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The Big Interview: Lori Beer, Global CIO, JPMorgan & Chase

“When they tell me ‘speed!’ I think ‘speed’, ‘scale’, ‘security’, ‘stability’…"

The scale at which JPMorgan’s Global CIO Lori Beer operates is extraordinary. She is responsible for 50,000+ technologists and a $12 billion IT budget, at an institution that moves $7 trillion across markets daily. The bank serves customers including 63 million US households (55 million of them digital), 80% of the Fortune 500, and 56%+ of the world’s largest pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and central banks.

Lori, hired in 2014, became the first CIO to sit on the operating committee of the firm: “I think that's really important as a statement of the importance of technology to the organisation” she notes to The Stack.

With the bank’s Chief Data Officer reporting directly to her, she is also ultimately responsible for firm-wide data strategy and execution – critical to the push for more AI-powered products and insight that were emphasised by Chairman & CEO Jamie Dimon as a key forward focus for JPMorgan in the bank’s 2020 annual report, published in April 2021.

The former software engineer (she swapped electrical engineering for computer science at university, and cut her teeth learning the programming language Fortran, she says) spins these multiple giant plates with what appears to be preternatural calm – followers can also spot her regularly taking time out her day to warmly welcome entry-level software hires on LinkedIn. How does she do it?

“I like to think about execution every day: making sure we're taking care of our customers or clients,” she says, “because most of our businesses, our products and services really are enabled via technology. But the top thing I spend my day thinking about is the talent needed to help expand an organisation of this scale: we are in one of the hottest tech markets that I've ever seen in terms of attraction of talent, and Covid has accelerated that: every business is digitalising”.

What does a Global CIO with this kind of budget do, at this kind of scale?

As JPMorgan’s Global Chief Information Officer, her responsibilities stretch widely across the firm, from managing risk and helping facilitate innovation. Understanding some of the reporting lines helps contextualise her centrality to not just big picture IT strategy, but product delivery, compliance, security and a great deal more.

“We have a Head of Strategy and a fulsome team that's constantly looking across every area, including new database technology, storage technology, cloud technology, AI, quantum,” she details. “They are really dedicated to understanding each particular horizontal; how we work with our CIOs to embed it. e.g. How do we prepare the organisation for quantum safe encryption? Or news items, like SolarWinds, or the pipeline attack: how do we explain that to the operating committee relative to how we protect our environment; where the risk exists? Where do we need to partner?”

With that focus on security, the firm’s CISO also reports in to Beer. As she notes: “You can imagine our investment in cybersecurity is significant.” (Over $600 million in 2020 alone, JPMorgan Chase’s annual report reveals. In it, Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon emphasised presciently ahead of the Colonial Pipeline incident that the “threats to our cybersecurity need urgent attention from our government as issues of national security and impediments to trade.)

See also: 6 free cybersecurity tools CISOs and their teams should know about

Beer adds: “One of the other responsibilities I wear is the firm-wide data manager, as we think about the pivot we all have to go through in terms of thinking about data as a product, not just an exhaust of our systems and processes.” The Chief Data Officer, corporate technology solutions, and the line of business CIOs for the firm report to Beer as well.

JPMorgan Chase has four lines of business: consumer and community banking; corporate and investment banking; commercial banking; and asset and wealth management. Each of these has a CIO that sits as part of Beer’s global technology leadership team, but also has a line into the business.

As Beer emphasises: “They sit at the leadership table in the business. That’s critically imperative if you think about where banking needs to go now and into the future: it is all about speed, agility, meeting consumer needs, the data, the personalization of experience… A lot of that can be enabled by not only technology, but more of a technology-led business strategy with rich product, and agile teams that are working across business, and moving tech to the front.”

The Global CIO also oversees a Chief Technology Office that looks at what practices are expected of the firm’s software engineers around building secure code identity and access management and the platforms they want to build across the firm. “As you can imagine we run incredible infrastructure at scale, so we also have a head of infrastructure delivering that day-in, day-out,” says Beer.

Cloud and K8s

Talent aside (we’ll come back to that) and with that snapshot of the teams in the Global CIO’s domain giving a picture of her responsibilities, one of the near-term focusses for Beer is optimising a complex IT estate to make the most out of cloud-native tools – a move which has recently seen the firm refactor applications to run in the cloud. Where does cloud fit into that broader infrastructure picture? “We have a hybrid, multi-cloud approach, which is on-prem and multiple public [clouds],” she notes. “[It is a] heterogeneous environment where you might have an application that breaks down into workloads running in public and on-premises. We have built a robust, private cloud platform and have thousands of applications that have adopted that platform. We’ve also migrated workloads into the public cloud.”

