One of the first things engineers learn in school is to break down problems into solvable components — and selecting a career is no exception. First, you must decide where your talents lie and cultivate them. Second, you have to identify a field where you can apply those talents to the best possible advantage. For women engineers, a surprising but nonetheless satisfying answer to this second challenge can be commercial banking. Technological, business and social factors have converged in ways that now make commercial banking an ideal domain for the problem-solving and relationship-building skills that distinguish women technologists.
Commercial Banks Focus on Technology
From a technological point of view, commercial banking has reached an inflection point. Commercial banks were known for being set in their ways, for neglecting technology in their own business processes and for offering customers financial tools that were functional but inflexible. Today, they are no longer standing on the sidelines. Driven by competition from smaller, agile fintechs, the customer demand for banking applications that capture the responsiveness of consumer products, and the advent of new payments technologies, many commercial banks have embarked on a top-to-bottom reinvention of their systems.
Banking systems are extremely complex and subject to a number of constraints that make reinventing them a very hard problem to solve. To achieve this goal, commercial banks are in dire need of technologists with expertise in fields such as cloud computing, data mining, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, software engineering and mobile applications. For engineers who welcome a tough challenge, commercial banks are a logical destination.
A Business Based on Relationships
Commercial banking is not simply a business about numbers. It is founded, to a degree that outside observers may find surprising, on relationships. Ask commercial bankers why they chose to lend money to specific companies, and you will find that their appraisal of the management team factored greatly into their ultimate lending decision. They are looking for managers who will be great partners.
The centrality of relationships adds yet another layer to the challenge facing technologists in commercial banking. It is not enough to create solutions that perform a task. They must create technologies that support relationship managers in their interactions with customers, for instance by streamlining workflow, saving time, and helping them to make better decisions. In other words, new financial technology must comply with all relevant laws and regulations and incorporate the latest emerging technologies in inventive ways, but the final test of its value is whether it serves banks’ relationships with their clients. This is a perspective that I as a woman technologist find congenial.
For instance, one of the challenges that residential property management companies face on a day-to-day basis is the daily need to open accounts on behalf of their condominium, cooperative and homeowner association clients. Because of strict regulatory requirements, opening a single account is a painstaking task, but property managers must often open hundreds of accounts a month. At Capital One, our technologists helped us take a comprehensive, systems-based approach to developing an online account opening platform. We reordered our internal processes to better match our clients’ workflow, while streamlining and automating repetitive processes. In essence, we created a technological solution that furthers our relationships with these clients and others who must routinely open new accounts.
This emphasis on the client needs, in turn, demands a new approach to product design. Gone are the days of engineers sitting alone in their cubicles, imagining customer needs, and writing code. At Capital One, we have adopted the principles of human-centered design and agile delivery. This means bringing together teams of engineers, product managers, and designers to work closely with customers, understanding their processes and priorities, and using those insights to prototype successive iterations of a new technology or design. In the context of human-centered design, the ability to foster relationships both with customers and colleagues is essential. This collaborative approach plays to interpersonal strengths that are very important to me.
A Warm Welcome
When I was embarking on my career, women in commercial banking were few and far between. While the representation of women and people of color still lags the general population, the opportunities for women have greatly expanded. Most banks are recognizing that encouraging greater diversity and inclusion is not only the right thing to do but a critical source of competitive advantage.
One of the examples that I look to at Capital One is Julie Elberfeld. Julie joined Capital One as CIO of the Commercial Bank, a role she served in from 2010 to 2017. Today, Julie is a Senior Vice President, Shared Technology and supports our enterprise technology team, leading mainframe modernization for the entire company in support of our cloud transition. She also serves as Executive Sponsor for Diversity and Inclusion in Tech. In 2014, Julie launched Capital One’s Women in Tech initiative to elevate the bank’s focus on women working in technology. Not only has this program created a community of women technologists at the bank, but it has brought Capital One women and men together to focus on developing a love of technology in girls, improving the representation of women in the technology field, and supporting the career development of women in tech roles in tangible and impactful ways.
The Opportunity to Make a Difference
In other words, commercial banking is evolving. With its openness to technology, its emphasis on relationships as well as numbers, and its readiness to welcome women, commercial banking is a place where women technologists are valued.
It is also a place where people can have a profound impact. Commercial banks are at the heart of our economy, ensuring that companies have the funding to grow and introduce new products. Technology is becoming increasingly prevalent, enabling bankers to make better funding decisions. Technology also contributes to the stability of the economy by giving banks unprecedented insight into their capacity to respond to adverse business conditions and to prepare accordingly. In other words, for women technologists who wish to do meaningful work, I truly believe that commercial banking is a place where they can make a real difference.
This piece originally appeared in Banking Technology.