If you woke up tomorrow morning and found you were running the technology department of Canada’s largest bank, what thoughts would go through your mind?
Well, for Bruce Ross, the CIO of the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), he’s had the advantage of getting used to that position since joining the bank in 2014. Now when he wakes up in the morning, he says he thinks about flawless execution, his innovation plan that he’s presented to his board, and what capabilities might be possible in the next three years.
With that type of mindset, it’s no wonder that Ross is CanadianCIO’s CIO of the Year for the private sector. Ross has been executing on a transformational vision at RBC that has seen project development times accelerated to new heights. He’s tapped modern technologies to render new capabilities for his business and for RBC’s customers around the world. Whether it’s delivering a mobile app with all the self-service options a demanding customer expects, or a blockchain-based system to settle foreign currency payments, Ross’ vision and leadership have driven his team right to the top rung of achievement.
For our CanadianCIO of the Year awards, we’re featuring a Q&A and podcast series with six of our most interesting finalists. Ross is our winner for the private category and we spoke with him from the 40th floor of RBC’s headquarters in Toronto.
The following has been edited for length and clarity:
CanadianCIO: I’d like you to take us back to the first board meeting you had, just a few months after joining RBC In January 2014. You presented your vision of transformation and I’d like to hear what you presented at that meeting as best as you can remember it.
Bruce Ross: It was really a great time to join Royal Bank because we were very focused and continue to be very focused on how technology can help change the lifestyles of our customers and actually deliver the type of lifestyle they’re looking for. When I went to the board of directors it was about assessing where we were and how did we get to where we wanted to be? To fundamentally deliver what we call “The Digitally Enabled bank of the Future” to support our clients and what they want to do.
It was a great opportunity to leverage new technologies and emerging technologies like cloud computing, like data and analytics, to be able to deliver that different experience for them and to really leverage off the capabilities that the team had built over the past. It wasn’t a question of replacing what we had, it was really changing our focus and making sure that we were focused on the client. Make sure that we focused on business outcomes, building the capabilities on the team to do things we wanted to do and make some significant investments in new technology areas, emerging technology areas. It was actually about the client being able to access their information, wherever they were, whenever they wanted and at whatever form factor they wanted to see it on.
We had a vision, from a business perspective, that we could link the technology strategy to. We had a set of business leaders where technology was starting to become front and centre in every one of their business strategies and it was a question of linking the two. We had to make some investments. In transformation, I fundamentally believe that there are two variables that define your success in transformation – How many people and what skills are you willing to put at a problem? And how much are you willing to invest in it?
We laid out a five-year plan of significant investments, multiple hundreds of millions of dollars that we put into this, and took some of our best people and aligned them to that. We had a simple strategy with six key themes to it and we communicated that often. The board rallied around that and the business rallied around that, and it set us on a path to where we are today.
CCIO: Royal Bank is a 150-year-old institution and here you are presenting this plan of transformative change. What we often hear about when organizations embark on this digital transformation is some culture clashes and I wonder if you can talk to me about introducing the idea of transformation in a positive way?
BR: Creating a positive culture is critical for success. You can’t have a winning team without setting the framework for them to succeed in. So we got very clear early on. What our strategy was, the priorities that we were going to execute to, and made it simple so that they could understand, it was around “transformation is a way of life, not a one time event.” So get used to change because we’re gonna continue to change.
The second point on culture was we wanted to build an engineering culture. So, I as the leader had to make sure the team felt comfortable that they knew what an engineering culture was and that they could live with that. So first we defined it. An engineering culture is one that rewards curiosity, trying new things, investing in new technologies, being a leader in those things, not necessarily a follower. You also have to be willing to fail in some things. Now some things are more critical than others, so you can’t just fail in everything but setting the tone that says that it’s okay to call something red versus green and changing that culture.
Then the third piece of it is really focused on the outcomes we’re trying to achieve. Could you draw a straight line between what you do as an engineer in RBC and a business outcome? If you couldn’t, then it was time to talk to your manager and make sure you were working on that.
We had to communicate that idea a million times and in different formats, in different vehicles. We looked at the Spotify culture video and we showed it to our entire team. We do workshops with hundreds of people. We did manager forums – we got all of our managers together, worldwide, in six different sessions and we talk about what it’s like to manage through change.
CCIO: To discuss something you’ve been working on recently, can you tell me about the projects you have related to A.I. and how you’re preparing your data for this?
BR: Clients put their data with us because they trust us and we always have to be careful that we never lose the trust and confidence of our clients. So we’re looking at how to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to make their day even better. We were fortunate that we had a centralized data store, so we have an enterprise data warehouse and new technologies like Hadoop and data lakes were create the opportunity for us to do more real-time analytics on this environment.
We have data that looks like a big river going through. We execute over 400 million transactions a day inside the bank. There’re lessons to be learned at a molecular level there, but there are also lessons to be learned for a client across broad trends. Things like is the behaviour I’m executing today similar to the behaviour I executed before? How does the behaviour relate to external influences? So you look at the data, both internal and also mapped to that external data and you can provide a great capability.