Building out the common logging, monitoring, and control plane for the engineers [across this estate] is “a work in progress,” she admits: “We continue to iterate this; to push to the left and reduce friction across that hybrid ecosystem… Kubernetes is big for us.”

See also: NY Fed CIO Pamela Dyson on her career journey and digital transformation at the Federal Reserve

As well as reducing friction, how much is avoiding vendor lock-in or indeed technical debt an issue for her teams? “We very much look at portability,” she acknowledges.

“But our real focus, where we’re really deliberate is around ‘how can I build and deliver new digital experiences quickly?’ ‘How do we get data and insights quickly?’ That’s a different way of thinking than historically how people thought about these big lift and shift transformations. Because there's ways with modern technology to start breaking things down into microservices and start building everything new the modern way: cloud-native,” she emphasises: “When you look at what our competitive threats across all our businesses are, for the most part (aside from some legacy-type technologies), you have more flexibility on the cloud, where things are underpinned with open source and standards, etc.”

Big Data and sandboxes

A major focus is delivering more value from the bank’s huge datasets. As Jamie Dimon put it in April 2021: “We also have an extraordinary amount of data, and we need to adopt AI and cloud as fast as possible so we can make better use of it to better serve our customers. We need to make our extraordinary number of products and services a huge plus by improving ease of use and reducing complexity. We need to move faster and bolder in how we attack new markets while protecting our existing ones. Sometimes new markets look too small or appear not to be critical to our customer base – until they are. We intend to be a little more aggressive here.”

Like arguably every single industry and company out there embarking on this journey, this is a work in progress and one in which compliance and a heterogeneous global regulatory environment are inevitably headwinds.One of the reasons why the CDO reports to Lori Beer is that “we had the realisation that so many of the things that they need to implement, ultimately, are deeply embedded in the technology solutions that we're delivering,” she notes, “So part of it was for alignment and speed. Although nothing we do is really just a technology problem anymore” and work is ongoing on optimising this.

How far is the bank along on this journey?

“We're definitely building out capabilities. We’ve built out a platform that allows our data scientists to integrate and build machine learning models, and that connects into our public cloud ecosystem and we're maturing our capabilities around our enterprise cloud data platforms,” Beer says. “I think the pivot that many companies and many organisations are making is how do you think about data as a product? What are the data domains that I can unlock for data scientists to think of a thousand more use cases that are coming down the path and make that available in an experimentation mode, or in a mode that lets them model it in production? If you said, ‘are you happy with [current progress]?’ I’d say I'm happy that we've got great momentum. I would just change the mindset of how we experiment and innovate and leverage insights -- not to incrementally change, but to think about products and services that we hadn't thought about before, besides all the operational use cases…”

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The bank’s data scientists must be chomping at the bit for larger datasets with less onerous compliance terms, The Stack speculates out loud -- having seen inside similar projects across the financial services sector. How big a sandbox/how much customer data do they have to play with?

“We just released some capability that allows that experimentation; of course, the data sets can grow. The key issue isn’t just about building out the platforms and the capabilities. It's about looking in the mirror around your data; having data use councils…”

“We had to step back and rethink what type of data can we use for experimentation? How do we put that in an ecosystem that we're comfortable with -- that we can experiment without having to go back and getting approval every time I want to use data? We will continue to learn, but [more freedom] is something critical our data scientists are looking for. We have released one demo version of an environment that gives them more flexibility and freedom. And we are building out more of a data marketplace that has much more of a comprehensive, broad view of data.

“Our group of data scientists are like our group of software engineers: just as you build the next great feature, there's five other features they think about,that constantly keep you on your toes in terms of innovating! The important thing across those platforms is speed and agility -- while maintaining our controls and security. Because when they tell me “speed!” I need to think speed, and scale, and security, and stability” she says, acceptingly.

Managing a huge budget

The Stack has spoken with CIOs before about budget management, techniques and approaches like Technology Business Management. The scale at JPMorgan Chase must making tracking ROI on IT investment and general investment governance challenging, we suggest.

When we think about our cloud strategy for example” Global CIO Lori Beer notes in response, “it's as much as access to innovation as capabilities, because, frankly, with the scale that we run our own infrastructure, we can obviously buy infrastructure commodity at a good pricing.” (When you’re a $29 billion net income behemoth, things of course look a little different to the challenges some of our public sector readers, for example, face across their budgets.)

Zooming out” she adds, “we have a robust investment governance process. A lot of this has been around the accountability of product owners to really manage it like a product P&L.

