Sastry Durvasula began his career as a developer and still writes code for fun, but as Chief Information and Client Services Officer at TIAA, he is a leader first and foremost.

Steve Rovniak: How did you get your start in a career in technology?

Durvasula_Sastry NewSastry Durvasula: I was an engineering student in college and my first job was as a software engineer. Since then, it's been a long journey with a range of engineering assignments, architecture, technology, and team leadership, which gradually progressed to leading large organizations. Now I am leading the client services and technology organization at TIAA, but my career roots are in coding, and I still code for fun.

What kind of coding are you still doing?

Nothing that could be put it into production, obviously. It's mostly at home and fun stuff with my kids, who like to code with me. We mess around with our home security cameras and the different types of audios and visuals as people show up. But I also code as a way to keep learning about new things like Web3 technologies, the metaverse and generative AI.

Can you walk me through the jobs you had leading up to your current role at TIAA?

After my early consulting days doing technology roles in engineering and architecture, I joined American Express as a lead architect, and over fifteen years had a range of roles across Amex’s core business lines, the card business, merchant services, and the network. I also had enterprise roles.

After American Express, I was Chief Digital and Data Analytics Officer at Marsh & McLennan, which is a leading global insurance broker and risk management firm. I spent a few years leading the digital practice as well as the data and analytics practice there. Then I was with McKinsey as their global head of technology and digital. It was very different because I had the opportunity to not only lead McKinsey's core technology and digital functions but also to advise a range of its clients.

Currently at TIAA, your job title is Chief Information and Client Services Officer. Can you explain that particular job title and what it means?

Besides the traditional CIO role, I lead our global client services organization, which includes colleagues who are facing off with clients. In our business, the clients are plan sponsors, the thousands of institutions that we serve, as well as plan participants, the millions of participants who have their retirement, or asset management, or wealth management services provided by TIAA and our affiliate businesses. It also includes plan consultants who are partners that we work with.

My team serves these constituents, whether it's the front office, middle office, or back office functions, like fraud management and risk management, and working with participants. So, it's a very integrated role in the sense that there is nothing we do in client services that is not technology powered. Whatever we do in technology, the other part of my organization gets to case-study and test firsthand.

Does your role have two separate lobes to it that you alternate between, or is it more integrated?

It’s both, because there are functions within my client services organization that are very much decoupled from my technology functions. For example, if I attend a cybersecurity call with my team, that would be dramatically different from attending record-keeping operations deep dive meeting with my client services team. About one-third of my responsibilities within the individual towers are decoupled, and the remaining are more tightly coupled because there's a lot of technology linkage. That's the beauty of it. Sometimes it makes it hard to plan my day because I have to switch hats, but that also makes it interesting.

What is an example of an interesting initiative you and your teams are working on right now?

One that we just officially announced last evening is Client Tech Labs. We have created a multi-cloud platform where we're able to co-innovate with our clients. And the beauty of TIAA is most of our clients are higher-ed institutions and a lot of research or healthcare organizations. Now, we are able to co-innovate with these clients as well as emerging tech and big tech companies, and crowdsource ideas. There will be a lot of working happening in the AI space as well as in FinTech.

What else?

Another fascinating initiative is our strategic partnership with Google AI that we announced a few months ago. This is actually a great example of the power of technology and client services coming together. We've now deployed conversational AI capabilities to our client service reps. There is a lot of excitement around the latest developments in generative AI and we're working through and beta testing a lot of new ideas.

 

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Was there a point earlier in your career when you set your sights on becoming a CIO?

At American Express I had some great leaders and mentors, and one such mentor gave me this eye-opening advice. He said, "You know, we talk about the three P’s - platforms, people, and process, but at the end of the day, it all comes down to people. The three P's are really people and people and people.” When I asked him to explain, he said, "Platforms are here, but you're going to end up decommissioning the platforms you build some day. Processes are here today, but you will end up reengineering them to be better and more efficient, and they will work differently as the technology changes. But if you have the people, and they're with you, they're there with you forever."

That was a real “Aha!” moment for me. After that, I started studying up on the CIO leaders within Amex and more broadly. That started my career journey towards being a CIO, which is a large people and leadership responsibility. I realized that I wanted to be the one setting the vision and leading the tech organization. I wanted to motivate people and rally teams to think about the art of the possible and execute it for the business.

You came up as a hands-on technologist, but leading large IT organizations for global companies requires additional skills. What did you do to develop the non-technical skillset required to be an effective business technology leader?

Some of it came naturally, and some skills I had to acquire the hard way. Leadership came naturally. As a student, I always gravitated towards leadership roles. As a boy scout, I held leadership roles. When I was playing cricket, I was more focused on leading the team than actually playing the game. I was the Speech Team captain in school who would lead and motivate the team.

