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Q&A: How Wayne Mekjian, IS Head at Wells Fargo, Finds Time to Innovate

Although he's in the midst of a major merger integration, Mekjian still makes IT innovation a priority, especially in the areas of mobile banking, payments and a new project manager workstation under development.

Although he's overseeing a massive integration project (of Wells Fargo's and Wachovia's entire IT and operations infrastructure) that just hit the halfway mark, Wayne Mekjian, Wells Fargo's head of information services, still commits the time and energy to innovation. In the last two weeks alone, Wells has rolled out three new mobile banking apps and a service whereby customers can have their ATM receipts emailed to them. Mekjian gave Bank Systems & Technology an exclusive interview Friday afternoon in which we talked mostly about innovation.

BS&T: It can be hard to innovate when budgets across the board are tight, there's new legislation coming and you're in the middle of a merger integration. How do you commit the time, money and effort to roll out innovations such as an Android banking app ahead of your competitors?

Mekjian: We don't necessarily want to be ahead of our competitors, that's not the primary goal on the technology side. We want to be innovative, we want to find out how new technology can be linked into our environment in a way that will benefit our customers and partners. We have people all over the company looking for different ways to do things and ways to improve the environment — this is embedded into our culture. We make the time and when necessary the funding to make those things happen.

BS&T: At many big banks, there's a large bureaucracy and an unbelievably long chain of approvals that makes it difficult to bring a new idea to fruition. As a manager, have you been able to create a streamlined approach?

Mekjian: Absolutely. Also, it's working small as opposed to working large. So instead of trying to change the whole group, we let people work in smaller areas and experiment and grow their ideas.

BS&T: What are some areas right now where you're doing innovative things or looking to embrace new technologies or approaches?

Mekjian: There are several. One is communications with partners and customers, particularly videoconferencing and faster mobile communications. There's cloud computing and data management — we're looking at ways we can get data across the organization and across the enterprise customer base, quicker, faster and safer. We're working on ways to we make our employees' lives better and to enrich our products.

BS&T: Would you look at a new device, such as the Cisco Cius tablet, which seems to be geared toward internal, high-end telepresence, when it comes out?

Mekjian: Absolutely, we look at just about everything that comes on the market if we think it will help in those areas I just mentioned. I'm sure we'd run into areas of security and cost, but we would look at something like that.

BS&T: $1,000 per device seems a bit high, but might be worth it if you were doing a lot of videoconferencing.

Mekjian: It would be a lot if you bought one device per user, but if you gave it to people that travel in groups, like salespeople or executives, it would be a nice way for them to communicate without forcing them into a room. There are a lot of good uses for something like that that wouldn't have to be at the individual level.

BS&T: Last week Wells Fargo rolled out mobile banking applications for the Android, BlackBerry, and Palm. What is your overall mobile strategy and what do you think might be next?

Mekjian: Our strategy is around what the customer wants. If the customer wants more flexibility, that's where we would focus most of our time.

BS&T: How do you determine that — with surveys, focus groups and such?

Mekjian: All of the above. We have a large employee base and a lot of us are customers, so we get feedback not only from our external customers but from internal customers. We experiment with a pilot on our own first to make sure it works and does what we intend it to do. There are so many ideas out there, the question is how do you take those things that are popping up and fit them within a neat, clean strategy? While we know we want to be mobile, our apps are being built small, so we don't create this huge monster. The smaller you make it and the more streamlined, the easier it is to port to any device.

BS&T: Some banks, such as Citi, are talking about trying to provide a very consistent interface across any mobile device, online banking site and even ATMs, trying to provide real time updates and provide the same look and feel at every point.

Mekjian: Consistency is extremely important, because the more consistent you can be, the simpler it is for your customers to perform those functions in different channels. That was one of the issues in the past — there were so many silos in companies that when you went to one silo to get an answer, it would be different from another, because the technology was out of sync. We've synchronized our technologies and our approach, so that as customers come in and ask a question or look up information, it's the same and current.

BS&T: Are you looking at new kinds of payments, such as person-to-person payments or contactless chip payments?

Mekjian: Of course. Everyone's looking at payments. I can't give you specifics of what we're doing, but there's a lot of activity around payments and there has been for years. As the technology changes, as the focus of payment changes, so does the method of payment. There was a migration at one time from cash to checks, now it's from checks to card and from cash to card.

BS&T: You mentioned cloud computing earlier as an area of innovation, we know from past experience that Wachovia has had what we now call an internal cloud (and what former Wachovia IT executive Tony Bishop used to call utility computing) for many years. What else are you doing with cloud computing, are you using external cloud services also?

Mekjian: Internally, most companies have their own internal cloud. The future of external cloud computing is all around security, how secure can you make it? In the financial industry, security is all about keeping customers' information safe, in flight and at rest. Things that lend themselves to an external cloud are commodities and/or non-customer-sensitive applications and/or applications created by vendors and not accessing customer data. We're looking at the external cloud and how it can play into our environment. Once we get past the security issues, then we'll probably expand further. I think it will be a while before that happens.

BS&T: Where are you in the merger integration effort?

Mekjian: We're halfway, 18 months into a 36-month project. We have done lots of prep work, we've done a lot of conversion, especially where we had overlapping markets. And we're making good progress. Along the way, we're finding areas where we can do better. While we have a plan and we're executing on that plan, at the same time we're looking at how to simplify and keep growing in flexibility so we can still offer new products and features to our customers.

BS&T: What are the biggest or most interesting projects on your drawing board?

Mekjian: The best part about my job is it never stops. After the integration is completed, the next project will be to deal with pent-up demand for new activities that our businesses are coming up with; we're trying to get a head start before we finish the integration. We've started figuring out what we want each line of business to look like in 5-10 years and what it would take us to get there.

I'm working on a project right now that I think will help all our project managers, that is a project manager workbench that ties all our internal systems in to a universal workstation to help the project managers through their process, as opposed to forcing them to go to different systems and make multiple entries. That's going to be fun and it's exciting, but there are thousands of projects like that.

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