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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 2 · Episode 2

Zoom In, Zoom Out: Solving Financial Challenges of the Future with Wells Fargo CIO

Ravi Radhakrishnan, CIO of Commercial Banking and Corporate & Investment Banking at Wells Fargo, takes us on his journey to holding leadership positions at two of the largest banks in the world. He shares his top tips for balancing scale and speed, and discusses how AI is addressing some of the biggest financial challenges of the future.

Published March 23rd, 2021  |  20:04 Runtime

Episode Guest

Ravi Radhakrishnan

Ravi Radhakrishnan

CIO, Commercial Banking and Corporate & Investment Banking at Wells Fargo

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Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast featuring tech leaders from some of the world's largest enterprises and fastest growing startups, hosted by DataStax Chairman and CEO, Chet Kapoor. Each episode follows a leader's journey to scaling a massive business while inspiring their teams. Join us to learn about the experiences that have shaped them, challenges they've overcome, and the advice they'd give to their younger selves.

Narrator: Ravi Radhakrishnan, CIO of Commercial Banking and Corporate & Investment Banking at Wells Fargo, has nearly three decades of experience leading global technology teams. In today's episode, Ravi discusses his process of time-bound decision-making and how having a customer focus helps companies achieve the crucial balance of scale and speed. You'll learn how Wells Fargo is leveraging AI and quantum computing to address financial challenges of the future, like data protection and portfolio optimization.

Chet Kapoor: Ravi, super excited to have you here on the podcast.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Thanks, Chet. It's great to be here.

Chet Kapoor: Let's get started with your personal journey. You've been at Wells Fargo for 8 years, and before that at Citi for 18. Tell us a little bit about your journey.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Chet, my journey started in India. I did my high school and undergraduate in computer science in India at the College of Engineering, Guindy in Chennai, and my masters brought me to the US to Rutgers where I did my master's in computer science. Right after that, I had the opportunity to join a predecessor firm of Citigroup called Solomon Brothers. Those of you who know Goldman Sachs today– Solomon, Goldman were all very well-known differentiated investment banking firms. It was an interesting opportunity to become part of financial services technology.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Back then, I thought I'd do it for a few years and probably move to Silicon Valley and do something in technology, because I was a technologist and that's how I looked at myself. But financial services technology hooked me. I thought it would be a few years, and here I am nearly 30 years later still enjoying what I do.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: That journey then took me through various roles. And at some point in my career I became what, in financial services, we call a CIO: an accountable leader to a group of businesses to support and enable those business and customer outcomes. I led equities technology, co-led prime brokerage technology with equities, operations technology, which is the middle- and back-office parts of it. Almost every part of what we would generally call investment banking and capital markets technology.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Then, the next step in my journey took me to Wells Fargo 8+ years ago. I came in to be the CIO for the capital markets investment banking technology area. It's been an interesting journey at Wells Fargo for me with a variety of different roles. I started out in capital markets, but I grew up. Subsequently, my roles expanded to what we call the wholesale bank. That's serving customers who are anyone other than a “consumer customer”. Think of any entity that makes more than, say, five million in revenue. They are customers of a wholesale bank. It's a great perspective to see small businesses, medium businesses, all the way up to some of the largest businesses in the world. That expanded my horizon.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Today, I have a role supporting two of the five businesses within Wells Fargo. They're called the Corporate & Investment Bank and the Commercial Bank. I duly report into the Head of Technology of the firm and the CEOs of these businesses. It's been an interesting journey, Chet, all the way from school in India to nearly three decades at two of the largest, systemically important banks in the world.

Chet Kapoor: For sure. It seems like you went through all the different ways that Citi morphed, right? That was, I'm sure, very intriguing to actually see it happen.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Yeah, absolutely. When I started in the group I started in, we were a team of 20 engineers, and it was great to start that way because I could see the bigger picture. I could see everything we did as a team. And then over those 20 years, at one point I had the opportunity to lead that same group that grew to 1,500 engineers. Something like that happens over a decade-plus and numerous mergers. I got to know a lot of work styles and cultures around the world, just given how global Citi was– and is.

