There's nothing like a little on-the-job training to help a person launch a career. For Wayne Mekjian, now group technology executive and CIO with Wells Fargo, this consisted of performing just about every back-office function imaginable in a community bank. "The first bank I worked for was small, so I was involved with everything," he recalls. "I had a lot of on-the-job education."
Mekjian began his banking career in 1969 with Worcester County National Bank (Worcester, Mass.). It actually started out as a night job while he was attending Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester and working on his associate's degree in electronic data processing. "I wired boards," he explains. "That's what programmers did back then."
After graduation, Mekjian continued working for Worcester County National, where his real-world education took off. "This was a bridge from my education to my career," he says. "Banking was just interesting to me. I had opportunities to go to other industries, but for me, there was nothing missing from financial services."
According to Mekjian, he was involved with some pretty innovative -- at the time -- projects at Worcester County National, including the bank's initial automated clearinghouse (ACH) initiative, the design and build-out of its first home banking system, and work with Visa and Master Charge in their early days on setting up credit card transmissions. Still, Mekjian says, he wished to broaden his horizons, so he returned to school and earned his management degree at the ABA's (Washington, D.C.) Stonier Graduate School of Banking.
Mekjian landed at Wells Fargo via the 1998 acquisition of Norwest Bank, where he had served as EVP and head of the technology division since joining Norwest in 1995. With four decades of service in the banking industry under his belt, it's no surprise to hear Mekjian remark on the amount of change the industry has undergone. And the pace of transformation will only continue to accelerate, he says.
"The transition over the last 40 years in technology and banking was from a pretty heavy, labor-intensive organization, both in the front office and back office," to more of an automated environment, Mekjian observes. But beyond general automation, he continues, along with the advent of the Internet and imaging technology, banks will have to start thinking of themselves as more than just places that take deposits and issue checking accounts.
"In banking today, you're a financial institution -- it's no longer just banking," Mekjian says. "You'll see the merger of industries such as insurance and brokerage all becoming part of what was called banking in the past. As the instruments change, as the environments change, technology will play a big part of it." This transformation, Mekjian adds, will require the industry to make its legacy applications more capable of integrating with newer applications. "There were a lot of silos in the past," he notes. "They're still there, but they're a lot more transparent than they were."
Maximizing the Business Impact
In approaching this transformation, as with the rest of his ever-changing job, Mekjian says, he always strives to examine the reason behind a specified technology need. It's quite easy for people to say they know what they want, but it's another story when they're asked to explain why, he relates. "I focus on the 'why,'" Mekjian comments. "Sometimes you know what you need. But without understanding the why, you don't get the whole picture. Once you understand the why, the 'what' becomes more clear. If you know why you're delivering a piece of technology, you can build it to have the most impact on the business."
One way in which Mekjian delves deeper into the whys of technology deployments at the bank is through the Technology Information Group Vendor Innovation Program. He created the organization at Wells Fargo two years ago as a way to bring together people from the bank with representatives from the vendors with which the bank works -- including Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.), Cisco (San Jose, Calif.) and HP (Palo Alto, Calif.) -- to better understand each other's needs.
"This is an extension of our group here," Mekjian states. "Using vendors with your innovation allows you to think further outside the box. We're able to work with them and through them to see if there's a fit or a change that we can make to make our life easier, both in the sales and servicing of the customers."
Mekjian adds that the group also puts the vendors closer to the people with whom they really should be working -- the technicians doing the day-to-day work. "It's easier to create things this way than when you're working through a manager who has to interpret everything," he asserts.
But with all the opportunities for implementing the latest and greatest technologies that come with being at a top 20 bank, Mekjian concedes, things can get a bit confusing at times. Among the challenges he faces is understanding emerging technologies. "In a world that changes so quickly, it's difficult to keep up. There's a lot of vapor out there, and there are companies selling it to people who work for us. You need to have good people to help go through the vapor and look at the technology," he explains. "That's why it's so important to define people's roles and responsibilities, and understand who's doing what."
Mekjian points out that he's had some help gaining the proper perspective. "I had a great boss in Webb Edwards," he reflects. [Ed. note: Edwards directed Wells Fargo Services, the technology and operations subsidiary of Wells Fargo. He was recognized by BS&T as an innovative CIO in 2005.] "He was a guy who knew how to step back and when to look at the big picture. You can get so involved in what you're doing that you forget what it's all about. He's probably why I always step back and ask, 'Why?'"