How Wells Fargo's tech chief is managing coronavirus response

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He's running a 25,000-person technology team during a pandemic while overseeing system fixes demanded by regulators in recent years.

But Saul Van Beurden, head of technology at Wells Fargo, seemed remarkably calm when discussing his efforts to help the bank run smoothly with nearly all of its 300,000 permanent and contract employees working from home. He is also keeping emerging tech projects like quantum computing research going, and continuing to recruit new tech talent.

The following interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you decide you needed to start letting people work from home?

SAUL VAN BEURDEN: At the end of February, we started to get a sense this could be way worse than we were all thinking about it. We started to see the numbers creeping up in Europe. I have a European background, so I get news and information from there unfiltered by American media. I got a sense that this could end dramatically or badly. So in late February, early March, we started to create crisis communication teams, and then it didn’t take us long to declare work from home for everybody who could work from home.

Saul Van Beurden, head of technology, Wells Fargo
"You have to stay positive with a realistic sense, but you have to keep on creating a kind of hope or outlook how this situation over time will turn itself into a new normal," says Saul Van Beurden, head of technology at Wells Fargo.

I'm sure there are people who have to go to the data centers to check on equipment and do physical checks at some locations. How many people or what percent of your organization still has to go to a physical location?

You will be amazed at how many people can do their work from home. I was amazed myself to see that — because everything that can be typed on a command line, any type of execution command that a developer or an engineer needs to do can be done through a computer with remote access from home instead of sitting in the office. There are only a few critical jobs that require a presence, such as in the data center and a few field support people for folks who have issues with a phone, an iPad or a laptop.

Are the field support people going to people's homes where people are struggling to get set up properly?

We handle most support calls by Zoom, Facetime or instant messaging. For a fraction of the calls, we have what we call curbside tech support, where a field support person will get in their car, go to the home of an employee, drop supplies where needed and take broken devices back and drop them off at the parcel service. We are tremendously grateful for those teams that are still showing up and doing the work that is critical for the bank to keep running.

Did you have everybody set up to use Zoom, virtual private networks and everything remotely?

Before the pandemic, a part of our workforce across the whole bank was working from home. The infrastructure was already there. The next step is, can it handle the capacity of 210,000 people that are working from home every day? We had to extend capacity pretty rapidly because everybody wanted to get out of the office and work safely from home. And it became our first priority. We expanded capacity in a matter of weeks, which would normally be done in a year. Today we can support up to 250,000 people working from home. We already had the licenses for Zoom and video, Skype Business and we have secured instances of Zoom.

So you haven't had any Zoom bombings?

No, it's not possible on this instance of Zoom.

Overall, how disruptive has this all been for you in your job? You seem relaxed, but maybe you're just having a good day.

For all of us as leaders, you need to stay calm while you go through an event like this because the moment I start panicking, what do you think the rest of the team will do? That doesn’t go well. Secondly, you have to stay positive with a realistic sense, but you have to keep on creating a kind of hope or outlook how this situation over time will turn itself into a new normal. The third thing is you cannot allow mistakes in this phase. In a crisis you have to be very precise about this is what we intend to do, this is how we are going to do it, and this is when it will be done and we go fast. With precision of execution, calmness and positivity, that can help. I’m not saying this is all me. This is all about the team. The whole operating committee has come together on the back of this event.

Making sure that safety of our own people is constantly stressed is priority No. 1, and priority No. 2 [is] helping our customers and clients and communities through this crisis.

At the same time, we have to stay the course on regulatory remediation. COVID-19 will not be an excuse for not doing things.

Another priority is attracting the right talent. It's amazing to see how active the labor market is. It's a very good moment to reach out to people because everybody's kind of vulnerable and rethinking their own existence: Why am I here? What can happen to me? What really makes me happy? Am I happy where I am? So I still spend a certain part of my weekly agenda on conversations with talent out in the markets. And I strongly believe that talent will uplift the place that you have.

I know that digital banking use has gone up significantly over the past few weeks at Wells Fargo, with something like 350,000 new digital banking users. Was that just a natural outcome of everything that's going on? Have you guys been doing anything sort of special in that area to attract or help people?