Chet Kapoor: What was hard?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I'm a very analytical person by nature, Chet. I think you know that from our conversations. I like looking at situations and analyzing them, assessing them before I make decisions. It took me a while in my journey to figure out that balance of how much do you want to analyze a situation? You can get to a place where there's diminishing returns and spending more time looking at what the problem itself is as opposed to making a decision. That was harder for me in the earlier stages of my career, and I've trained to do what I call time-bound decision-making or analysis, so you get to a place and it varies depending on different situations. Sometimes 80% of what you need to know is good enough to make an effective decision, and sometimes it's 90%. It's almost never 100% is what I had to learn along the way.

Chet Kapoor: What came easy to you?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I think a couple of things in hindsight came easy to me. Connecting dots. I think I mentioned that. I was fortunate to start in a small team, so I got very used to asking, "What comes before what I do, and what comes after?" I think today in scale enterprises, that's a challenge. You do a particular capability and it's part of an experience or is an experience, but how it all fits together into the totality of how the customer journey is done or how the franchise capabilities that are accomplished is harder. That part of connecting the dots came naturally to me all along the way, whether it was a smaller group or a larger group I was working with.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: The other thing that came, in hindsight, easily to me is just partnering and collaborating with others. I didn't give it a lot of thought as to, "I should go and partner and collaborate." To me, it was just walking over and talking, asking if I could help. And I then found myself often being tapped to do more or just doing more than the strict definition of my role. I think a lot of that comes with just the natural instinct to collaborate and you have a shared purpose, and that just makes the outcome for everything better.

Chet Kapoor: You and I have spent a bunch of time talking about financial services and how it's transforming. You've been doing this now for a couple of decades. It seems like it's accelerated a lot over the last five years. Give us your perspective on what is happening to accelerate the transformation, and where do you think it's heading?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I started my career in equities trading, systems that buy and sell stocks. Most of the listeners here would know that that is a highly electronic activity today. Most of you have ways in which you can do that at a click of a button, and the entirety of the equities or stock trading paradigms in the world are highly electronic. I started there 25+ years ago, and I saw a lot of the patterns we see today across financial services, even back then.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Just my observation is it's been a secular trend to apply digital transformation. It could be electronic trading. It could be digitization of processes and activities. It's the customer experience. There are many different forms of digital transformation. But across the different segments of financial services, I've been observing that same secular trend that, as time goes by, things become more automated, more self-service, more data analytics-driven, more API-driven, more electronic– and every cycle in a different segment of financial services happens faster. If it took equities (like stocks) 20-30 years to get to this highly electronic form of digitized, the asset classes that came later (like foreign exchange of fixed income, payments, and other segments of financial services), when they go through it, progressively it takes less and less time. It's just a secular trend, and adopting all the technology and enablement that's available, that's going to keep making every part of the financial services segment more and more digital in every sense of the word.