But leading a large IT organization is not leading a small teams of troops on a hiking trail, or on a cricket ground. Other traits that are critical to the CIO role, such as empathy and accessibility, listening, motivation and vision, being decisive – I had to acquire these through trial and error. Luckily, I have worked in large, mature global companies that provided the culture and the complexity in which I could learn.

Can you recall and describe a big learning moment from earlier in your career?

In the days of Web 1.0, when I was at American Express, we were building all these new digital capabilities. It was mostly to drive people to the web. We literally had projects and initiatives that were called "DriveToWeb". We would ask people and customers to come to our website or our platforms to leverage our capabilities, like rewards, loyalty programs and so forth. We would invest all this time, money, and effort, but we wouldn't see the traction or impact. It could have turned into a career-limiting move at that point.

But that's when the discovery started for me and my team. We realized that the alternative was to be where the customer already is instead of asking them to come to us. So, we started on a new journey about how to be relevant to the customer and be where the customer is, specifically what websites and channels they were active on. We started building the technology capabilities, partnerships and personalized experiences to power this journey.

That was a big, big shift, and not an easy one. There were a few risky moves, like rapidly modernizing legacy platforms and integration technology for new partnerships. Looking back now, I could say it was probably the biggest lesson in my career: be where the customer is, build partnerships for impact, and be obsessed about personalized experiences! 

What is some advice you offer to rising IT leaders or other people you mentor?

I regularly advise people to avoid becoming over-fascinated by technology itself. It's tempting, and as an engineer and developer, I suffered from this. You have to decouple yourself from the technology to be an effective technology leader. I'm not suggesting that you should be completely hands-off. Just make sure that you are a leader first.

I do a lot of mentoring through a nonprofit called Girls in Tech, a global nonprofit focused on closing the gender gap in technology careers. There is a parity issue, an equity issue in the industry. We are making progress, but there is a lot of work still to be done on gender diversity in the technology industry as well as in financial services. My advice to young women in technology is, “Don't let the system define you and your value and your impact. You own your value, and you own your impact.” This is quite important, because in crowded organizations in these large companies, it's very easy to be taken for granted.

What is one of your most effective recruiting or retention strategies?

There is nothing better than offering interesting problems to solve. At the end of the day, technologists love interesting problems, so I always make sure that we are creating opportunities to work with interesting problems.

At TIAA, Client Tech Labs is a great example of this. Another example is what we call our Guild Network, where people can major in their primary job, but minor in another area by learning new skills in the guilds and actually do guild work. This is one of the best things that we've done in TIAA for cross-pollination of talent. We have six guilds, that anybody can join, regardless of their function. Say you are a fraud analyst interested in learning more about AI. You can join the AI guild and have access to a range of learnings, collaboration on our internal social channels, certifications, and eventually the ability to join AI projects.

I love the guild concept. What else?

For the next generation we are trying to attract, purpose is paramount. So, making sure that everything that we do at the end links back to the purpose is extremely important. This is great for us because TIAA is a purpose-driven firm. It was born for a purpose: to serve teachers who serve others. In the end, our product is purpose.

Have you recently read a book that you would recommend to other business or technology leaders?

Right now I'm reading AI 2041, which has been on my list for quite some time. I just finished My Life in Full, by Indra Nooyi. It's a beautiful book that I highly recommend. The other one that I recently finished is Race After Technology, by Ruha Benjamin. This is a fascinating book, especially as we think about AI ethics and the implications of technology on humanity, and race specifically.

What do you think the CIO role will look like in five years?

I think the CIO role has already evolved into CIO-plus. At a lot of firms, the pandemic accelerated the digital journey and the sense of urgency. Firms that were already modernized are accelerating, and firms that were not yet there are going through a major leapfrogging journey with technology.

I can see the CIOs of today being successful business leaders five or 10 years into the future, because there won't be any major distinction between business and technology. In the future, technology is the business and business will be powered by technology. So what it will really take is focus on business outcomes, business impact, and client obsession. I'm definitely rooting for the CIOs of the future to be effective business leaders.

What is one of your favorite place to travel on business and why?

I have two favorite places: Silicon Valley and New York City.

Yes, there is incubation pretty much across the globe, but Silicon Valley is the genesis ground. When you go to Silicon Valley you meet people and you see the ideas and the energy and the passion. It's just fascinating every time I go. And New York City, especially because I have been in financial services for most of my career. Similar to Silicon Valley, it's just fascinating to see the energy. Even though they're not the most exotic places I have visited in my global travels, from a pure career point of view these two places have had a profound impact on me.

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