Yes, we have been reminding customers who were going to the branch doing a transaction that they can do that transaction safely from home on their desktop or the app. We’ve run marketing communication campaigns to help our customers understand they can do this from home. The uptake on digital enrollments of more than 350,000 was more than normal. And everything has been growing with double-digit numbers, and I leave it up to you to figure out whether that is 11% or 99%.

That’s a big range.

If I could tell you the number, I would.

The moment the stimulus paychecks came into people’s bank accounts on April 15, we saw a spike that day that was three times the highest volume we had seen before. It's the only day that we celebrated that [our systems] weren’t down. ... This was on the back of great work by the digital team, who built a new architecture, a new stack that was able to handle these volumes and we still had room.

Can you share any specific changes you made to your tech stack?

I cannot share the specifics, but it was a full overhaul of the technology stack into a fully refreshed, modern, resilient, fault-tolerant architecture. We test it constantly.

Do you think that that the pandemic will change things permanently for your group, and for the way that people want to do their banking? And do you have any thoughts on specifically what that might look like?

It's too early to tell. Humankind is pretty resistant to change and pretty resistant to crisis. And often we fall back into the behavior we had before; we just forget about the crisis. We have a group task force across the bank rethinking about what are the things that will change, what are the things that will stay the same, how to prepare for that and then discuss that as a leadership team and make decisions.

Are you thinking about having some people work from home permanently?

It's a safety concern first. There are so many other models on the table. You hear all the banks talking about rotational models, ABC groups where one group comes in on Monday and Wednesday and another group on Tuesday and Thursday and another group on Friday. We will see what comes out of that. All options are open. Time will help us choose the best model.

You have to take into account people’s different circumstances. For instance, my boys are a little bit older than some of my colleagues with young children. I think really the best thing here to say is take it all in, use facts and data, look at the experiences, and make a qualitative, informed decision.

Are you doing anything special during this time to somehow ensure uptime for the ATMs, mobile apps and online banking?

We have to do that always. We make sure the ATMs are replenished by having them externally serviced by a vendor instead of our own people. That’s the type of thing we’re doing so we’re able to say the money is still flowing, there’s cash in the system.

Stability is not something that is during-the-pandemic important. It is everyday important. If we have a payday when there’s no pandemic, people still need to collect their checks and make deposits. We did increase limits, so we make it possible for people to get their money quickly. We made sure that people could spend the money that came from the government stimulus checks, even if they had negative accounts.

Do you do that whether or not people ask for it?

We give people their $1,200 from the Treasury where they have a negative account. If they had negative $500 in their account, it would be a little bit silly if we said the first $500 is for the bank and then you have $700 to spend. That was not the intent of the stimulus; the intent was you can spend the full $1,200.

The last time we spoke we talked about quantum computing. What is happening with emerging technology projects that are not everyday high priorities? Are they still getting funding and attention? Are you able to still keep doing these sort of advanced technology projects on the side?

We are, and I'm talking on behalf of the whole leadership team. We are convinced that a certain amount of research and development and innovation has to happen through every cycle. So when times are good you have to invest in it, but especially when times are bad — because when you come out of the cycle, you are ready to go, instead of needing to build up the capability again.

Stopping initiative spending is the most inefficient thing you can do as a team because stopping a project means all the routines and the momentum that were built up are suddenly gone. To restart the project, you have to get the teams together, you have to build up the routines again, regain knowledge, and you basically lose more than you win by stopping something. So the quantum computing work is still going on. It's not a huge initiative; we’re not spending hundreds of millions on it.

You told The Wall Street Journal in January that technology fixes sought by regulators were at the top of your top priority list. Can you share anything that you're doing, investments you've made, technologies you've implemented?

I can only say a few things. We're doing what we consider the right thing each and every day, and coming through on commitments we have made. I cannot go into details and specifics. That's forbidden. And we apply new technologies like artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and optical character recognition where possible to remediate faster in a more sustainable way. Because if everything becomes manual, it could break again.

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Crisis Management Coronavirus Digital banking Mobile banking GSIBs Wells Fargo