The Journey to Nirvana: Becoming a Platform Enterprise with Banco Santander CPO
Hear from Banco Santander’s Chief Platform Officer Aiaz Kazi on moving from traditional on-premise to a cloud-native, mobile-first, and AI-enabled platform in today's modern world.
Chief Platform Officer at Banco Santander
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling billion dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax with more than 20 years of experience, working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth.
Aiaz Kazi is Chief Platform Officer for Banco Santander, a global banking group with more than 145 million customers in the US, Europe and Latin America. Prior to this, Aiaz was head of platform ecosystem for Google Cloud, following a long stint at SAP, where he launched, shaped and helped grow SAP HANA to become one of the most successful enterprise platforms. In this podcast, Aiaz shares the reinvention of the project to product to platform journey. Chet and Aiaz take us on a path of communicating value and how you as a leader can drive transformation. Listen in on how he does this successfully by changing the conversation to change the narrative.
Chet Kapoor: Aiaz, thank you very much for joining us today for the Inspired Execution podcast. Really appreciate it. I've known Aiaz for a long time. Aiaz is the Chief Platform Officer for Banco Santander. We started working together at BEA and have met in various incarnations at Google Cloud, at SAP, and now we're having some conversations at Banco as well. Aiaz, welcome and thank you very much for joining the podcast.
Aiaz Kazi: Thank you so much for having me, Chet. It's exciting. I'm looking forward to this.
Chet Kapoor: As I've said earlier, this is for the younger versions of ourselves, right? What would people like to know and what happens on a regular basis? And you've got a phenomenal history, right? Of going from a middleware to an app company, to a cloud company, and now to a financial services company. So, I'm really looking forward to this conversation. Let's get started from the beginning. You've spent time at BEA, Google, SAP, and now Banco. In that order, tell us a little bit about the journey. What came easy? How do you overcome the hurdles in times of challenge?
Aiaz Kazi: This is great. Actually, the journey began way before BEA as well. So you met me at BEA, but half my life before that was as a developer. Started out in India, did my engineering, and worked for TCS. Was chosen to be part of this fancy training program called software engineering training program, which was a year long. Felt more like an extension of college, but we worked lectures during the day and I learned everything under the sun from vSan, mainframe to C++ to whatever else that there was at that time, Windows and everything else. And at night, we just did projects. So, it was a brilliant time to sort of put everything that we were learning at work. And then ended up being a software engineer and grew up in the engineering ranks for the next 10 years before making my journey over to product management.
Aiaz Kazi: That was the first big change. But in a while, it seems easy, but being technically grounded was very useful to go to product management and that was sort of the thread that made it easier. The technical background made the walk from engineering, to product management, to product marketing, to then product strategy, and then the various roles around learning how to build a platform, that came easy. The technical piece came easy, so it was great to be grounded. What was challenging was that frame of reference kept changing. So from being a developer and from being an engineer where you finished things that you started before you went on to the next thing, to get used to the rolling task list that a product manager has to deal with, and to be comfortable with the fact that you may not be able to take everything off, but every day when you wake up, you have a new task list with higher priority items on the top.
Aiaz Kazi: And then in came the slow, subtle shifts of walking or what I jokingly call walking over to the dark side. I didn't make it all the way to sales, but that's something that I've been told I should be able to do well. But to me, the technical background was what made it easy. Then there were hurdles. I mean, there's always hurdles. The biggest hurdle is the changing frame of reference. What is the definition of success? Definition of success is different in product management than it is in engineering, it's different in product marketing, it's different in building a platform, so understanding that. But at the heart of it is the key part I think that got me through all of this. And I look at this as not planned moves. Now, after so many years, I tell people it's serendipity rocks. It is literally making the most of where you are at.
Aiaz Kazi: And what works is if you have the passion, right? Some of these have been dragged over the line on these changes, launching HANA in SAP as an example. I was dragged over the line by Vishal. We didn't have a ready product at that time when we were looking to launch something and he said, "No, we have to do it now." But once you get that passion and you have that passion, that is infectious, and that's what carries through everything you do, to you, to your team. The next thing is to look at when you hit hurdles - is just focus on where you need to go. There's always going to be different routes to get there, there are temporary setbacks and hurdles. What happens is when I was younger, I would worry and sweat the small stuff. And I think over time, I've learned to not do that. It comes with experience, it comes with time that you say, okay, you know what? This is important, but not as important as... Even if I don't fix it, there are ways around this.
