The economy may be tanking, but demand is still driving hard in one regard: the relentless thirst for technology. American finance is one of the central proving grounds for this and, as CIO at one of the country's most tech-forward institutions, Avid Modjtabai is at the heart of it and has been for several years running now. Attach that to her McKinsey experience and stint as head of Wells' Corporate Human Resources, and it likely adds up to chief executive potential if she adds some number-crunching and wants it one day.

But right now, the steward of Wells' $2 billion technology budget is about the art of the impossible. "The exponential demand for technology has not abated, although this is a tough economic environment," Modjtabai says. "Applications like online banking and mobile banking have driven the demand for technology up by as much as 35 percent-yet it's more important than ever to manage expenses."

The economic forces buffeting Wells the institution have been as fierce as anywhere-2007 earnings per share were off by a dime, net income down by $360 million, net loan chargeoffs up more than a third as a percentage of average total loans, margins down nine basis points.

At the same time, Wells-and Modjtabai-tried to innovate, or at very least hold the line, as one of the biggest destinations in all of on-line finance. Wells customers saw new items in branch stores as well, with "TellerAssisted Self Service," an automated kiosk which customers can use to conduct banking transactions, and outdoor capabilities like envelope-free cash machines. It's true that self-service is, many times, mere cost-savings disguised or sold as customer convenience-and as such is a risk if handled badly (see Dell, outsourcing) - if handled well, it does make the institution more cost-efficient and draws new customers. Modjtabai takes this to heart: she is, as Accenture managing partner Toni Langlinais once called her, "the architect of the customer experience." The front-line players still need to execute but the architect draws the outline. Modjtabai has, for example, a fresh take on the recent launch of the Google Chrome browser. It's not about mere capabilities. "Chrome is very interesting in that it really demonstrates the importance of the customer experience rather than technology just for technology's sake," she says. "Most customers want technology that is intuitive in design and easy to use. For financial services firms this means improving the experience and interaction at every single point of access. While mobility is certainly an important trend, technology that is built with the customer experience in mind will win in the long run versus any particular device."

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