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“CIOs have to strike an equilibrium between technology disruption & data security”

Samrat Das, CIO, PNB Met Life, talks about various facets of a CIOs role in the financial services industry.

IT and finance are two topics Samrat Das is passionate about. He has spent over 20 years in the financial services and still finds every day to be as exciting and challenging. Not one to rest easy, Samrat is always looking for ways to raise the bar and bring more value to the business. Here he tells us more about the role of a CIO in the financial services sector and the changes it’s undergoing.

Please tell us a bit about your role.
“As the head of information technology I have two key performance indicators. One is ‘predictability’ and the other is ‘transformation’, which essentially means the predictability of our IT services and transformation of technology solutions to give the business a competitive advantage.”

How has the CIOs role changed from an IT infrastructure head to a more business-oriented one?
“Predictability and transformation are the two key pillars when it comes to running the IT for any enterprise, whether it’s the life insurance business or making cars. Both go hand in hand; but as technology is maturing, IT predictability is getting more commoditised by people, tools and processes. Today, CIOs are investing more time on transformation so as to help the organisation leap frog into the next level, whether it’s through innovation, digital disruption, or changing the way business is done. But that doesn’t mean the importance of predictability goes way; it’s a very important role for an IT leader because it is the building block for any transformation.”

How else has the CIO’s role changed?
“The CIO’s role has changed in two aspects. Firstly, there’s been a huge paradigm shift in the economics of IT. Traditionally IT was looked upon as a cost centre or one having a fixed cost. However, the way businesses are growing, with complexities, challenges and opportunities, CIOs have to manage the economics to make the IT cost more variable. They have to figure out how to move away from a fixed cost strategy that is not linked with business numbers or volatility in the market.

“Secondly, CIOs now have to ensure they are more agile and participate in the mass disruption that’s happening in the tech world, whether it’s in the form of digital, analytics and big data, cloud, IoT, externalisation, etc. For a financial services organisation like ours, IT security and data privacy becomes a very crucial thing in disruption. We need to ensure there’s no compromise on data security, especially in terms of customer data information and other assets the organisation has.”

What are some of the challenges CIOs in the financial services face?
“The level of tech disruption in the financial services is much higher than in brick and mortar industries. Therefore, the challenges faced also increase with the rate at which you’re disrupting. So CIOs have to strike a fine balance between disruption and security; it’s a calculated risk. That’s a challenge; because you’re moving at a particular rate to be competitive but you also have to ensure you’re not a hazard to the business. You should have the experience, wisdom and controls in place to see that you’re not going wrong. Because one wrong move on security can be fatal for an organisation. And there isn’t any ready recipe for this calculated risk.  It’s a decision that’s based on your wisdom, gut feeling and ability to anticipate.”

What are the essential skills CIOs need right now?
“From the top down, a CIO needs to understand business first. A lot of people put technology on the forefront rather than business, but that has to change. CIOs need to understand the business so that they can provide effective IT recipes or solutions. IT is a catalyst. So for a CIO, understanding, listening and adopting change management are fundamental attributes needed to drive success.”

What are some of the big IT trends you foresee?
“One of the biggest trends has to do with the amalgamation of apps into one personalised, interactive unit. Today, there may be 15 apps on your smartphone that take care of your daily life. Tomorrow, there will be just one that you can customise for yourself. It will tell you everything from your bank account details to hot fashion trends, films playing in your vicinity, bill payment reminders to your health and fitness levels. Another trend we’ll see is that digital typing will go away and everything will revolve around voice, videos and pictures.”

What are your thoughts on booming startup space in India?
“It’s an excellent change that’s happened in the mindset of the youth. The trend or ability to think and do something differently, disruptively at a young age, is a very good, positive, healthy indicator for an economy. However, we should be a little cautious because we also need to see the business benefit that will be derived. We shouldn’t get lost in superficial trends and adopt a herd mentality. Maybe senior leaders like us need to step in and raise awareness and make the youth understand the intricacies of what they’re trying to do. We should give them direction and help them knock on the right doors. It’s our responsibility. There should also be some government or industry regulations that guide this process, to put together some sort of governance that aids them.”

If not IT what alternative career would you have chosen?
“Perhaps I’d have become an investment banker, evaluating businesses.”

What’s your favourite part of the job?
“Every day there’s a new challenge, and the spectrum can vary from technology to people, processes, etc. We’re all aware of how fast technology is changing our individual and collective lives. So the challenges are a turning point for me to accept, interpret and give a solution. It’s what keeps me going; things are never mundane.

“The drive for learning something new has turned into a passion; the passion has turned into having a wider view about enterprise. I’ve been a senior in the industry for the last several years, so my role is more business driven now. I look more into the strategy part of things and try to help the business achieve their goals, resolve their problems and try to be disruptive. Today I’m more inclined towards the art of technology, rather than the science of technology.”

How do you keep up-to-date with latest in technology?
“External collaborations, whether digitally or in person, are a very important part of my life. Technology is changing so much and if you’re not keeping up with what’s happening then you’ve lost the game. I also read a lot and interact with my peers in different industries to share my experiences and insights on what’s going on.”

How do you manage a work-life balance?
“I honestly don’t think there’s anything like a work-life balance. If you’re doing something you’re passionate about you won’t feel the strain. If you push yourself saying that you’re ‘working’, then your stress will increase. Sometimes it looks a little crazy, but at the end of the day you should be enjoying yourself. I try to make my work more fun rather than stressful. I think that’s the way to do it otherwise stress will eat you up.” 

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