Aiaz Kazi: And understanding that there is a different way to get to your end goal that may not require you to go through a hurdle or you have to power through. You know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. That's what helps drive that. And over time as you go from being an individual contributor to building a team, I think that's what drives you more through this, because you build and empower the team and then you work to drive through their hurdles. If you don't know how to overcome your own hurdles, you can't be a good role model to help them and they can't get through their hurdles. So A, you empower them to run through their hurdles with the same thinking that you've been doing, but also turn up and help them when they can't. That's your biggest job as a manager.
Chet Kapoor: Aiaz, that's a very interesting perspective, but it seems like as you made this transition from individual contributor, from engineer to product manager, to going off and becoming a general manager, launching products, making them successful, it seems like this passion for the end goal, right? If I can combine your one and two points you made, is what gets you through it. Is that a good way to think about this?
Aiaz Kazi: Yeah. If you don't believe, if you don't have the reason to believe and you don't believe, then it's going to show in your work. The passion drives you through... and sometimes it helps you make decisions that if you had made with a sane mind, you probably would have gone a different way and may not have had as good a result as you do with a very passionate push through. That doesn't mean you jump at everything. You do have to think through. I remember coaching one of my colleagues who was very passionate about sending emails and quick responses. I said, for you, you just need to leave it in the inbox and you need to send it in the morning, if you still believe it's the right thing to do.
Chet Kapoor: It's super interesting, Aiaz. I think we've all learned that the hard way, right? We all have because we've all found that when you sleep on it, we actually think about things a little differently, especially when you're visibly upset about something. Even if it's come from a position of passion, right? So Aiaz, you've gone from BEA, SAP Google, and primarily product companies, right? And being a product manager, it's the essence of what these technology companies do. And now you've gone to financial services, a bank. Tell us how that is different. I understand that banks have products as well, right? And they've been doing products for a long time. But it's very different than the way the Silicon Valley court or these technology companies think about them.
Aiaz Kazi: Yeah. I think that's a good way to characterize it. First of all, it's fun to be on the customer side. It's my first time on the customer side and work with my ex-colleagues as the customer or the partner. So, it's wonderful to meet the same people in a different context. That's the first big change that I'm now in the customer's shoes, right? And I know this journey, as long and as tough and arduous sometimes it can be, is immensely rewarding in being able to understand that, and being able to understand what it takes to transition and transform a company digitally, right? And we're looking at not just the bank I work for, but the larger financial services industry, the banking sector, the ability to be able to do that. That's very rewarding and I find myself very fortunate to be in that position.
Aiaz Kazi: Now, talking about the journey and what does it mean, yes, Silicon Valley product companies are different from bank products, but the banks themselves are on a journey and that's why I'm here in some ways. There are two big journeys that we're on and we have to do them simultaneously. And unfortunately, in this case, we cannot skip the landline. We have to go through the journey. The first is moving from what is typically in banks has been an IT project. Products have been looked upon as IT projects. And once a project is done, you move on to something else. There's not as much thought of growing it, the life cycle of a product, et cetera. It's very, very limited. So it's not a product for you, it's an IT project. So the first transition is how do you go from an IT project to product? That's the first journey. But the continuation of that journey is how do you go from product to platform, right?
Aiaz Kazi: So those are two journeys built in the first journey that I'm talking about. This includes the business model. I'm not just building products for the bank anymore, I'm building products for the bank, the global businesses that the bank runs, which are external businesses like our trading services, merchant services, acquiring services, and a bunch of others. And I'm also building the platform for third party consumption. So new revenue models and new revenue for the bank. So I'm very much still in the product and platform business, but sitting at a vantage point where I'm part of a transformation and helping drive the transformation digitally away from IT projects to products and platforms. The second is the technology piece that comes with it. I've talked about platforms without referring to technology, which is the right way to do it. It's always about the business first.
Aiaz Kazi: But there is a second journey, which is moving from traditional on premises to cloud-native, mobile first AI enabled platforms and solutions for the modern world to deliver solutions that are flexible, modern, and cutting edge. So those are the two journeys that we're on.
Chet Kapoor: I've been personally very passionate about the project / product platform. And it's very possible, we've talked about this a number of times as well, platform companies are hugely successful because the platform economics rock, right? It works really well. But it's a concept that is hard to understand. It is easier in the context of Apple and Netflix and this and that, right? How do you make it easier for somebody who has been working at a bank for 20 years that really wants to reinvent themselves and get the concept of going from project to product actually seems like a simpler jump. And that by itself is hard, but how do you go from product to platform? What are some tips and tricks? Because whatever you're doing at Banco is not something that just applies to you, it applies to actually many industries, because being a platform business is nirvana, right? It is where you want to be.