Chet Kapoor: That's an awesome way to think about it. You're spending a lot of time with IBM research, with MIT, and Wells Fargo is leveraging AI and quantum computing. You talked about it earlier. Give us your thoughts.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Yeah, those have been very interesting engagements for us, as you mentioned, as Wells Fargo and Wells Fargo technology. We have a couple of unique, deep engagements, and one of them is with the Watson AI Lab. That's a joint venture between MIT and IBM research. We are one of the industry affiliates to the Watson AI Lab, as of a year ago. What we found interesting was that it brought a lot of leading-edge academy and research thinking from MIT, one of the leaders in AI, along with one of the largest pure play research environments in the world in IBM research. Their partnership has brought a lot of interesting opportunities to look into some hard problems of the future.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: A good example of what we do with them… and we observe the research that they do, and we choose to participate in some very specific projects… so one of the ones we participate in is about synthetic data generation. We've talked about how, as AI becomes more and more progressive, more and more impactful in its outcomes, it's using more and more data. One of the challenges in financial services is we have very strict regulations and compliance and just privacy policies around how we look at data. We protect our customers' data with the utmost criticality. When AI models need huge amounts of data, it's a challenge for us to be concerned about how we protect their data from leakage, or the right people seeing it access.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: One of these research projects is about, could we take 1% or less of actual data and synthesize the other 99+%, but with the same characteristics of the data. So could we create synthetic data that have the same characteristics and fidelity of the original data. And then the challenges with protecting the data, moving the data, transferring the data all become far easier. It scales AI and helps democratize it.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: In quantum, for example, it's much earlier stage. It's a lot more about the test-and-learn and discovery and getting used to the quantum computing model. We have a couple of use cases that we are doing proof of concepts with. We are in the process of doing those. One of them is in classic portfolio optimization. In financial services, you have portfolios of assets that you stress in different ways, you optimize them in different ways. And they take up an incredible amount of compute and time in traditional computing, and there's a promise in quantum computing that can dramatically reduce that time.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Another example is post-quantum cryptography. Quantum computing methods are going to create risks to existing ways of encryption being more easily broken, so there's a whole series of thought and efforts around preparing for what post-quantum cryptography will look like. Those are a couple of examples, Chet, where we look to learn and we look to do some proof of concepts, so a lot earlier stage compared to the AI work I mentioned.

Chet Kapoor: As you talk to–and I'm just taking this as an example–your division heads or for Commercial Banking and Corporate & Investment Banking, do you think they would say they are seeing the benefits yet? Or do you think it's a little further out?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I think they are seeing some benefits. We already see it in applying AI in fraud protection, as an example. I would say some of the benefits are there, but a lot of the promise is in the near- to medium-term future. I would say it's a little bit of both. I don't think it's quite… haven't seen the outcomes yet. It is very much in the earlier stages of impaction.

Chet Kapoor: It's funny, Ravi. I was having this discussion with a CIO, and they said we've been so process-centric and so transactional for so long that we have forgotten that it's about the data. Most of the business leaders that this person talks to, because they've been so transactional and process-oriented, and because the focus has not been on data, they actually do not know how to ask the right questions. Do you see that?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I see some of it, but I would say the business leaders that I work with are asking those questions. They're just asking them in different forms. They are asking them without quite knowing how the solution could come together or where the data might be. But increasingly, the conversations I have with business leaders are around, "How do we serve our customers better? How do we increase our value proposition? What's the next best conversation to have with our customers?" They are all questions that are just one step away from data. So they may not ask a data question, but they are asking the right questions that very quickly lead to the criticality of turning data into insights.

Chet Kapoor: Changing gears. You've led very large teams around the world. How do you balance portfolio execution with speed?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: That's always an interesting challenge. Scale is not always an asset. Sometimes it's a disadvantage, and people sometimes think about scale and speed as being mutually exclusive. In my experience, Chet, over time, there's been a few approaches to thinking of it more as scale plus speed. Right? I typically begin with being aligned on a common purpose. It could be the strategy, it could be what outcome we want for the customer. Any time you want to have that scale plus speed, it's very important to be aligned on a common purpose. Otherwise, all the different parts of the scale don't come together.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: It's also important to be customer-centric in everything you do. That's another element to it. I'm a fan of processes. Sometimes processes look very old-fashioned. But I think, in our industry, it's very clear that, if we can reimagine our processes, we can re-engineer them, we can make them more efficient, and have a customer-centric mindset. Then applying modern technology to those processes can result in some great outcomes that combine speed and scale. Then, ultimately, it's about the right operating model and empowering people and removing obstacles. Then we find that large-scale organizations can move in parallel at speeds that become more cumulative than sequential.

