After 10 weeks of work and mentorship, a team of college interns at Boston Private were able to present blockchain and AI prototypes to the executive team, including the CEO. Prasanna Gopalakrishnan, EVP, Chief Digital and Information Officer at the wealth management, trust, and private banking company, shares details.
Steve Rovniak: Tell me about the college interns you had in your IT organization last summer?
Prasanna Gopalakrishnan: Talent management is a key priority for me due to the leadership role I have in our digital transformation. I’m a strong believer in leveraging multiple approaches and being creative to acquire great talent. We have strong summer internship and co-op programs for college students at Boston Private and they create a great talent pipeline.
Last summer, I wanted to explore some disruptive areas within technology and see how they were applicable to our business. I also wanted to foster and nurture the spirit of innovation within my IT organization. I brainstormed with my team and felt that with good supervision and mentorship, we could leverage our summer interns to do this. I thought, “They can bring a completely fresh mindset to the technology organization.”
How did you initiate this program?
Boston Private welcomes about 25 interns each summer as part of a program that has been in existence for many years. We outlined a number of disruptive technologies including blockchain and AI that we wanted to explore and posted the job description to the college internship job sites.
Even though we have a large number of great applicants, we wanted a diversified group of interns and ended up hiring six – two from Harvard, two from Brown, one from Carnegie Mellon, and one from UC Irvine. They were sophomores and juniors, and most of them were computer science majors with an economics minor, so they were very interested in working on technology related projects applicable to the financial services industry.
We brought the interns together for ten weeks and co-located them in an innovation lab where they could collaborate, bounce ideas off one another, and share what they were learning.
What disruptive technologies did you have them focus on?
We had them utilize blockchain and AI to solve some of the use cases we had in banking. The interns had no prior background or experience in these two technologies but they were curious to explore and understand how these technologies can be used to solve business problems. We provided them with a lot of support and mentoring on technology and our business.
These new technologies are evolving so rapidly and it helped them to be curious and learn from each other while following our guidelines and process. If you're two or three years into programming in blockchain, then you're a veteran in that space. Some of these technologies are so new, up and coming and disruptive, that it is hard for folks who have been working in the industry for many years to keep up with it and learn. And they have to start at the same place where the interns would start.
What exactly did you have them do?
The first stage of their project was to learn all about the available blockchain and AI platforms, and to experiment with them. They learned a lot from this exercise, including the limitations and challenges of the platforms they researched. They shared their experiences with my team, so it was also a good opportunity for all of us to learn more about these technologies and platforms.
In the meantime, I worked with our business team to find a good business use case.
What blockchain and AI platforms did they explore?
Because we are in the financial services industry, we stayed away from public blockchain platforms and had the interns explore private open source platforms, including Hyperledger Fabric and Chain Core.
After a number of iterations, we settled on Chain Core as the platform on which to build our prototype. We found it to be more applicable to our needs and we leveraged the smart contract logic within the Chain Core platform. Most open source platforms were built for a specific use case, and so even with Chain Core, we were constrained and had to come up with some workarounds to build the core logic. These platforms are evolving and changing rapidly. With AI, we leveraged the TensorFlow platform for building models for customer attrition.
What was the use case?
After thoughtful analysis, we picked private lending, which had a lot of friction and inefficiencies involving multiple parties. We sent the interns to meet with our business teams so that they could fully understand the end to end process.
By the end of summer, the interns were able to build prototypes of a blockchain platform that could manage secured lending products for high net worth individuals. They demonstrated this as well as an AI prototype to the technology leadership and executive teams, and also the CEO.
That sounds like a strong team, given what they were able to accomplish in 10 weeks.
They came together as a great team and demonstrated strong leadership skills. They worked like a startup and you could see that they had great chemistry, which was a big part of this success.
How did you select these individuals?
Honestly we just wanted good, smart interns. We didn’t judge too much by which school they went to. More importantly, we wanted them to be curious and passionate, with good communication skills. We wanted to be able to see their hunger and motivation to learn and to get things done.
My enterprise architect and I wrote the job description for the program and posted it to all of the internship job boards at various schools. We were amazed at the huge response, and we had to turn away a lot of smart students from top schools. We wanted a well-rounded team and hence we did not pick too many from any single school. We ended up picking a team of three male and three female members.
It seems that you wrote an effective and enticing job description.
When you post these summer internship jobs, you have to be clear about what they will be working on, because college students these days have a lot of opportunities. They want to go to a place where the work is meaningful and where they're going to learn. This is very important for them. Our job description clearly articulated what they would be doing and as a result, we were able to connect with the right students.
What else would you say were key success factors for the program?
Once they came on board, we treated them as though they were part of my team – like regular employees. For example, we have a digital roadmap update meeting every Friday. and a lot of people are invited. They came to all of those meetings.
Our Enterprise Architect did an amazing job as their direct manager. I met with the interns every other day for a half hour to give them guidance and make sure they were fully engaged. And believe it or not, it came to a point where I started to look forward to all our meetings since I learned a lot from them and got energized by their passion and curiosity. When they gave their presentation to our CEO, he was fascinated by how well they could articulate difficult concepts related to blockchain and AI.
What is one important thing to share with other CIOs about this experience?
Creating an innovative mindset and bringing new talent and nurturing them within your organization is a tough job. It is a journey that you never quite complete. There is a war going on for great talent within the industry we serve, so you have to constantly look for new and creative ways to promote innovation and develop talent for your organization through external and internal opportunities.
About Prasanna Gopalakrishnan
Prasanna Gopalakrishnan is Executive Vice President, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Boston Private, a leading provider of fully integrated wealth management, trust and private banking services. Prior to joining Boston Private, Gopalakrishnan served as the Chief Information Officer of Campus Services at Harvard University and in Senior Leadership roles at Fidelity Investments and Thomson Reuters. She holds an MBA from the D'Amore-McKim School of Business at Northeastern University, Boston, MA and a BS in Engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, India.