Since his January 2013 appointment as enterprise CTO at Fidelity Investments, Stephen Neff has made a significant impression in the financial services company's highest IT post. Earlier this year, he was named one of five finalists for the 2014 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award.
He oversees an IT organization with an annual budget of $2.5 billion and 12,500 tech employees, associates and contractors around the globe. And he's tasked with running a distributed technology organization where a majority of workers operate within the various business lines reporting into business unit CIOs.
Neff says his objectives align with Fidelity's goals of providing both the best and newest customer experiences it can, delivering solutions that differentiate the company in the marketplace and effectively scaling its operations. "I'm fortunate enough to have people at the top on the same page with how important technology is," he says.
What's your biggest tech-related challenge right now? There are so many changes going on concurrently. The technical platforms are changing rapidly, and they're all interrelated. When you think about emerging technologies, there are the ones that you would normally put on the list — mobile, social networking, cloud computing, big data and gamification. They're pervasive in the environment, but you can't just look at any by itself.
How do you deal with that challenge? We have a couple of groups inside the company that are really advance guards. Fidelity Labs is the best example. They focus on technologies that are three to five years out, and they do an assessment of the timeline for when they will be prevalent in the marketplace and the relevance to our industry. So those things — cloud, social, mobile — we were focusing on them several years ago and we ramped up capabilities across the company.
We are still a mixed shop, but a large percentage of our development is using agile methodologies [to help us keep up with rapid change]. We found we had to take a different approach to how we rolled out new capabilities, so a lot of what we now do is small releases that go out on a more frequent basis.
What emerging technologies are you excited about? The ones that we're putting more emphasis on are the various forms of artificial intelligence. AI-type systems will start to hit their stride. When you think about a lot of the interaction we have with the customers, much of the information to answer questions could be provided by machines. The phone reps could spend more time focused on the customers' needs rather than looking things up.
And we're interested in how gamification impacts [the financial services] industry because much of what our customers are asking for is more education.
We're also looking at form factors — wearables. Whether you'll see someone with Google Glass trading [stocks] out of their eyeballs, I'm not sure. But there are applications that could be helpful with some form of a wearable.
The other one is more investment in various techniques for DevOps, so we can get our capabilities to production and out to our customers quicker and more frequently.
How do you ensure continuity across such a large operation? Where much of the technology organization is in the different businesses, it tends to minimize rogue groups popping up.
We have a technology architecture council, so the lead technologist in each of the businesses participates in a group that defines the cross-company platform. While they don't always agree on everything, that's the primary way we drive those decisions.
And the CIOs and I meet weekly, and we do off-site meetings every quarter. So if there is something that's of critical nature, we can get it right on behalf of everyone. We'll take it on as a group.
What makes that approach work? Communication. And maybe we're a little different here. We're a privately held company, so investment decisions can be made for the longer term. There may be less short-term pressure for financial results. This isn't a very hierarchical company. It's not uncommon for people to talk to individuals, and try to solicit agreements and influence decisions. If we have to do something by dictate, we will do it. But it's more often that we do it collaboratively.
How do you adapt to the tech needs and preferences of younger professionals? We ask them everything: How do they use technology? What do they prefer? How do they like their collaboration space? What's their work style? There's a significant input for us, not only in how we design for our customers, but also how we define our workspace.
We also have reverse-mentoring: Each of the CIOs and myself [is mentored by] someone who has been out of school for less than two years, to get closer to how they think and use technology.
Have you learned anything that surprised you? The ease this generation has with technology — and with changing technology. They're very comfortable with going along with whatever helps them be more productive. They're a mobile lot. They're multitasking. They don't look at barriers and organizational lines. They don't say, "I shouldn't talk to so-and-so because they're not in my silo." And they don't talk on the phone. Everything is either in person or via tech.
Has your work with nonprofits helped you be a better executive? These small community organizations have very little funding. Typical nonprofits under $1 million spend less than 2% of their budgets on business infrastructure. It gives you a different perspective on how fortunate you are and how you can use money a little more judiciously.
This story, "Fidelity's top IT exec sees potential in A.I." was originally published by Computerworld.