Chet Kapoor: Clearly you have scars to prove how you've come up with this equation, right? Because you have to constantly keep balancing it.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Absolutely. You learn by trying different things, and eventually, you find a bunch of patterns that work for these types of scale and speed situations.

Chet Kapoor: Ravi, who inspires you?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I'm somebody who thinks you can learn and be inspired from everybody. I don't mean that flippantly. I think virtually everybody I work for, work with, or interact with–I look for something to learn from them because I feel everyone's got something they do well. That's maybe at a macro level– everyone inspires me. Then, getting more particular, people who are interdisciplinary, people who can move across teams, people who can fuse things and look at problems very differently. It could be computer science and biology, or it could be someone like A.R. Rahman, one of the Indian music directors that I admire a lot. He's got this great ability to fuse different styles of music, and you get some completely unexpected and great outcomes.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I typically am inspired by anyone who can look at problems, look at situations from many different perspectives, and bring those perspectives together to approach the problem differently and have some unexpected outcomes. Sometimes it's just fun. Sometimes it's transformational.

Chet Kapoor: I like this. I like the cross-disciplinary, or even in the same discipline, but taking all the different nuances and bringing them together. Because it's hard, right? It's something that I learned earlier in my career, which is having a chance to be around Steve Jobs at NeXT, right? It's about liberal arts and computer science, fused together.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Absolutely. To some extent, I think some of the people I admire the most are the people who have that interdisciplinary fusion across very different things, like you said, Steve Jobs.

Chet Kapoor: What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?

Ravi Radhakrishnan: I'd say a few things. I'd start with work/life balance. If I could tell something to me 30 years ago, 20 years ago, I would have advised to always be looking to spend enough time with family, with friends. Earlier on in my career, I'd say the excitement and the thrill of work would at times certainly get the better of me, and it took me a while to get that right balance. I'm fortunate I've had that now for a decade-plus. But that's something I see a lot of very driven, motivated people struggle with, so maybe it's something that everyone should know very early on.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Another thing I would tell my younger self is that balance of being detailed and, at the same time, being able to step away from it to look at the bigger picture. It's that combination of skills to say, when you need, you can go deep. So you have to be well-versed in your domain, but you also need to know that then you need to look at the bigger picture, trust and empower others. You're stepping back, right? It's a bit of a balance of the boat.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Then lastly, Chet, I would say communication. I've learned along the way all ideas are great only if you can communicate. All forms of communication– how can you get your idea across to someone in an elevator in a minute or two, and how can you elaborate on that idea for an hour with a technical engineering group? Those would probably be the three things I’d advise myself when I was young.

Chet Kapoor: That's awesome. One of the things I always remind myself is, all younger versions of ourselves would always talk about how we arrived at our opinions or our point of view. As you go through life, you realize you should just state it and then talk about how you got there. Right? This is a critical part of what you said from a communication point of view.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Absolutely. I think context it's how you get through the "why" behind it. Sometimes a lot of people can tend to rush into the steps.

Chet Kapoor: Ravi, as in all my conversations with you, this has been awesome and phenomenal. I'm sure our listeners will really enjoy this. We really appreciate your time.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Thank you, Chet. I enjoyed this opportunity to talk to your listeners, and thank you for hosting these forums. Just being part of it, it's clear to me that this is a series that would be very helpful if I was younger and had the opportunity to listen to something like this.

Chet Kapoor: Thank you.

Ravi Radhakrishnan: Thanks, Chet.

Narrator: Digital transformation is happening across many industries at a faster rate than ever before. With a shared purpose, a customer-centric approach, and the right operating model, you can balance speed and scale to produce positive results. Ravi also reminds us how important it is to look at situations from different perspectives and bring these viewpoints together to achieve innovative outcomes.

Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman & CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and amazing stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to this series to be notified when a new episode is released. And for Apple podcast listeners, please rate and review the show to help give it a wider reach to listeners such as yourself. And feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at