when was in my late 20s, is very important. I think the third things we like to do here is reading. I thank you for the box that you shipped to me. I enjoyed reading them about supply management. They’re very impactful, very well-structured, but I enjoy reading in general. Just I think it’s getting the thoughts organized and be able to have a richness of mental models to deal with difficult situations. In many cases, one things that I have learned is the difficult things are not either/or, it’s both. And the ability to argue from both sides, and bring a richness of ideas into the conversation but still be able to drive a decision, is critical. And I do think being surrounded with the right colleagues and leaders, having the right mentors, reading the right books, make a huge difference.
Now, I appreciate that, John. John, the final question. Often this video series is watched by young leaders. They’re aspiring to careers like yours, John. What advice would you have for a young leader that wants to progress, and grow ,and think about the next 10, 20 years?
I’m going to say something provocative, because I’m actually in a program mentoring a few young, earlier-career colleagues. And, often the question comes up in, How do I climb this corporate ladder? How do I become you one day?” And my general answer is, this is one of the best advice I got in my career is, “Don’t confuse employment with employability.” So, a good place does not necessarily guarantee employment, but a good place should guarantee employability. So always think about your market value. So, don’t seek the comfort, but seek where you would increase your market value. Working on very challenging, difficult projects by gaining new experience, making new connections with people. People who are willing to do the right, and hard, and difficult things. That’s number one.
Number two is, always being focused on adding value. Stepping back and just say, “What is the real question?” I can tell you, it’s really interesting that I notice a pattern is a lot of times you’re working on a project, and the story, the PowerPoint keeps on growing, the Excel spreadsheets keep on growing. And usually that’s a time, a signal to say, “Let’s pause and ask this question. What is the question we’re trying to answer, and why does business care about it? And what difference does it make?” I think these fundamental questions often leads to insight of where the value is generated. So one of the patterns that I actually borrowed from my leader is we ask the question from time-to-time, “What now, what, so what? What are we really doing? Now what? So, what does that really mean? And, so what? What’s the value it generates?”
So, if I simplify it is, focus on the employability, the market value, and focus on where you add value. If you do this consistently, you’ll be amazed how the phone call will come without you even apply for the job.
Yeah, John. One of the things I’ve always believed in, and I know every time I meet with you, it gets reinforced, is this whole intellectual curiosity, and this always be learning. You, in fact, just recently finished your courses at Harvard. So this is not just so I just want to reinforce to the audience that John is not just a leader that’s sharing this wisdom with you, but he actually practices this personally himself. John, it’s been a total pleasure having you on this episode. Thank you so much for sharing your views, your wisdom, and I know the audience will really appreciate it. Thank you again, John.
Always a pleasure with you, Atul. Thank you.