Aiaz Kazi: You're absolutely right. And I wish I could tell you very confidently I had all the answers, and figuring it out as I go in terms of how do you communicate that? How do you communicate the value that you know a platform business brings? And how do you communicate it to somebody who's non-technical and has not been exposed to platform business models? So the first thing I've done is change the conversation and change the narrative. I've talked about platform as a business. I've always started with platform as a business. What are we building and who are we building it for? And what is the revenue that we will make out of it? And more importantly, what is the revenue for the people who are engaged in the platform, the ecosystem? What will they make out of it? What is their monetization?
Aiaz Kazi: Because we only win when they win. The other narrative that I've made sure I've talked about, and we haven't gotten to it yet, but that's part of the plan of the open financial services platform is that a platform is only a platform when others stand on it. And to get others to stand on it, we need third parties. To get others to invest their time, we need to give them wins on the platform. So how do you help them monetize? How do you help them get wins? So communicating that, it's not been easy. I've been about a year at Banco Santander. They're putting this platform into place and we are just starting to see our first wins come through. And nothing speaks in terms of success like the customer speaking themselves. So we've recently had our global trade services go live in four countries with a large number of customers that we're about to publish internally a video with the business owner that we'll talk about how they have used a platform service that provides single sign on and identification, something as simple as that.
Aiaz Kazi: But it's coming from the platform. Now, when a business owner who's running a business who's known to the bank speaks about how the platform has helped them and how they are able to do this in multiple countries and the impact, that's when it starts to hit home. Along with that, we are working on the communication side on basic nuggets, the things you and I take for granted; What is an API? And mapping it to something they understand. Mapping it to, yes, it's a request for a stock quote. Think about going into a restaurant, looking at a menu, ordering a menu item. Your server is actually your API between the table and the kitchen. Think about providing something as simple as that for them to understand. Those are the types of things, and it takes time. These things are a journey and they take a long time.
Aiaz Kazi: What we have is a huge degree of excitement for coming and joining... I have hired four out of my six leads are from the bank. So I have a mix of technology and bank people. There's a lot of desire to be part of the digital transformation and we are trying to make sure our communication helps. And frankly, I would give myself a middle grade right now and I think we can do a lot better.
Chet Kapoor: You're in the middle of the journey and you're going to feel like you're going to give yourself a middle grade or not a very good grade until the journey is done. And even then, there'll be a journey ahead, right? So it never ends. But the second part is this insight you have, taking people from the industry and from outside the industry and bringing them together to make it happen. You can move the goal post, but you have to score goals, if I can take a soccer analogy, the players on the field. And getting the right players involved and playing with each other as one team makes all the difference in the world.
Aiaz Kazi: Yep. And it's always a team sport. You're absolutely right.
Chet Kapoor: It is a bank. It is a successful bank. You're transforming, it's additional transformation that's taking place. And in between, there's this data-driven enterprise that you're creating because unless you have a data-driven enterprise, you are not going to have an AI enabled enterprise, right? So you're making these transitions. And so how do you balance decision-making and taking risks, right? Because the concept for somebody who's an outsider, it's a bank, it's conservative. And yet, you're talking about new business models and new technologies and agile teams and things like that. How do you balance that?
Aiaz Kazi: Yeah. So it comes down to the culture you foster in your team. And this is interesting because one is the culture you foster in your team and then how do you either absorb the culture from the apparent body you're in or how do you influence that culture as well from within your team? And I think that’s part of what drives what is about taking risks. So, first is inculcating something like fail fast and fail early. Take the risks, but the decisions on what needs to continue and what need to stop also have to happen faster. So, that's part of the balance of, you are going to take the risk, but I'm also not going to procrastinate on making the decisions. Because you want to mitigate risk and this is a bank and you want to fit within that culture, you have to avoid the big bang.
Aiaz Kazi: This is the first big change from going away from IT project to product. Learn to deliver in thin small slices; launch, learn it, right? So you're mitigating risk. You're mitigating risks that you may never be able to get into production, you may not be able to get in front of the customer. Customers may not like the product. All of that, you pull out of the system, but you're moving fast. So it has to be a combination of both. If you try to fix one thing and not the other, you're not going to be able to do it. So it is to your point, that's what you use to balance decisions. You go down to specific actions and make it okay in your team to fail. This is something we take for granted in the Valley. It is a big thing inside a banking company.