“But the key deliverable for us is not always cost. When we look at investments, it's across a horizon. We know we need to build a machine learning platform. But if we slow down and try to do a very robust business case for some of these things that matter…” she tails off.

The unfinished sentence is clear: too much time spent trying to build a robust business case for some emerging technology and the world will have moved on: you need to move fast and JPMorgan can afford to do so. As she says: “We focus more on do we have the right talent? Are we delivering at scale? Are we going fast enough? I get asked that all the time as you can imagine, by my boss! We always think about how can we go faster, because sometimes speed is as important as cost is. And there's some basic investments that we know we need to make.

“We know we need to be robust in cybersecurity – and we measure ourselves to make sure we're getting more efficient. We know we need to have a machine learning data science platform, we know we need cloud capabilities. [Of course we also have] horizons of programme-driven investments and big modernisations that are short-term return:, I can look at our implementation of something like a ServiceNow now versus the bespoke tools we had in that place before: that's an easy business case to say: ‘go into one strategic platform across the firm, which is strengthening our incident change/problem management processes, but it's also taking out some old tech debt and some custom built things. Then there's things that are longer term: the transformation of our payments business, the transformation of credit cards; of consumer and employee experience, or, you know, the experience for our customers…

“Then there’s research in emerging trends: we were early investors in blockchain -- we have real applications in production there. We've been early investors working across the big tech partners with quantum computing. [But] there have to be those R&D portfolio investments. And remember, we’re a bank: so this is a case of how much of your portfolio investment is basic dialtone capabilities; how much do you expect a short-term return on; and how much of that is longer term where bets are less clear in terms of the value that they're generating.

“You have to ask what's the outcome that's most important: sometimes it's cost, sometimes it's having tighter security and control, sometimes it’s scale, sometimes it's speed. And it’s super critical to be clear on that, because many companies have made mistakes as they’ve rushed to move workloads, because they're trying to drive an infrastructure stave into the public cloud. We built a robust FinOps model and platform to help identify opportunities to take those costs down: that’s proven and we’re doing that both not only on our public environment, but our private environment to anything cloud-native -- because it's a different way of working.”

Lori Beer on bringing in talent…

Making that happen, of course, relies on good, diverse talent – clearly a passion for Beer, as are JPMorgan Chase programmes around tech for social good and a programme called “Force for Good” – an eight-month long initiative to support non-profits with technology. “As a leader you have to connect through all layers of the organisation”, the Global CIO notes: “I miss my actual visits to physical locations -- hopefully we can start that again very soon. But I spend time with our entry-level software engineering professionals, and I always get a great view of how they experience the culture and how things really are [on the ground floor].”

As Lori Beer notes: “One of the things that we clearly see is that we don’t have enough representation across the talent pipeline, especially for certain populations. There's not enough representation of women in technology, but there's also not enough representation of black and Hispanic people. Some of our programmes have been focused on how we tap into emerging talent that we might not have seen through our traditional historical channels. Force for Good is one of the programmes I love the most that also helps as a recruitment pipeline.

“We have over 1,000 software engineering professionals join us every year. One of the things they do in the first two years that they're with us -- in addition to their continuous learning – is a project that might involve building an application for a non-profit. That’s a really interesting experience, not just being with a non-profit but as part of an agile team. When you and a few people are accountable for running a programme, running it end-to-end, you learn a different skill, like to work hand-in-hand with a customer. It's funny, one team said to me once, ‘they didn't seem to know what they really wanted: we really had to talk them through it!’ and I told them that that’s ‘exactly the spirit you're going to get as you work with some of the teams in the business.’ It's an important reminder of the role we need to play in technology around being advisors, being coaches, to help the business think about what's possible. I love that project, which has had an impact on 780 unique organisations that we've touched; the impact over 400,000 volunteer hours across the globe… I could talk about it forever.”

Both that enthusiasm and a certain calm are palpable speaking with Lori Beer. How does she sustain it in the face of what must be a deeply demanding role? “You're steering a big ship. And I think we sometimes forget how far our shadows cast. It's important to steer with calm and confidence. But also being aggressive in driving change.” Personally, she takes time out to do a little gardening, catch up with family to unwind: “My roots were growing up on a farm, so when I’m out in Colorado it’s like I have one persona, when I’m in New York it’s another. It’s great to be able to have that check and balance…”

Checking, balancing, steering, motivating: ‘Speed’, ‘scale’, ‘security’, ‘stability’. All part of one of the biggest jobs in the IT world out there. And with that she’s off to lead a “virtual visit with our India leadership team, which you can imagine is super critical, given everything they're navigating through right now.”

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