José Manuel Henriques, CTO/CIO at Crédito Agrícola, discusses the importance of setting your own career objectives and highlights new threats and opportunities for the banking industry.

Zeo Solomon: Jose, tell us about your career path and how you’ve reached your professional goals.

Jose Manuel Henriques: I started my career as a Senior Consultant at Accenture in 1992, and then in 1998 I moved to Deloitte. From there I took an adventure and moved to Paris with Microsoft before returning to Portugal to lead a Spanish IT company focused primarily on financial services. I then spent a year and a half at a manufacturing company, and in April 2021, I moved to Crédito Agrícola.

I like to set objectives for myself, because then I know that I can achieve them. I try to inspire my team to do this for themselves every day. This was a skill I learned from becoming an amateur cyclist: once I set an objective to win a race, which I did, I started setting more and more ambitious objectectives, most of which I achieved. When I have an objective, I’m like a dog pursuing a cat! There’s a downside to this trait, because when I don’t have clear goals, I feel lost and have to reorient myself by setting new goals or inviting input from others.

ZS: It’s interesting that you started your position right in the middle of the pandemic! Was there an objective that drove this particular decision in your life?

JMH: This transition was about refocusing on my core expertise to set long-term objectives for my personal career. The pandemic itself did not affect my decision, though I will say that joining a company during the pandemic is not easy. I would prefer to know people face-to-face rather than through virtual meetings. 

ZS: I do management consulting myself, and one of my most memorable clients specializes in a market segment that’s similar to yours. One of their problems when going through their digital transformation was that each branch had their own technology and methods, and they were trying to figure out how corporate could control all of them. It was particularly difficult to implement changes because each branch was quite successful, so they didn’t see a need to change. Where is your company at in terms of digital transformation?

JMH: We are pretty advanced compared to the market standard. Unlike the company you just described, we have a central system everyone uses. We also have a specific business segment that is fully digital and app-based for some of our younger customers. In fact, most of our processes are fully digitalized, but there are some improvements for us to attain. We also have a very consolidated team with a unified tech approach. 

We are the biggest financial services customer of Azure in Portugal, so most of our systems are in the cloud, except for our core banking and treasury system. Most of our work is done remotely. That said, I believe that if you need to solve a problem with your team, trying to solve it remotely will only enlarge the problem.

ZS: I’m very interested in this because I come from the same school of thought, but I’ve been getting a lot of pushback on this from people who completely embrace the distributed model as our future. I want to hear your take on this.

JMH: My personal opinion is that whenever there is a problem within a team, that problem can only be solved when people talk face-to-face. We are social animals. I don’t know how it is in the States, but here, the way you behave out in the streets is different from the way you behave inside a car while driving because there is a glass between you and the other person, so you are more open to saying something you wouldn’t normally say in a face-to-face encounter. The same happens online–people become more aggressive, and they care less about how their comments will impact the other person. 

ZS: That’s a very acute observation of social dynamics. I certainly saw this in emails long before the remote model existed – people basically used emails to vent as a method of psychotherapy! Email has always been the worst way to communicate because you don’t have real-time feedback. So what do you think–does the world have to go back to the office?

JMH: I think a hybrid model is the sweet spot. I think we’ll be more flexible and less resistant to people wanting to work remotely. One size doesn’t fit all.

ZS: I completely agree. Let’s talk more about the transitions banking is going through. It’s one of the oldest established trades in the world, right next to commerce, but the pandemic has emphasized a need for innovation. I believe technology saved the world during the pandemic – you could see a doctor without leaving your house, and you could withdraw money from your bank and shop online from your house. If it wasn’t for the technology infrastructure that supported us during this crisis, we would literally have had wars and mass starvation, but we didn’t. We survived it. Please give us your take on the future of banking given everything that we’ve dealt with in the last few years.

JMH: I want to make a comment on something you said. Banking is not a very well established business, although it used to be. Today banking is being disrupted in a way that’s similar to what happened to Kodak when photography went digital. For banks, the threat is also digital. My biggest competitors are not other banks, but FinTechs, TelCo operators, and social platforms. 

In China, for example, you can make payments through WeChat, which is similar to WhatsApp, so no banking is required. Blockchain is another example of transactions that don’t require banking. So we’re in a very challenging moment where our competitors are new industries, but I think we will succeed provided we transform significantly, similar to how IBM transformed from a product company to a service company.

ZS: I recently moved to Miami, and I was looking online for the best coffee shops to work at, only to find that the second one listed was a bank that had teamed up with Pete’s Coffee! The way that this bank decided to interact with their customers was totally different. I’m really eager to see what the new generation of banking will look like.

JMH: Yes, you can even get a loan without going through a bank. In China, they will check your risk profile using your social network profile. We aren’t allowed to do that here, but it’s very interesting.

ZS: I’m afraid of that–the results are dangerous!

JMH: It’s going back to the basics of: I know who you are based on who your friends are.

ZS: So what are the ways you see your company technologically evolving after the pandemic?

JMH: Prior to COVID, we had already decided that some of our roles could work remotely while others needed to be onsite. We’ll also be much more flexible on the locations from which people can work. Before we had a lack of resources, and now we can source people globally. This benefits everyone: people can work for any company in the world, and I can recruit people from anywhere in the world. 

ZS: How do you see the equalization of costs?

JMH: It will happen long-term if we don’t do anything to stop it. Price variance will be based not on location but on the innovation you bring.

ZS: In your opinion, which traits should the modern CIO/CTO have?

JMH: The modern CIO will be similar to the traditional CIO in that they must ensure the reliability, efficiency, and quality of IT systems. But the modern CIO should also be more responsible for challenging their teams to innovate outside their comfort zones, always looking for new technologies and opportunities. We need to look outside our business to gain a competitive advantage. It’s not just a question of prices and networks; it’s a question of the solutions and flexibility you bring to customers, as well as the integration you have with partners.

ZS: What do you see as the most exciting new technologies in the banking industry?

JMH: AI and deep learning, security technology, and blockchain. I see cryptocurrency both as a threat to banking and also as something that’s fascinating. In fact, blockchain technology could provide a very interesting opportunity to solve some existing problems.

ZS: What’s your advice to young, up-and-coming technology leaders?

JMH: Listen, and always be open to learning. Your people have a lot to teach you.

ZS: Thanks so much for your insights and time today, Jose. It’s been a fascinating conversation!


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Zeo Solomon

Zeo Solomon is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Avenue Code.

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