TIAA’s CIO Drives Customer Delight As Client Services Chief

May 20, 2023
BY Peter High Founder and President of Metis Strategy
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Sastry Durvasula has an unusual title and remit at TIAA. As Chief Information and Client Services Officer of the Fortune 100 company, with more than $1.2 trillion in assets under management, he manages global technology and client services, including all the front office, middle office, back office functions and shared services of the firm that serve the company’s clients. Thus, Durvasula and team build solutions on the technology side that are used by colleagues on the other sides of his organization that serve the clients across the businesses, including retirement, asset management and wealth management. This responsibility gives him an opportunity to see the positive impact of his team’s work first-hand. The clients represent four constituent groups:

  • Plan Sponsors, which are the big institutions that TIAA works with from higher education organizations, healthcare providers and nonprofits, to name three examples among many
  • Employees of these institutions, known as the Plan Participants
  • Plan Consultants, that are the advisors for these plan sponsors that devise these programs
  • Institutional clients of the global asset management business

Therefore, Durvasula and his team support customers that include business-to-business, business-to-consumer, and business-to-business-to-consumer models. There is a fintech ecosystem that he helps bring to life: RetireTech, focused on building solutions for retirement participants on the accumulation side, and SilverTech, focused on the decumulating side. Managing through the complexity of different constituent groups, representing different generations together with a century old company that has forged contracts across decades is extremely complex. “The mission statement for my organization is ‘Power the business’ strategic shifts, fuel the innovation, while transforming the core,’” he noted. “The transforming of the core is as important and complex as fueling innovation and powering it. These strategic shifts enable us to provide lifetime income, delighting our clients and strengthening how we operate.”

Given TIAA’s size and breadth of offerings, Global Technology is divided up to reflect that breadth. “We have the unit CIOs that face off to the CEOs across our primary businesses in retirement, asset management and wealth management. Same thing with our client services side of the house where our client services officers are serving these specific business units, ” Durvasula explained. “Then we have global technology shared services like information security, data, AI, infrastructure and architecture, as well as shared client services like fraud and financial crimes management, serving all business units and affiliates. That’s my organizational grid. We have verticals and horizontals.”

Guiding these teams is a six-pillar strategy:

  • Client-obsessed products and services
  • Digital first
  • Powering the enterprise through an integrated data and AI strategy
  • Building the talent and culture that we need, to operate effectively
  • Best-of-breed ecosystem
  • Secure by design

Durvasula notes that client-obsessed products and services refers to products both on the technology side as well as on the client services side of his responsibilities. “Whether it’s 403(b) solutions and products in the Higher Ed and Healthcare markets, or on the 401(k) side that we are getting very active on from a retirement perspective, as well as wealth management and asset management and so forth; that’s where we are focused on building those next-generation products and services,” he offered.

Digital first refers to modernizing a heritage company for the digital age, building the next generation of digital platforms, and providing solutions and client experiences, working closely with the company’s chief digital and client experience officer, Jessica Austin Barker.

To bring to life the integrated data and AI strategy pillar, Durvasula hired a chief data and AI officer, Swatee Singh, who’s focuses on that, to build the next generation of the data foundation and providing AI solutions to create those experiences for plan sponsors and participants.

Building the talent and culture needed to operate effectively includes key hires, like the ones noted already, but also creating a learning culture that strives to build the skills that will bring to life the digital vision he has articulated.

The best-of-breed ecosystem helps rethink the mix of buy versus build versus partners decisions across the technology landscape. “We want to build for differentiation, but we also want to buy and partner for parity,” Durvasula noted. “While I do that, obviously I have to uplift the technology ecosystem which is a big job for our teams.”

Finally, like all CIOs, he must do all the above while being secure by design and be on top of the regulatory and compliance demands. Given the emergence of numerous cyber threats, he must remain vigilant to ensure that the most valuable asset: the company’s data, does not get into the wrong hands.

Durvasula lingered a bit longer on the data piece, given the sanctity of sound data practices in a company that is awash in data. “The advantage we have is, because we have been at this for a long time and we are a highly regulated firm, we do have a number of data assets that actually are within the firewalls of TIAA that we can capitalize on,” he said. “How do we bring all the data from our global data assets and build that platform? While we do that, obviously we want to be cloud-first as we do.” Durvasula and team focus on leveraging open-source tools wherever possible. They have also focused on developing what he referred to as “killer use cases” that are powered by AI for each of the aforementioned constituent groups that TIAA serves. “As an example, we forged a strategic partnership with Google AI that we are now actively deploying solutions starting with our client services area,” he said. “It’s made it easy to deploy at scale.”

Additionally, Durvasula and team use conversational AI solutions to minimize client wait times. He believes this is a major customer enhancement, removing friction from their experience. Many of these new solutions are conceived in TIAA’s client tech labs, which leverage a multi-cloud/hybrid cloud environment to pilot ideas, work with clients to co-innovate and test beta versions of solutions, course correcting some to optimize them while canceling others that prove to be of insufficient value for customers. For those that go into production, Durvasula and team proceed with greater confidence.

Durvasula and TIAA more generally work closely with universities as strategic partners. “We want to have a different level of engagement and conversation with [universities],” he noted. “As an example, we have a partnership with NYU where we have launched programs, and we have over 70 cyber graduates that are going to be graduating from NYU – employees of our own – who are going through this coursework. We have something similar at [the University of North Carolina], but we also have a robust internship program. As an example, at the client tech labs that I mentioned earlier, we’ve had over one hundred interns actively hacking in our client tech labs and coming up with solutions. Some of them are winners of our hackathons and have opted to continue with us during their semesters as well. That’s is representative of the strategic advantage we have to build [a strong] talent pipeline.” By giving interns interesting work, the program has proven to be a rich source of full time recruits. This has developed a solid, long-term talent pipeline for the tech and digital team.

The connection with students and professors at universities are critical for the company given its history in the industry. (TIAA is an acronym for Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America.) “When it comes to client co-innovation on emerging technology and research projects with faculty and their students because that’s what we do for our business,” Durvasula offered. “With client advisory councils that we have, we open doors for our clients where faculty and students can come and conduct research with us and partner with us on a number of ideas. That’s exciting because it not only adds more talent to our pipeline, but it also opens the dialogue with our clients in a differentiated way for impact.”

Finally, Durvasula has taken a much longer-term view in the development of female talent in technology by serving on the board of Girls in Tech, a global nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the gender gap in tech. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn and benefit from the wisdom of the board as well as the founder, Adriana Gascoigne, who started this several years ago with a few thousand people in the West Coast,” said Durvasula. “Now, it has grown almost 100,000 members across 50 different countries. I’ve had the privilege to work with Adriana and the leadership team and the broader chapters to grow the impact of Girls in Tech.” He notes that the power of the organization is to foster empowerment, learning, communications, networking and especially mentoring. He believes Girls in Tech will be a pathway to building the diverse and inclusive tech workforce the world needs. He also forged strategic partnerships with non-profits including Blacks in Technology Foundation, AfroTech and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

Durvasula has enacted remarkable, long-term change across TIAA in a relatively short amount of time, and he and his team remain ambitious about the future.

Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written three bestselling books, including his latest Getting to Nimble. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.

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