Career Strategies Feb 07 2011

Citigroup Technology Chief Jon Beyman on Finance, Technology and T-Shirt Catchphrases

By sindhu sundar

Jon Beyman, 55, joined Citigroup as global head of operations and technology for its institutional clients group just as the financial crisis was at its peak. He led the 30,000 technology and operations staff in his group through turbulent times and is now poised to expand the department, investing 5% more in IT and IT services this year versus last year.

While Beyman's daily concerns are focused on technology, his roots are in banking and finance.

He has an accounting degree from the University of Connecticut, class of 1976, and an MBA in finance from Cornell University, class of 1981. He started his career as an auditor at accounting firm Arthur Young (now Ernst & Young). From accounting he went on to work at Chemical Bank, Lehman Brothers, Credit Suisse and others, often in chief information officer roles. He has spent his entire career in New York.

FINS spoke with Beyman about weathering crises, getting through to employees across geographic boundaries, and making it as an IT pro in an industry that has no tolerance for inaccuracy and ignorance.

Sindhu Sundar: You've always been in finance. What steered you toward a leadership role in technology?

JB: I know, I don't have a classic IT background -- I did my undergraduate studies in accounting and started out as an auditor. I understand enough IT to be conversant, and was always interested in technology -- but I was also always more interested in business as opposed to just technology for the sake of technology.

The reason we spend as much money on technology as we do is that we want to drive our business forward. We're not creating software for any other reason than to provide a product or service. What I bring to the table is, I understand the business in the securities and investment part of ICG [Citigroup's instituitional client group] -- and I meet goals as I understand them.

SS: Is the role of CIO more complex now that technology has become a more sophisticated part of banking operations?

Jon Beyman: Technology is certainly much more integral to what a bank does than it was in the past. It was first thought of as a cost center and then an enabler -- now it sets the boundaries on the products we can offer.

But what I would say is that I don't view that my role has changed much. What I was brought here for was to help institutional business drive productivity -- for technology and operations to be better, faster, cheaper.

It was a nice relaxing few months before everything started to melt down [in 2008]. There have been a fair number of changes since then, but we're now in the midst of consolidating lots of support areas that had been directly aligned with businesses.

I think the idea is always to make sure whatever we spend, we spend well. Everything is tightly aligned to business strategies to get every penny's worth. That never really changes.

SS: What does it take to work in IT in banking? It seems there is a lot of demand for niche expertise.

JB: To be successful, you need to be smart but also tremendously hardworking and innovative. Technologists in banks have to have deep domain expertise, because these aren't purely tech jobs. Everything is within the context of what the technology is meant to provide -- what we're trying to get done and how we can get that.

For example, I have a very senior tech guy who used to be a derivatives trader, but he also knew how to build systems. It's that intersection of expertise that makes someone an asset.

SS: What would your hiring managers look for in a candidate?

JB: At the more senior levels it would be the ability to run projects -- for entry level folks, you just look for someone who's willing to learn, work hard -- someone willing to really become interested in more than just tech, and also the domain they're supporting.

If they're building trading systems, they also have to understand the product, the whole flow, the process and nature of product.

SS: What was your time at Lehman Brothers like? Why did you leave?

JB: I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Lehman and was very proud of the work of the operations and technology department -- that wasn't what brought Lehman down. Plus, 2003 and 2005 were the boom years. And boom years on Wall Street are much more fun, that much I'll say.

SS: You've been in a mentor group in Columbia's technology management program for the last two years. How was that experience?

JB: I just had my first mentee who finished the program of two years -- the idea of that is to prepare technologists with some experience to progress into more senior levels of management.

It was a lot of fun. I had a very smart guy who worked for a broker dealer. There was a certain amount of classroom time, but most of it was the project. You have to present and defend a proposal to a panel of CIOs.

SS: Have you personally had mentors? How important is mentorship in getting ahead in this field?

JB: I haven't had mentors per se, but I've been very fortunate along the way to have worked with people that I had a lot of respect for. There were a lot of people I took the advantage to learn from and I was never shy about asking people for help.

SS: What is the biggest challenge you've faced in your current job?

JB: The hardest part of this job is more the size and scale of Citi than anything else. I have a lot of people under me. The command and control of [this large group], and reaching out to make sure they understand, that's the hardest.

SS: How do you communicate with them then?

JB: I take advantage of technology. I do video conferencing to release daily videos about what's going on. It's jokingly referred to as 'Jon TV', and is basically a dialogue between myself and a few other people. We put it on the intranet but trying to get people in takes a lot of effort.

SS: Anything about this job that's easy?

JB: Actually it's easy on some levels. I've been doing the same job now for 20 years. The trick is trying to get organized and come up with basic philosophies that you could write on a T-Shirt. Whether it was Credit Suisse or Lehman, it's the same basic function. It's just bigger and more complicated at Citi.

SS: And what are some of those lessons you could reduce to T-Shirt catchphrases?

JB: "Cheaper isn't better, better gets you cheaper." That emphasizes the need for quality; it's not just always about relying on cheaper resources for long term cost-cutting. And also, this prioritization mantra: "If everything is important, then nothing is."

SS: Is there anything you wish you'd done differently?

JB: It's like in that Frank Sinatra song: "Regrets, I have a few but too few to mention." Naturally there were some mistakes, but if you don't do anything wrong you're not gonna learn. I was always more afraid to do nothing. On the whole, I feel I was lucky too, because I got to financial services when it was going through this technology revolution, and that's amazing in retrospect.

SS: What is your advice to people looking for IT jobs at Citi?

JB: The advice is simple: Put your head down, work your tail off -- be so good that they can't help but notice you.

Write to Sindhu Sundar

Related: Banks Ramp up Tech Investment, Hire IT professionals

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