Leading a Digital Transformation? Learn to Code14 September, 2015 / Articles
Leaders ascend to their positions by mastering today’s (or even yesterday’s) business. Almost by definition, they don’t have first-hand experience with a disruptive shift in their market when they encounter it. A lack of intuition around the new and different can at best slow progress and at worst lead to serious strategic missteps.
What should a leader do? Dave Gledhill decided to learn to code.
Gledhill is Group Executive and Head of Group Technology & Operations at DBS Bank, a leading Asian bank with more than $300 billion of assets and a market capitalization of about $35 billion. Over the past few years, its CEO, Piyush Gupta, has been pushing an aggressive transformation agenda, with a specific focus on embracing digital technologies.
The smartphone is obviously an important emerging area for any bank going digital, and DBS has aggressively explored mobile-only banking offerings in markets like India. While Gledhill is a “fourth-generation” engineer with a degree in computing and electronics, his formal education was decades ago, well before the rise of smartphones and related apps.
“My coding days were 20 years ago, and none of this stuff existed then,” Gledhill said. “I was struggling to understand at a deep level what was happening inside the phone, which made it hard to function as a leader of technology.”
So Gledhill committed himself to develop an app. An evening event provided the inspiration. In Singapore, every car is required to have a reader with a smartcard that interacts with the city-state’s smart toll system and almost every parking garage. One time Gledhill found himself at an event where the host provided complimentary parking. Unfortunately, Gledhill forgot to remove his smartcard from his car, so the complimentary parking was rendered moot.
What if, Gledhill wondered, he could create an app that provided location-based alerts, which reminded you to do a certain thing only when you were in a certain location? He knew he could have used one to remind him to remove the smartcard from his car.
“How often do you find yourself saying, ‘When I get here I must remember to…?’” Gledhill asked.
He downloaded Apple’s developer kit and started watching videos from Apple University while exercising. After “teaching myself C++ all over again,” Gledhill developed a functioning version of the app, which he called, simply, Reminder. The app proudly sits on his phone’s home screen, complete with an icon resembling a shoelace knot; (Gledhill explained to me it was actually a strand of pasta). While Gledhill didn’t pursue formally publishing the app on Apple’s store, he considered the experience invaluable.
“It has given me such a depth of awareness about how devices operate and what they are capable of,” he said. “It has made me better able to provide guidance for the digital bank at a very technical level because I really understand what is going on.”
For example, making a location-based app work requires understanding precisely where a user is located. The most reliable way to do so is via a GPS signal. However, GPS doesn’t work indoors, which required Gledhill to figure out how to use Apple’s location beacons (iBeacons) to deliver against his original use case. That first-hand knowledge aids in decision making, problem solving, and discussions with vendors, Gledhill notes.
The experience also helped Gledhill understand how hard it is to make truly world-class user interfaces (UI). “I thought I would be good at it, but I was totally useless,” he said.
Several of Gledhill’s direct reports followed his lead and started developing their own apps. “When a leader does this,” he said, “it sets the attitude that everyone in the organization better be learning about how to be a leader in the digital space.”
Leaders confronting a disruptive shift in their industry should follow Gledhill’s lead. It is hard to make decisions about technologies or business models with which you have no first-hand experience.
Beyond applied learning and in-market experience, make sure your advisory team has representatives that are legitimate experts in the new space. As INSEAD professor and leadership expert Herminia Ibarra noted in the Financial Times: “It is not uncommon for even the most superbly trained executives to have networks that are literally redundant because most of their contacts also know each other.” These insular networks often get in the way of bringing in true experts in disruptive technologies.
And, of course, if you need a reminder to do any of these things, there’s an app for that. Just call Gledhill.