Aiaz Kazi: They're so used to ROI and making sure the numbers are right and everything has payback and everything gets paid back in three to five years. It is not as easy to foster fast failing projects and making sure that you can put that in there, get the sign off from the executive management, now you've started to catalyze change in the company. You've started to put your footprint on the company as well.
Chet Kapoor: Super interesting. Who's the most inspiring leader you worked for?
Aiaz Kazi: That's going to get me into all sorts of trouble when I mention a few names and I don't mention a few names.
Chet Kapoor: Maybe I ask differently, what makes an inspiring leader?
Aiaz Kazi: I will answer both. I will answer one for the aspiration and one for who I think fits that aspiration. And this is not coming from me, this is coming from somebody I admire a lot, a gentleman named Jonathan Becher. And when he ran his team, he had three cool mantras, which I completely believe in and I run my team based on that. One is, actions, not words, all brains on deck, and from silos to teams. Those are three key aspects of how I run, which was not your question, but I wanted to make sure I sort of set that as context. Now, let's answer what the aspirational things I think for a leader should be. One who thrives in ambiguity, right? Who's okay with ambiguity and actually loves it. But yet can take that and provide the clarity and make to the team. Provide the direction, provide the North Star and hire people that either can thrive in ambiguity like him or her, or be able to take direction based on the clarity that is provided.
Aiaz Kazi: But I think it is ambiguity to clarity that's the first thing. Second, you already asked the question, right? In terms of how do you drive passion? I think part of that is creating that energy and that team spirit, if you will, because it's a team sport, as you said, taking the soccer analogy. But how do you create that energy and make it okay for everybody to shoot at the goal from whatever position that they're in? Whether it's a pass from the person who's at the back to the forward who's shooting at the goal or passing to the teammate to shoot at the goal. And then I sort of said it earlier one who walks the talk. So the actions that speak louder than words. We can all pontificate on how to fix a problem with a set of constraints, but one who slices through and presents a couple of solutions and says, this is the path we go down, I think that's what an inspiring leader is.
Aiaz Kazi: That's, of course, my personal view. I'm sure people have many different views. So to answer your question on who's the most inspiring leader I've worked with, I haven't worked with him directly other than being in a couple of meetings, but I've been seriously impressed by his style, his demeanor, by how humble he is, and I think humility, I may not have mentioned it as implied, is Sundar (Pichai). Just absolutely brilliant in terms of how he carries himself and how he inspires the team to move forward. Another one I've seen from a distance, I've had the opportunity to observe and also seen from the market, but not as closely as you perhaps have is Satya (Nadella). And those two, I would sort of pick us as people who inspire me.
Chet Kapoor: That's great. By the way, I would agree with you. And I had the chance to interact with Sundar. And for the audience, Sundar Pichai, who is now the CEO of Alphabet. And I think he's truly an inspiring leader and does it in a very different way than a lot of people would choose to, right? But truly inspiring in the way he gets people to do what they need to do and beyond what they're capable of.
Aiaz, this has been phenomenal. Thank you very much. It is great to catch up and to talk to you a little bit about your journey, about what you think is the differences between a technology company and a financial services company, your perspective on doing the transformation for a financial services company and driving it, and then talking about your North Star on leadership, right? And how you think about it and how you're truly inspired.
Chet Kapoor: This is awesome. I think many people in the audience are going to get a chance to watch you and the bank go through this journey. Some of us will get a chance to actually be with you and work closely and see you make it happen. So we deeply appreciate the time. Thank you very much.
Aiaz Kazi: Thank you so much, Chet, for having me. This was fun. I thought we were just getting started. So I'll leave you guys with a thank you and it wouldn't be the same if I don't quote a song. So, I'll only say, we've only just begun.
Chet Kapoor: That's awesome, Aiaz. Thank you very much.
Aiaz Kazi: All right. Take care.
Narrator: Aiaz said it well when referring to the digital transformation journey, we've only just begun. Taking risk is not just a Silicon Valley thing. And while every industry should en-culture the failing fast and early mantra, we hope you walk away with Aiaz's other key mantras of an inspiring leader. Actions, not words, all brains on deck, and from silos to teams.
Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests with phenomenal stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released and feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at InspiredExecution@datastax.com.