Building artificial intelligence inside the bank was a big challenge for us and an opportunity too. We built the foundational elements on data and we hired data scientists. We’ve been building the capability to analyze data and get great outcomes. We’ve actually put ourselves in a position where we could actually interact with the client and potentially even engage them based on fact, on their behaviours versus what we believe. We’re helping them achieve their financial goals and make the right decisions along the way. We can provide real-time feedback on markets, such as the indicators that would cause a hedge fund to go and drop all of its equities in a specific position.
We also use A.I. in cyber security. We have to protect clients in 30 different countries, so when we look at incoming bad traffic, you can’t do that with just people, you have to augment the smart people with A.I. and so we’ve invested in it there.
CCIO: Let’s turn to your style of work at RBC. You’re a big believer in finding different ways of working to achieve your team’s vision. I understand you’ve boosted the number of agile projects at RBC in the past three years by 75 per cent. You also have labs that combine co-locating business teams with tech teams. How is your team executing on this agile approach and how do you see it making a difference in achieving your vision?
BR: Agile has been a great journey for us and a great journey for the marketplace. It’s not just a technology team and a business team getting together in a room and saying “let’s use a whiteboard and sticky notes and let’s create a different day.” It’s just a completely different way of working. For RBC it was a cultural change for the business and the IT team, so we had to start small and then we rapidly grew.
We look at the development of technology as a factory. Agile is not dissimilar to Henry Ford introducing the assembly line into the car manufacturing process. We’re able to get our capability out the door faster. And 30 per cent of what we think we’ll build at the beginning, we actually never build because we build something else. During the agile process, new ideas come out and you build what you need at the time, not what you thought you needed when you started. It ends up in a cloud and it starts with agile – it’s a complete assembly line. You’ll hear words like continuous integration, DevOps, these are processes within this new assembly line of being able to create capability and get it out the door.
Our businesses love the idea because they don’t have to go through the traditional requirements definition that you have in the waterfall development method, where no one ever signs off on it and even if you did, by the time you actually did sign off on it, what you thought you needed was out of date anyway. The agile teams allows us to get to market faster. For example, it used to take us 18 months to get a mobile application out the door, and in the last 12 months we’ve released eight releases of our mobile application.
It’s now a global capability for us and we’re also putting agile into our waterfall development as well. Big institutions are not going to be able to completely get rid of your waterfall development, so the question is how do you speed it up? Where we had 30 processes inside the waterfall development process, we went in and cut it by 80 per cent. We simplified it and streamlined it.
CCIO: Can you think back over the past three years and reflect on what achievements you’re most proud of for yourself and your team?
BR: I’m very proud of the relationship my team has with the business. It’s extraordinarily well aligned and they are thinking about the business outcome naturally. The business is directly asking for their input. There’s a symbiotic relationship rather than a service provider relationship between the I.T. team and the business.
We’ve also got a great new capability in almost any emerging area. We’ve just released our first blockchain capability. We just launched for cross-border payments and so, the team is thinking ahead. They get the engineering culture. they’re not afraid to take a gamble and get into these new technologies and leverage them.
I’m also proud of what the team is giving back to the community. They launched the hackathon for the United Way a year ago and now it’s an annual event. They do it without any prompting, we had 200 people doing that last year.
Today, a technology strategy and a business strategy are one and the same, they’re not two separate things. I believe the number one bank needs to have the number one tech team. I think that’s really what we’re focused on delivering, but when getting the outcomes as a result of that. That’s across five different business units and a global team. We act with a global capability, and we take what we can glean from other parts of the world and bring it in to help us succeed.
CCIO: Finally, you have some international experience and I wonder if you can tell me how that benefits you and how you’re bringing that experience to your role here at RBC?
BR: RBC operates in 30 different countries. Canada is our home market, but we have a second home market in the United States and a big home market in Europe. What helped me is I’ve lived in every one of these geographies for multiple years and so understanding the culture of the people you work with and the clients you serve is fundamental to being able to look at an organization and ask “Can I deliver what they need?”
I was also able to build a team on a global scale. There’s some phenomenal talent inside Canada, but there’s also phenomenal talent outside of Canada. I’ve built competencies in Luxembourg and in the U.K. and in New York.
Also, with big, complex organizations, not every day is going to be perfect. There will be things that go wrong. Having a level of understanding to pull a global team together to solve a problem, because we could have a problem in Singapore or Australia, and knowing how to handle that when you’re running a mission-critical business is key.
When I get up every day, I think about three things. 1) Operationally how did we execute yesterday? Those 400 million transactions, did we run flawlessly for our clients and our people around the world? 2) Innovation for the next 18 months. This is the program I take to the board of directors and making sure that the transformation program is executing. 3) What’s the world going to look like three years from now? I try to spend 70 per cent of my time on the last two things.